2008 was a classic year for Formula One. Not only did it feature one of the closest title battles of all time, but it also featured 7 different winners (including 3 first time winners) from 5 different teams. Here I rank the drivers based on the mathematical model.
For the team rankings I have removed the effect of differing drivers, and then tried to predict how many points each team would score if all teams had the same driver pairing. The main conclusion for the teams is rather depressingly that the predicted order is exactly the same as the real order. This is partly because team effects are inherently stronger than driver effects, but also because the top 9 ranked drivers are all from different teams! This is quite an usual situation and not something that the model inherently tends towards (As a counter example, the 2 McLaren drivers are ranked #1 and #2 in 2007).
A score in green suggests that the drivers outperformed the car somewhat (this is basically due to both McLaren and Renault having a superstar driver performing well). A score in orange/red suggests a driver pairing that’s failed to get the maximum out of the car (I think it’s quite clear that Ferrari could easily have scored more points in 2008).
Which Drivers Performed Better Than Expected?
Here the colours represent the amount of over/underperformance. Green suggests that the amount is basically negligible, with red suggesting a significant change in the expected competitive order. The grid of 2008 was incredibly young, with over half the drivers having 2 seasons experience or less at the start of the year. In some cases this means there’s a limited ability to see what the base line expected performance is. For example 2008 was Bourdais’ and Piquet’s only full seasons in F1.
Remember that an underperforming driver has not necessarily done poorly, it’s just that the model expected them to do better given their career as a whole. Looking at the drivers with significant discrepancies from the expected level, there are 2 cases where the model thinks that an overall weaker driver outscored a stronger one (Massa and Barrichello out scoring Räikkönen and Button). In both of these cases the switch is deserved over the course of the year and not due to a freak result. The other major discrepancy is at Williams. Nakajima’s “overperformance” is only really compared to his 2009 season where he finished pointless.
As with the 2021 rankings what is really being ranked here is the achievements of drivers (in terms of points and race positions) after removing the effect of differing car performance.
Before we get starter properly, I will quickly mention of the Super Aguri drivers. Antony Davidson and Takuma Sato are ranked 22nd and 21st respectively. Davidson had a higher finishing position than Sato in the 2 races they both finished, but he would be behind in the rankings on the basis of having an extra DNF. The model also considers 0 points the most likely outcome for Super Aguri, even if they had completed the season.
20) Sébastien Bourdais, 48%
Bourdais arrived at Toro Rosso on the back of 4 consecutive Champ Car championships, but struggled against teammate Vettel. In the end he scored just 10% of the team’s points in 2008 (4 points vs Vettel’s 35). To a certain extent he was the victim of bad luck. He was 3rd at the Belgian GP before a late shower saw him overtaken multiple times on the final lap. (This was similar to Norris at Russia 2021.) At the Italian GP Vettel won from pole, but Bourdais also qualified a competitive 4th before a problem starting the car meant he was a lap down before he even got going.
Given his short career, perhaps the model is a little harsh on him, as one or two results going his way would have some impact on his overall ranking. Regardless, his results were disappointing, particularly in the 2nd half of the season when the car improved.
19) David Coulthard, 53%
Despite 13 victories in a career spanning a decade and a half, the model is not particularly kind to Coulthard. 2008 was his final season, one in which he was throughly outraced by teammate Webber. A podium from 13th on the grid in Canada was the only highlight. His season featured 5 DNFs due to collisions or accidents. This including his final race where he didn’t make it past the first sequence of corners. This perhaps suggests that he called it quits at the right time, even if he missed Red Bull’s propulsion up to the front by just 1 season.
18) Adrian Sutil, 58%
After Super Aguri folded, Force India were the least competitive team in 2008, and neither driver managed to score points. Sutil came closest. running in 4th place at a wet Monaco before being taken out by an out of control Kimi Räikkönen. Other than this event his season was underwhelming, and was only really notable for its high DNF rate (65%).
17) Kazuki Nakajima, 62%
Nakajima had impressed enough in his debut race at the end of 2007 to be given a full-time drive for 2008. The Williams car was not particularly competitive, but 5 points finishes was encouraging for a debut season. The hope was that Kazuki would continue to improve in 2009, but ultimately his debut year proved to be his strongest.
16) Kimi Räikkönen, 63%
The season started strongly for Räikkönen, and he led the championship by almost an entire race win after 4 rounds. Things quickly went downhill though, and he scored barely half of teammate Massa’s points from the onwards. The 2008 Ferrari was clearly quick in Räikkönen’s hands, and his 10 fastest laps is still a joint record for a season. He also suffered bad luck at France, Canada and Belgium. He could have won each of these races without car troubles, a blameless crash with Hamilton and late rain respectively.
However, he also had numerous driver errors, including crashing in Monaco, Belgium and Singapore. In addition, he couldn’t consistently get the best out of the car. His low ranking is partly caused by a crowded midfield. (He’d gain 3 places in the ranking if he’d scored just 5 more points). Regardless, this was the man Ferrari had hired to replace Schumacher, and ending the season more than 2 race wins behind Felipe Massa was disappointing to put it mildly.
15) Nelson Piquet Jnr, 64%
Piquet’s F1 career started slowly, with 5 DNFs in the first 7 races. In the second half of the year he showed flashes of potential with 5 points finishes (including a fortunate podium in Germany). As with Nakajima, the expectation was that he would improve further in 2009, but this never materialised. The elephant in the room is of course that Piquet intentionally crashed at the 2008 Singapore GP to help teammate Alonso, with backing from the team (or pressure from them depending on your perspective). It seems truly bizarre that Piquet received no formal punishment for these actions, but by the time it was revealed he had already left F1 for good.
14) Jenson Button, 65%
In his career review, it was noted that this was one of Button’s worst seasons. It was surely his most anonymous. A single points finish, and only 3 top 10 finish in the uncompetitive Honda car. Button has a deserved reputation as a wet weather specialist (almost half his wins occurred in wet races). However, in a season with an unusual amount of rain he struggled to unlock the magic. It was also very nearly his last year in F1 after Honda’s shock withdrawal. One wonders what his reputation would have been like without the subsequent Brawn/McLaren years.
13) Heikki Kovalainen, 65%
Just 3 podiums in a championship winning car doesn’t sound like a good return. However, the field in 2008 was quite competitive and Kovalainen did at least win a race. He also brought harmony to the team after McLaren’s self-destructive 2007 season. Highlights included his Hungary win and Silverstone pole. Kovalainen scored more 5th places than anyone else, which is a demonstration of both his consistency and of acceptable results that failed to wow.
12) Mark Webber, 71%
A good season for Webber overall. His results fell away in the second half of the season, but this was mostly due to Red Bull being overtaken by Renault, Toro Rosso and Toyota in the tight midfield. The only thing lacking from Webber’s season was a big result, with Coulthard taking the podium finish against the run of play. The closest Webber came was Singapore, where he was well on course for a top 3 finish before the electricity from a local tram caused him to retire. Given how closely ranked the B Tier drivers are, Webber is rather unfortunate to be down in 12th place.
11) Nick Heidfeld, 72%
Heidfeld is largely forgotten from the 2008 season, due to being outclassed by Kubica. This is unfortunate given that it’s the F1 season where he had the most competitive car of his career. He also did have some strong results, with 4 second places. Heidfeld was the only driver to finish every single race, but it never quite came together for him to land a win. He could well have won in Canada had he ignored team orders to let Kubica through, and would surely have triumphed in Belgium had the race lasted just 1 more lap. As it was, he had to settle for 2nd both times, something that unfortunately became a defining feature of his career.
10) Giancarlo Fisichella, 72%
With a career trajectory on the decline, Fisichella joined the newly formed Force India team for 2008. After Super Aguri pulled out, the team were clearly the slowest on the grid. However, Fizzy ended the season with 3 top 12 finishes to teammate Sutil’s 0. After a bruising few seasons with Renault, 2008 restored his reputation as a strong underdog driver, even if points were not forthcoming.
9) Timo Glock, 73%
Most people’s memories of Glock’s season stop at the final lap of the last race (“Is that Glock!?”). Despite this, Timo’s first full season in F1 was a success. After no points in the first 6 races, he found his form, with 2nd place at Hungary being an obvious highlight. He outscored teammate Trulli in the second half of the season and finished just 6 points behind him overall. This is genuinely impressive considering Trulli’s level and the obvious difference in experience between them.
8) Nico Rosberg, 75%
Rosberg excelled at street circuits, getting into Q3 in Australia, Monaco and Singapore, and claiming 2 podiums to boot. The 2008 Williams was an inconsistent beast, but there’s no doubt that he snatched opportunities when they were on offer. That’s not to say he was error free, with a costly collision in Malaysia and a crash at Monaco. He was also lucky that a penalty in Singapore had little bearing on his race. Obvious parallels can be drawn between Rosberg’s career trajectory and Russell’s a decade later, with both delivering impressive drives for an uncompetitive Williams team before moving on to Mercedes to challenge a 7 times champion.
7) Felipe Massa, 76%
Massa’s season is hard to unpick. On the one hand he won more races than anyone else, and came within a whisker of the title. He also lost 2 wins (in Singapore and Hungary) through no fault of his own. On the other hand, he had several races with significant mistakes. He Crashed out of Australia and Malaysia, infamously spun 5 times at Silverstone and collided with Hamilton in Japan. His first 2 races in particular were disastrous, and meant that he spent the vast majority of the season trying to catch up rather than defending a title lead. (He only lead the title for 1 race after a lucky mid-season victory in France).
Ultimately the model considers the Ferrari to be easily the best car in 2008. This rather dampens the argument that he “deserved” the title, regardless of how cruelly he missed out. It is, however, his highest ranked year, and he genuinely outdrove teammate Räikkönen in a way that few would have predicted beforehand.
6) Jarno Trulli, 79%
Toyota had an uptick in form in 2008, allowing Trulli to return to the podium for the first time in 3 years. His 3rd place in France was well earnt, keeping back the faster Kovalainen for the last part of the race. Despite this, his season is possibly best remembered for the long Trulli Train* that formed at Singapore, caused by his heavy fuel load. This is probably unfair, given that he regularly scored points in a midfield car. However, his season lacked the major memorable peaks of other midfield runners.
*Trulli was regarded as a qualifying specialist, and the “Trulli Train” was a term used (typically as an insult) for the crocodile of faster cars that would form behind him during races.
5) Rubens Barrichello, 80%
Barrichello and Button were teammates for 4 seasons, but 2008 was the only one where Rubens had the edge. He finished 6th at the opening round before a disqualification, before going on to score points at 3 races to Button’s 1. The high point was obviously his podium in Britain, aided by a fantastic tyre choice, in what was only the 9th quickest car over the year. Even discounting the podium, his race results were better than his teammate’s. This is quite an achievement considering how close Button was to Hamilton as teammates just a couple of years later. Barrichello was almost replaced by Bruno Senna for the 2009 season, but all the evidence suggests that Brawn made by the right choice sticking with the older Brazilian driver.
4) Robert Kubica, 83%
Kubica maintained an outside chance at the title going into the latter stages of the season. The general consensus amongst F1 fans is that he was more consistent than either Massa or Hamilton. So why is he “only” in 4th place? Although he easily had the measure of Heidfeld in qualifying, Kubica never really dominated his teammate. Their points tally was actually one of the closest on the grid (Kubica scored 55.5% of BMW’s points). The model also considers the BMW and McLaren cars to be roughly equal over the season, which also puts his consistent string of good results into perspective. Finally, his season lacked the peaks of the 3 drivers ahead of him. Nevertheless, he rarely struggled to get a decent result out of the car. He made only 1 major mistake all year; sliding out of the British GP in wet conditions.
3) Sebastian Vettel, 87%
Vettel’s start to the season was disastrous, with 4 DNFs in a row, including 3 on the opening lap. However, he continuously improved as the season progressed. His Monza win was something to behold, qualifying on pole and controlling the entire race from the front. By the end of the year he was almost the complete package we would later see at Red Bull. In the last 5 races he scored 22 points: The same as champion Hamilton and only 1 less than Massa, despite obviously inferior machinery to both.
2) Lewis Hamilton, 103%
Given the model considers the Ferrari to be a significant step ahead of the McLaren, Hamilton’s championship success must be applauded. The highlights included a dominant wet weather win at Silverstone, and brilliant recovery drives at Monaco and Germany. He also destroyed the up-and-coming Heikki Kovalainen with more wins (5 vs 1), podiums (10 vs 3) and almost double the number of points (98 vs 53). His season was far from faultless though. Along with crashing into Räikkönen at Canada, he lost his front wing after driving into the back of Alonso at Bahrain and was penalised for overtaking outside of track limits in France. Nevertheless, the model thinks only 1 other driver (below) would have been able to bridge the gap to an ultimately faster Ferrari car. His championship success was therefore richly deserved.
1) Fernando Alonso, 118%
After a disastrous year at McLaren, Fernando returned to Renault for 2008. Initially the team struggled, but they steadily progressed over time. Alonso was the only driver to out qualify his teammate at every single round. He also outscored everyone in the last 8 races once the car became semi-competitive.
However, Alonso was the main beneficiary from the crashgate saga, and was weirdly allowed to keep his victory despite the team intentionally cheating on his behalf during the race. Removing this result keeps him in 1st place, but halves the gap to Hamilton. (A weird consequence of removing the result is that it improves Piquet’s score, despite his obvious guilt in the scandal).
Facts about the 2008 Formula One Season
- 2008 was the first season in which there were no mid-season driver changes.
- Vettel’s victory in Italy meant that Toro Rosso won their first race before Red Bull.
- At the end of the 2008 season, Ferrari, McLaren and Williams had won 31 of the last 35 constructors titles. None of them have won either title since then.