F1 season review: Nico’s joy, Mad Max and fond farewells

The 2016 Formula 1 season came to its end with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last weekend marking the final race of a record-length 21-race calendar.

There was no shortage of moments of drama, controversy and sheer incredible action over the course of the year, with the outcome of the title battle in doubt until the final corner of the final lap. As such, a look back at the season is in order, with awards for a variety of different categories (good and bad) up for grabs. Let’s see how the class of 2016 got on…

Driver of the Year: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)

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Yes, Lewis Hamilton won more races and had more pole positions. However, in spite of all that, it was Nico Rosberg who finally joined the ranks of Formula 1’s elite champions, emulating the feats of his father Keke, who claimed the crown in 1982. Rosberg produced a remarkably solid year, characterised by consistency, few mistakes and a strong resilience to pressure. The German has always been a calculating sort of driver, and it is this attribute that allowed him to calmly close out the title battle even as Hamilton tried anything and everything to unsettle him. 2016 has undoubtedly been the strongest year of Rosberg’s time in Formula 1, and to be frank, was the first year in which he appeared to truly possess the quality required to become world champion at the highest level.

Breakthrough Star: Max Verstappen (Red Bull)

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It was already apparent after a strong debut season with Toro Rosso in 2015 that Max Verstappen’s F1 future was quite bright. His performances after his promotion to Red Bull following the Russian Grand Prix in the early part of season only served to reinforce this observation. The Dutch youngster pulled off a dream maiden victory on his Red Bull debut in Spain, withstanding an extended period of pressure from Kimi Räikkönen in the process. After that, Verstappen quickly established himself as a fierce competitor, despite being only 19 years of age. The latest product of the Red Bull Young Driver Academy consistently demonstrated aggression and an unwillingness to give an inch, which earned him the rebuke of several of the sport’s more established stars. For his part, however, Verstappen has maintained his natural approach to driving. On most days it works out well for him, on others less so, but at all times, it thrills. The Dutchman is the real deal, and is likely to be one of the sport’s key focal points for many years to come. He certainly has his detractors, but then so did names such as Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna when they burst onto the scene and shook things up in their time.

Must do Better: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)

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After an encouraging start to life at Ferrari in 2015, Sebastian Vettel’s performances in 2016 left something to be desired for a driver of his quality. The German appeared to be taking increasing strain from the pressure of piloting a Ferrari, especially during the Italian squad’s current barren run. The four-time world champion made a few more mistakes than would typically be expected from a driver known for his metronomic consistency. In addition, Vettel lost the intra-Ferrari qualifying battle 11-10 to teammate Kimi Räikkönen, after winning 15-4 in 2015. It should be noted that the Finn has certainly enjoyed an upswing in performance in 2016, but the loss was unexpected, given that Vettel has always been well-regarded over one lap. Vettel, like his boyhood hero Michael Schumacher before him, is known to enjoy involving himself in all aspects of the team’s operations. Perhaps, however, he should assess his own performance over the course of 2016 and focus on being at his top-tier best from the first lap of 2017.

Performance of the Year: Max Verstappen, Brazilian Grand Prix (Red Bull)

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Despite the fairy-tale-like nature of his victory on his Red Bull debut in Spain, Max Verstappen’s efforts in the Brazilian Grand Prix was the most impressive of a strong season from the Dutchman. Running near the front of the pack in wet conditions, Verstappen overtook the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg with great confidence, before a poor strategy call saw him drop back to 14th place with only 15 laps left to race. What followed was incredible. The Red Bull man scythed his way through the order with confidence and decisiveness, including driving cleanly around the outside of teammate Daniel Ricciardo. Verstappen seemed to find traction and downforce in places where other drivers feared to place their cars and ultimately crossed the line in a well-earned third place. This particular performance may come to be remembered as one of the most significant milestones of his early career, the day that he truly announced to the world that he was the complete package. After the race, Verstappen’s Brazilian drive was compared to the majestic feats of Ayrton Senna around Donnington in 1993, or Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari masterclass in Spain in 1996. Esteemed company indeed.

Radio Message of the Year: “Here is a message for Charlie: F*** off!” – Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)

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As the 2016 season wore on and Ferrari’s fortunes continued to wane, Sebastian Vettel’s frustration become more and more apparent. The German sounded more and more agitated over the team radio and often made clear his unhappiness about how things were going in no uncertain terms. At the Mexican Grand Prix, Vettel’s frustration boiled over after he adjudged Max Verstappen to have defended his position in an unsporting manner, leading to the above radio message to Race Director Charlie Whiting. The message was certainly offensive and disappointing from a driver of Vettel’s stature, but it certainly caused a stir. To his credit, the German was remorseful after the incident, apologising to Whiting promptly. On the whole, the expletive-filled rant represents the purest expression of emotion of the whole season.

Funny Moment of the Year: Fernando Alonso (Brazil)

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Few drivers are as determined to win as Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard has found life at McLaren-Honda tough as the Woking-based squad works tirelessly to climb back towards the sharp end of the grid. There have been many struggles along the way, with Alonso often becoming visibly frustrated as a result. In Brazil, however, after a car failure brought an early end to his practice session, the two-time world champion saw the lighter side of things. He quickly approached a nearby cameraman and before long took a turn at broadcasting the on-track action to fans around the world. While the lack of success will be hurting a driver of Alonso’s quality on the inside, it is good to see him take a pragmatic and humorous approach to difficulties.

Honourable Mention: Goodbye to two true F1 gents

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So it ends. The time has finally come for Formula 1 to say goodbye to two of its most experienced and respected competitors: Jenson Button and Felipe Massa. The Briton will always be remembered as a gentlemen, whose smooth driving style on the circuit and charming demeanour off it made him a popular figure in the paddock. 305 races, 15 victories and a world title in 2009 is a record any young driver would be honoured to match. For his part, Massa always carried the tag of being an underdog who delighted in exceeding expectations. The Brazilian came agonisingly close to joining the company of the champions in 2008, but was denied at the last by Lewis Hamilton. Still, despite never claiming a world title, Massa will remain a well-loved character, a driver who, on his day, could produce scintillating pace and knock on the door of greatness.

Adriaan Slabbert

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