F1 season awards: Verstappen pips Hamilton again and Norris steps up | Giles Richards
Driver of the year
After an intense finale that divided fans and remains subject to an appeal, battle lines have been drawn. Both sides are convinced they are right, a microcosm of every cut and thrust between Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes and Red Bull this season. There is so little to choose between them, each having pushed the other to ever greater heights. For all that Hamilton was brilliant this year, especially in the final four races, Verstappen takes the honours. His first title was achieved with some controversial performances but also brilliance. In taking the fight to the best driver of this generation and winning Verstappen showed resilience and focus that can only be admired, regardless of how the finale panned out. He and Hamilton left the rest of the field behind. Watching them has been a privilege.
Race of the year
The comeback of the season in Sao Paulo heralding Hamilton taking the title fight to the wire. Mercedes had fitted a new engine at the Brazil GP, handing him a five-place grid penalty. When he was penalised for a damaged element of his rear wing, he found himself with, in effect, 25 places to make up. He took 15 in a mighty charge in the sprint race that determined pole, then in the race from 10th he carved through the field with the finesse of a master. He caught Verstappen by lap 19 and the pair proceeded to duel in a frenetic exchange of gripping fastest laps. They went wheel to wheel before Hamilton finally made it stick for an extraordinary win.
The death of Sir Frank Williams was received with great sadness across the sport. Williams was a pioneer, an innovator and most of all a man who lived and breathed Formula One. He had devoted his life to it and enriched the sport beyond measure. The affection in which he was held by fans is clear, his team still retaining huge support even through their later, difficult years. Williams did what would be unthinkable now in Formula One. He built a team from humble beginnings that rose to enormous success, driven by a single-minded determination. Williams leaves a chasm in the sport, the last great privateer who made his mark like no other.
Team of the year
Mercedes completed a record eighth consecutive constructors’ title but Red Bull were on fire. Battered and bruised after seven tough years, this was the first time since their last championship in 2013 that they have had a chance really to challenge for the title. It was ill-tempered but the fact that they stepped up with such professionalism and alacrity was statement to how strong a team they have forged. They executed with skill and were operationally superlative, giving Verstappen the backing he needed to take the fight to Hamilton. They were not found wanting in a battle to the end.
The new sprint race format which is to be adopted at six meetings next year was at best an interesting experiment that requires a rethink. The concept of having a competitive session on a Friday was rightly welcomed, not least by race promoters and fans. However, while holding qualifying on Friday worked, downgrading it to merely setting the grid for the sprint qualifying – the race which could not be called a race – was a mistake. The single-lap discipline requires great skill as well as being a great spectacle and coming out on top should be rewarded with pole for the race. The sprints themselves were largely processional, with neither enough points nor jeopardy to encourage action. The format is to be rejigged next season, hopefully with lessons learned.
Overtake of the year
Hamilton faced the toughest task of the season after his relegation to the back of the grid for the sprint race in Brazil. He then gave a masterclass in controlled, aggressive driving to pass 14 cars and move up to sixth in 23 laps. A mighty achievement crowned by his pursuit and then pass of McLaren’s Lando Norris. Throwing his car up the inside of turn one he made it to take fifth. It was the move of a driver supremely confident, executed with verve and skill.
Biggest step up
Lando Norris has proved beyond doubt his exceptional talent and potential this season. The McLaren driver delivered performances of maturity and control that belie his tender age of 22. Just three years into his Formula One career Norris has often delivered like a seasoned pro and McLaren’s operation has proved they are ready to compete with the big three, not least in Daniel Ricciardo’s win at Monza. Norris has been a standout, he has outdriven the more experienced Ricciardo and his qualifying has been exceptional. Fifth in Monaco he converted to a podium placing. In Austria he was only four-hundredths off pole in second place. And he was a mighty third in Abu Dhabi. In Russia a potential win slipped from his fingers after he brilliantly held Hamilton at bay only to be scuppered by trying to stay out on slick tyres in the rain. It was impossible not to feel for him but his chance will come again.
Farce of the year
The Belgian Grand Prix boasts one of the absolute classic circuits on the calendar in Spa but this year it played host to only farce. With heavy rain in the Ardennes all day the race was delayed again and again while fans stood stoically in the downpour in the forlorn hope of seeing some racing. This was dragged out far longer than was necessary only to end in ignominy as the cars were sent out to do two laps behind the safety car, just enough to declare a race had taken place. Bitter fans were then left to pay to have tractors tow their cars out of fields turned into quagmires, while Formula One was left looking avaricious and cynical.
Nadir of the year
Formula One was following the money again by holding its debut meeting in Saudi Arabia. The country’s human rights record is so appalling Hamilton pointedly remarked he was not comfortable being there. Noises were made about the sport being a force for change – evidence of which is thin on the ground if the repeated visits to Bahrain and China are anything to go by. The race was hailed by some as one of the best of the season but was far from it. It was dramatic, without doubt, as Hamilton and Verstappen duelled but with the stewards ultimately making the decisions it was not great racing. There were two red flags but it could have been a dozen on a track specifically designed to be the fastest street circuit in the world, combining high speed with close barriers and blind corners. Several drivers called it out for what it was: dangerous. Inevitably the sport has signed a deal to race on in Saudi for another decade.