Is Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg or Nico Hulkenberg Germany's Top F1 Driver?

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistJuly 15, 2014

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 05:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP speaks next to Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Infiniti Red Bull Racing during a press conference following qualifying ahead of the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit on July 5, 2014 in Northampton, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Drew Gibson/Getty Images)
Drew Gibson/Getty Images

German sport is in a good place right now.

Only days after the country became football world champions, the Hockenheim circuit will this weekend host the German Grand Prix, where four drivers—Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Nico Hulkenberg and Adrian Sutil—will participate in their home race.

Not only is Germany the most represented nation on this year's Formula One grid, it is currently the most successful: Vettel has won the world championship for the last four years, while Rosberg—the current leader of the drivers' standings—has a tremendous chance of keeping the flag flying high in 2014.

Hulkenberg, meanwhile, is widely considered a world champion in waiting.

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 24: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India drives during qualifying ahead of the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 24, 2014 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

The status of world champion, though, only tells half the story in Formula One.

The driver who becomes world champion is not necessarily the best driver on the grid. He could merely be the driver who scores more points than his rivals in a given season due to factors such as luck or being handed a dominant car by his team.

An average driver in a strong car will be in with a shot of a crown, while a strong driver in an average car will be a distant onlooker.

Just ask Fernando Alonso.

So who is the best driver with a German passport in Formula One? Well, that depends on what exactly you're looking for.

In terms of one-lap pace, for instance, it is difficult to look beyond Vettel.

With 45 pole positions to his name at the age of just 27, the Red Bull driver will almost certainly break Michael Schumacher's all-time record of 68 in the coming years.

And although some will consider the Adrian Newey-designed cars as the reason behind Vettel's astonishing success rate, the Heppenheim-born driver himself made qualifying sessions an irrelevance between 2010 and 2014, with then-teammate Mark Webber often nowhere to be seen.

The battle behind Vettel, though, is a little more interesting.

Despite Rosberg emerging as a regular pole-sitter over the last two seasons, it is Hulkenberg who arguably has a better historical record in qualifying.

After all, the Mercedes driver failed to record a pole position until the 2012 season, the first year he sat behind the wheel of a race-winning car, while Hulkenberg famously guided a Williams to pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix at the end of his rookie campaign in 2010 before dragging a car as uncompetitive as last year's Sauber to third on the grid at Monza.

Rosberg, to his credit, has surprised many with his qualifying performances alongside Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes this season.

However, you would have to look long and hard to find a session in which he outperformed his machinery quite so staggeringly as Hulkenberg and Vettel, in a Toro Rosso at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix, have done.

Rosberg's racecraft, though, makes up for what he lacks in outright speed.

The Mercedes driver's performance at last month's Canadian Grand Prix, where he managed a fundamental technical problem to somehow finish second to Daniel Ricciardo, is unlikely to be emulated by any other driver on the grid, never mind his compatriots.

The 29-year-old has made a habit of managing his way to race victories, with his win in last year's Monaco Grand Prix, in particular, seeing Rosberg perfect the habit of winning a grand prix at the slowest possible speed.

Contrast that approach to Vettel, whose compulsion to win by the largest possible margin while setting pole and the fastest lap—despite not being rewarded with bonus world championship points—is a reflection of his constant need to be the best.

Vettel's record of 39 grand prix wins evidently shows that victory can be achieved in different ways, but the Red Bull driver's method is arguably more raw, risky and naive, with the four-time world champion frequently instructed by his team to ease his pace in the latter stages of races to protect the car.

Hulkenberg's racecraft, meanwhile, is a little more difficult to gauge given that the high level of his performances in a Sauber or Force India, for example, can often lead to him coming under attack from cars behind.

The calm way in which he deals with the pressure of a world champion or two breathing down his neck at 200 miles per hour, however—as he did most memorably in Korea last season—is mightily impressive for someone with limited exposure to the sharp end of the grid.

His car positioning and ability to recognise the spots where he was vulnerable to a pass at the Yeongnam circuit last October—effectively dangling a carrot under the noses of Hamilton and Alonso—painted a picture of a driver in complete control.

Hulkenberg has displayed similar levels of comfort in the overtaking department, pulling off a number of opportunistic, forceful moves since arriving on the scene.

His double pass around the outside of Romain Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton, two equally aggressive drivers, in the 2012 Korean Grand Prix ranked among the finest overtaking manoeuvres of that season, while his move on the McLaren of Kevin Magnussen on the inside of Monaco's Portier corner will surely rank among the most memorable of this campaign.

Since his rise to prominence, Vettel has often been forced to contend with the bizarre notion that he cannot overtake—but the four-time title winner is in fact one of the most astute passers in F1.

The Red Bull driver changed many of those opinions in the space of one afternoon by charging from a pit lane start to finish third at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which effectively sealed his third-consecutive championship.

Even the infamous "Multi-21" episode of the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, the most controversial moment of Vettel's short career, contained a stupendous burst of attacking driving on Webber.

Rosberg was one of the victims in one of the best passes of Vettel's career at Melbourne in 2012, and the Mercedes driver is not renowned for his own offensive instincts.

His race-long battle with Hamilton at this year's Bahrain Grand Prix, as exciting as it was, portrayed Rosberg as a driver with little conviction in his manoeuvres, costing him victory on a day when the team's strategy went in his favour.

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 06:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP leads from team mate Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 6, 2014 in Sakhir, Bahrain.
Clive Mason/Getty Images

You suspect Vettel and Hulkenberg would not have made the same, potentially title-deciding error.

Despite his detractors—and there still are many of them—Vettel, regardless of a disappointing season, remains the finest German driver on the current Formula One grid.

His four world championship titles are a reflection of the best driver driving the best car, and he is likely to one day inherit the role of the "most complete driver on the grid" from Alonso.

Hulkenberg, despite never even stepping on a grand prix podium, is arguably a more competent performer than Rosberg, who—by no means a slouch behind the wheel—could go on to become the finest driver on the planet this season, without even being the finest driver from Germany.

Funny old game, isn't it?


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