Here we present a supergrid of the top 20 drivers of the naughties. The ranking are produced from a mathematical model. As with the previous post, the drivers are ranked by their second best year of the decade to allow for a measure of their peak performances whilst avoiding flukes from a single year. Years outside of 2000-2009 are not directly counted, but are indirectly used to assess how strong different drivers are in general.
The same criteria for inclusion is here as last time. A driver needs at least 3 years F1 experience, with at least 2 full years within the decade in question. The drivers are ranked into tiers, but there is a lot of overlap for most drivers, leading to a very large B Tier.
20) David Coulthard
Coulthard had a strong start to the decade, only finishing off the podium 6 times across 2000-2001. However, he never quite maintained a championship challenge until the end of the season, and was generally inferior to Räikkönen after the Finn joined McLaren in 2002. At the end of 2004, Coulthard joined the brand new Red Bull team, giving them credibility whilst their academy was still in its infancy. Unfortunately for him Red Bull became front runners the year after he retired, but he did at least achieve their first ever podium, and even got to attend the ceremony in a superman cape.
19) Mark Webber
Webber spent the entire decade as an underdog. A promising debut year in an uncompetitive car (including a famous 5th place on his debut) was followed up by a couple of years outperforming poor Jaguar cars. For 2005 he had a choice between Renault and Williams. and unfortunately chose the latter just as they began to slide down the order. A couple of years later he joined the Red Bull team, and after another toll in the midfield, they were propelled to the front after the 2009 rule changes. He duly took his first race wins, although new teammate Vettel had a slight edge overall in a trend that continued into the next decade.
18) Timo Glock
Glock was a GP2 champion that made his debut in 2004 with Jordan (above picture), but it took until 2008 for him to have a regular drive. He was closely matched with Jarno Trulli across 2008-2009 (49pts vs 53.5pts in favour of Trull) and achieved 3 podiums, but his career never recovered from Toyota pulling out of the sport at the end of 2009 due to the financial crisis hit.
17) Rubens Barrichello
Barrichello spent the first half of the decade as a number 2 driver to Michael Schumacher. He famously slowed at the last possible moment in the 2002 Austrian GP, which led to a half-baked ban on team orders. Barrichello left Ferrari in 2006 to prove himself with Honda/Brawn. Although he wasn’t quite up to Jenson Button’s level (he was outscored in 3 of their 4 years together, including the championship year at Brawn) he proved himself to be a worthy contender.
16) Nico Rosberg
Whilst Hamilton exploded onto the F1 scene, rival Rosberg took longer to adapt. He spent 4 years with midfield team Williams, but had to wait until his 3rd season to score a podium. His strong record versus teammate Nakajima (51.5pts vs 9pts) lead to the new Mercedes team to hire him for 2010, paving the way for his eventual championship.
15) Olivier Panis
In terms of results, Panis was the least successful driver on this list, without so much as a podium finish in the 2000s. Overall he was outclassed and outscored at BAR by Jacque Villeneuve across 2001-2002 (16pts to 8pts) and had mixed results with the generally uncompetitive Toyota team, but the model thinks he was a consistent performer throughout.
14) Felipe Massa
After an early reputation for being fast but wild, Massa matured with experience. He was given a Ferrari drive in 2006, and improved every year until his 2008 near miss. His title challenge featured a poor start, and 2 victories robbed from him by situations out of his control (at Hungary and Singapore). However, the model considers the Ferrari to be the strongest car across 2006-2008, so it is difficult to label him “unlucky”. His 2009 season was cut short by a freak accident, but he later returned for another 4 years with Ferrari in the 2010s, becoming one of their most experienced drivers.
13) Ralf Schumacher
Entering the sport in the shadow of his brother Michael, Ralf established himself as a driver in his own right. He outscored rookie Button at Williams (24pts vs 12 pits) before winning several races between 2001 and 2003. Unfortunately for him, teammate Montoya had the edge when the car was most competitive. Schumacher missed almost half the 2004 season after an injury at Indianapolis, and in 2005 he was snapped up by Toyota in a big money deal. The team had a large budget, but remained firmly in the midfield throughout. He retired quietly at the end of 2007 when Toyota didn’t renew his contract.
12) Robert Kubica
Kubica claimed a podium in just his 3rd race, and was quickly regarded as a rising star. He was closely matched with Heidfeld in their 3 years together, although Kubica was not as experienced. When the car was semi-competitive in 2008, he was relentlessly consistent in a way that neither Ferrari nor McLaren drivers could manage. This kept him in championship contention until late on in the season, despite a performance deficit.
12) Juan Pablo Montoya
Another driver who quickly made an impression, Montoya hustled his way past Michael Schumacher in his 2nd race in 2001 and was on course to win until he was hit from behind by a back marker. From then on he won several races and was a fan favourite, and a move to McLaren occurred at the right time as Williams fortunes faded. However, he couldn’t keep pace with Kimi Räikkönen and fell out of favour with the Woking based team. This effectively ended his F1 career as he went on to pursue racing elsewhere.
11) Giancarlo Fisichella
Jenson Button once claimed that Fisichella was the best driver at driving a bad car, and the evidence does suggest that he was indeed at his best in underdog situations. He dominated Button in the uncompetitive 2001 Renault (8pts to 2pts) before winning a race in 2003 in an even less competitive Jordan. His stint in the championship winning 2005-2006 Renaults was underwhelming (he scored just 8 podiums to Alonso’s 29), but he subsequently almost won the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix in what was probably the worst car on the grid that year. One wonders how much more he could have achieved if his peak performance aligned with a competitive car.
10) Nick Heidfeld
“Quick Nick” often comes up in discussions of the best driver never to win a race, and the model thinks this position is justified. He held positive records versus race winning teammates Massa, Räikkönen, Kubica and Webber, although it should be stated that he faced the first 3 of these drivers when they were rookies. Heidfeld drove for Prost, Sauber, Jordan, Williams and BMW across the decade, but only at the latter did he ever have a car capable of fighting for podiums. 6 second places across 3 years at BMW showed that he had the potential to win races, but the cards never quite fell into place for him.
9) Sebastian Vettel
As noted in his career review, it took Seb a while to hit his peak. Despite that, his first 2 full seasons are still more than good enough for a top 10 slot. He packed a lot into these season too, achieving both Toro Rosso’s and Red Bull’s first victory and launching an ultimately unsuccessful championship challenge in 2009 to boot.
8) Kimi Räikkönen
Kimi gets a significantly higher ranking for the 2000s than the 2010s. This is partly due to his higher peaks during his McLaren years, but is also reflective of the rising standard of F1 drivers over time. As discussed in his career review, Coulthard is not ranked as a particularly strong driver, which lowers interpretations of his early McLaren seasons. However, he also saw off Montoya at McLaren, who is considered a significantly stronger opponent. Räikkönen was closely matched with Massa at Ferrari (overall score was 213pts vs 195pts in favour of Massa before his accident), but Kimi took a world title whilst Massa missed out, both by the slimmest of margins. Räikkönen then dominated new teammates Badoar and Fisichella before taking a 2 year sabbatical at the end of 2009.
7) Jarno Trulli
Known for his lightning fast qualifying pace, Trulli spent a few years with smaller teams before getting a break with Renault. He was teammates to Alonso at Renault for 2003-2004, and although he was outscored during this period (79pts to 100pts) he secured victory from pole in Monaco in 2004 and looked like the stronger driver at times. Unfortunately he fell out of favour politically and was replaced towards the end of 2004, just before Renault became championship contenders, He found a new home at Toyota and was closely matched with both Ralf Schumacher and Timo Glock, but he never got himself into a leading car.
6) Jacque Villeneuve
Despite the disastrous decision to leave Williams and join the fledgling BAR team, Villeneuve was still competing at a reasonably high level early on in the 2000s, outscoring both Zonta and Panis. However, his form faded as the decade progressed. He achieved two podiums in 2001, but he was outdriven by new teammate Button in 2003 and was unceremoniously dumped by his own team before the end of the year. A return with Sauber for 2004-2006 was not particularly successful, and he was dropped again before the end of the year in 2006. A sad end to the F1 career of a world champion.
5) Heinz-Harold Frentzen
Like Panis, Frentzen is not really remembered as a 2000s driver due to the mediocre cars he drove in this period. He was also controversially sacked part-way through the 2001 season. Despite this, he managed 3 podiums in the decade to his teammate 0 and had favourable comparisons with talented teammates such as Trulli (17pts vs 15pts) and Heidfeld (13pts vs 6pts). Like Villeneuve, the model thinks that his form was somewhat erratic, meaning that their high placement is somewhat due to the specific assessment criteria.
Like Räikkönen a year later, some thought that Button was too young and inexperienced when he made his F1 debut in 2000. Whilst the model thinks that he did take a while to reach his peak, he showed promise early doors too. By 2003 season he was outperforming champion teammate Villeneuve, and he became Ferrari’s closest challenger for much of the 2004 season. It took until 2006 for him to win a race, and the latter third of that year he was the top scoring driver. Whilst Honda built a dog of a car in 2007, Button was still performing well. It took until 2009 for him to get a truly competitive car, and he made the most of it by winning the championship despite some late season jitters.
3) Lewis Hamilton
Despite racing in just 3 seasons this decade, Hamilton quickly established himself. He’s the highest ranked driver of 2007, matching teammate Alonso in all meaningful metrics. This is remarkable, and is the only rookie season that the model ranks as the best. The next two years were less consistent with significant mistakes, but he still won the 2008 title despite not having the best car. McLaren did not start competitively in 2009, but he outscored champion Button in the second half of the year and showed his class with 2 victories. Hamilton is really in an A+ tier by himself, significantly clear of Button, but still a long way from the lead 2.
It may be obvious who the top 2 drivers will be, but let’s first look at a few drivers that didn’t quite make the top 20.
Mika Häkkinen is an obvious missing driver given that he challenged for the title in 2000, but his weak 2001 season and subsequent retirement explains his absence. Heikki Kovalainen is the only other race winner across the 2000s to not feature, although he is in 21st place. Interestingly he was featured in the list of 2010s best drivers, despite not even managing a points finishes. This suggests that he underperformed during his McLaren years. Eddie Irvine is also close to an inclusion with his years at Jaguar, which are considered to be consistently decent.
2) Michael Schumacher
An obvious inclusion, given that he won 5 titles in the 7 years he competed this decade. He beat teammate Barrichello every year in their 6 years together at Ferrari, although he benefited from team orders on more than occasion. When up against a significantly younger Massa in 2006 he was more than up to the challenge. In 2001 he won 9 races to Barrichello’s 0, and in 2002 and in 2002 in finished every race on the podium and won the title in July. The model thinks his form faded slightly after this (see his career review here), but still predicts that he would have won the 2007 title comfortably if he’d stayed on for an additional year.
1) Fernando Alonso
After a strong debut season in an uncompetitive Minardi, Alonso spent a year as test driver. In the remaining 7 years of the 2000s, Alonso is ranked the best driver 6 times, only missing out in 2007 by the slimmest of margins. His championship years 2005-2006 were particularly impressive, as he won 14 races to teammate Fisichella’s 2. It seemed unlikely at the time that he wouldn’t win another title, but the breakdown of his relationship with McLaren in 2007, combined with the rise of Hamilton and Vettel, hinted at things to come.