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ESPN rates the top five drivers of the 2018 Formula One season — a mix of two of the grid’s most experienced drivers with three of its most exciting talents. You can read six to 10 here.

5. Fernando Alonso

It was a great shame that the vast majority of Alonso’s final season in F1 was spent in the second half of the field, but that didn’t stop him from shining. It’s doubtful anyone would have amassed more points in the 2018 McLaren than the 50 he managed over 21 races, and that’s certainly true of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, who was out-qualified by Alonso at every round. Vandoorne, a former GP2 champion, is no slouch, and beating a teammate in every qualifying session requires speed and consistency. It might not surprise you to learn that the last driver to achieve that feat before 2018 was Alonso against Nelson Piquet at Renault in 2008. And if that weren’t enough, his average qualifying advantage over Vandoorne was an impressive 0.380 seconds, underlining the gulf in performance between the two drivers over the course of the year.

But it wasn’t just Alonso’s one-lap pace that impressed. In a car that struggled to qualify in the top 10 early in the season, he regularly hauled it into points-paying positions in the opening races of 2018. To underline that fact, by the fifth round in Spain, Alonso was seventh in the drivers’ championship, just one point off Verstappen in sixth. McLaren’s decline relative to the rest of the field relegated him down the order in the second half of the year, though, and it was disappointing to see him fail to score at the final six rounds of the year.

There’s very little doubt that Alonso would still be fighting for championships if he were driving for a top team, but unless he makes a comeback, sadly, we will never know for sure.

4. Daniel Ricciardo

At one stage this year, Ricciardo looked like a championship contender after two brilliant — and very different — victories in China and Monaco. His win in China was vintage Ricciardo, with Red Bull taking advantage of a late Safety Car to charge through the field on fresher tyres — while Verstappen failed to make moves stick, Ricciardo pulled off a succession of brilliant, ballsy moves to snatch victory. In Monaco, he claimed pole and then guided his spluttering Red Bull to the finish line despite it losing around 25 percent of its engine power for most of the race. But that turned out to be the high point in what developed into a frustrating and potentially career-defining season from that point on.

Remarkably, he did not visit the podium again after his Monte Carlo triumph. As we neared the summer break, the Australian laboured under the stress of a decision many did not know he was about to make, the decision to leave Red Bull for Renault next season. An almost unbelievable run of bad luck followed that announcement after the summer break as the lion’s share of reliability issues occurred on his side of the garage. The events of the Mexican Grand Prix summed it up perfectly. After snatching pole from under Verstappen’s nose, he was slower off the line than his teammate and beaten into Turn 1 — he would eventually retire with a hydraulics issue. An overeager marshal would then damage the car further by accidentally spraying fire extinguisher foam up the exhaust of his car. The change that followed resulted in a grid penalty for Brazil.

Ricciardo cannot shoulder much of the blame for his results in the second half of the year, such was the frequency with which he encountered trouble. Verstappen finished the season as the in-form Red Bull driver, and Ricciardo’s failure to record a farewell podium for the team in the closing races was disappointing. He is a man who deserves a car capable of winning a championship, and hopefully his move to Renault will open up a different route to finding one in the near future.

3. Charles Leclerc

Things refused to click for the first three rounds of Leclerc’s rookie season, but as soon as he scored a breakthrough sixth-place result in Baku, he never looked back. Those eight points kicked off a series of strong results, and by the end of the year he was a regular contender for best of the rest behind the top three teams.

Sauber’s steady improvement throughout the year helped him exceed expectations, but Leclerc still dominated his teammate Marcus Ericsson over the majority of the year. The average gap between the two grew to 0.431s by the end of the year, with Leclerc out-qualifying Ericsson on 17 of 21 occasions. Interpreting those stats largely depends on how highly you rate Leclerc’s Swedish teammate in 2018, but the fact he started in the top 10 at the final six races means his performances were not impressive only in relation to the other side of the Sauber garage.

On top of that, he only seemed to improve once it became public knowledge that he would be racing for Ferrari next year. The Italian team has historically steered clear of employing drivers with limited experience, but after just 14 races in F1, Leclerc had secured one of the most coveted contracts in sport. He celebrated with points at five of the remaining seven races, bringing his tally to 39 by the end of the year.

2. Max Verstappen

Verstappen’s turnaround in 2018 was remarkable. The young Dutchman appeared to be completely imploding in the opening months of the season as Ricciardo stole plaudits for a series of spectacular drives (see above). Verstappen’s long list of mistakes and transgressions included clumsy overtaking attempts on Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel in China and a crash in final practice in Monaco, meaning he blew a chance of challenging Ricciardo for pole position in the qualifying session. On both occasions, he had let the chance of victory slip through his fingers.

It was clear to everyone who attended a Verstappen session that he found the questions about his mindset and his approach to racing tiresome — ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix, he half-jokingly said he would head-butt the next person to ask him about it. He thinks the podium he claimed that weekend was the turning point, and he followed it up with second position in France and a brilliant victory out of nowhere in Austria.

Red Bull’s car struggled in the rounds before the summer break, but afterward Verstappen was clearly a rejuvenated figure. While Ricciardo never finished higher than fourth in the same period, Verstappen claimed six podiums and one victory from those nine races. His win in Mexico followed the disappointment of missing the chance to claim his first career pole position on the Saturday. He should have had another win in Brazil, too, but was punted out of the lead by Esteban Ocon.

The year felt like a coming of age for Verstappen. By the end of the season, only Hamilton was driving better, and it’s clear that the Dutchman is more than ready to win a world championship in the right car — whether the new Red Bull-Honda partnership will be able to immediately challenge in 2019 remains to be seen.

1. Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton’s performance this year not only was the most impressive on the grid but also was the most impressive of his 12-year F1 career. You can only beat the opposition put in front of you, but in Hamilton’s case he absolutely obliterated the threat from Valtteri Bottas within his own team and snuffed out Sebastian Vettel’s title challenge by the final third of the season. His 11 wins and 11 pole positions from 21 races gave him a win rate of over 50 percent — a remarkable record made all the more impressive because it extends over the past five years combined. Right now, he is in a class of his own in Formula One.

Hamilton’s start to the season was surprisingly slow, however. His first win did not come until the fourth round in Baku, and then only after he inherited it from teammate Bottas, who retired with a puncture. Quite why Hamilton tends to struggle at the start of his title campaigns remains a mystery, but once he was up to speed with this year’s Mercedes, there was no stopping him. A key turning point appeared to be his victory at the German Grand Prix in July. His main title rival, Vettel, crashed out of the lead, but Mercedes’ simulations suggested he was on target to win the race regardless of the Ferrari driver’s mistake. “I truthfully believe Vettel was put in a false position — he knew Lewis was hunting him down at a rate that was just impossible to cover, and he was doing his utmost to try and keep whatever temperatures he could in his tyres and carry on,” Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles told ESPN. “And ultimately, the combination of fresh tyres that Lewis had and his ability behind the wheel meant there was very little Vettel could do to hold him off.” With that victory behind him, Hamilton went on to win five of the next six races — a crucial run of form that ultimately secured the title ahead of Vettel. Put another way, Hamilton dropped just 30 points from the 275 available from the German Grand Prix onward.

“For Lewis, without question, winning is at his soul and in his heart and that’s how he operates,” Vowles added. “When you can stoke that fire and build him, you get an incredible man out of the other end.”

If Mercedes can continue to offer him a car capable of winning titles, it’s hard to imagine anyone in F1 beating him right now.

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