Formula 1: The Most Improved Drivers of 2011

Antony HerbertAnalyst IIIDecember 16, 2011

Formula 1: The Most Improved Drivers of 2011

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    The 2011 season saw the introduction of DRS and the return of the KERS system to boost the ability to overtake and make Grand Prix racing more eventful.

    But what can sometimes be more satisfying is witnessing the individual growth of the drivers. Seeing their progressive journeys from zeroes to heroes affords us the opportunity to get behind those runners who in future season just may define the era. 

    Here I will look at the most improved drivers of the 2011 season and the reasons why. 

Heikki Kovalainen

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    When Heikki left McLaren in 2009, few people would have missed their most blatant No. 2 driver. 

    In his two seasons partnering with Lewis Hamilton, he could not provide enough in terms of ability and pace to sustain a seat in such a high performing car. He lucked into his only race win and wasted another opportunity in Monza where he could do nothing about the midfield-running Toro Rosso of Sebastien Vettel. 

    His fall therefore was always going to be mighty, so his transfer to a returning Team Lotus outfit seemed a good fit. 

    Yet whilst the team afforded him little in terms of points scoring opportunities, he unexpectedly provided a  confident match for his new teammate and qualifying specialist Jarno Trulli. 

    This season, he further solidified his position as the No. 1 within the team, soon to become Caterham F1.

    He outqualified Trulli and occasional team mate Karun Chandok on 17 out of 19 occasions. A best finish of thirteenth accompanied a run in India where at one point he was inside the points in 10th. He tallied an impressive 30 overtakes on opening laps, and accompanied this with a much improved race pace and subsequent reputational boost. 

    Out of the three new teams and six drivers, you therefore feel that Heikki will be the first to eventually break the points drought. 

Jaime Alguersuari

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    It seems strange that Toro Rosso have opted not to keep the much enhanced talents of Alguersuari for 2012. 

    After scoring only five points in his first 27 Grand Prix for the team many predicted at the start of the season that the Spaniard's days were numbered. 

    He did little to subvert this outcome by failing to penetrate the top 10 in the opening six racing weekends of 2011. 

    Then, the results began to shift to a much more positive tangent. His race pace became electrifying, especially when his qualifying efforts faltered. 

    At one point, it became folklore that the driver who failed to make it through the first stage of qualifying would still go on to score world championship points. 

    Alguersuari was the main protagonist of this idea with three consecutive demonstrations of the occurrence at the European, British and German Grand Prix.

    As the season drew to a close, the Toro Rosso team were picking up momentum and Alguersuari took full advantage by not only collecting multiple top 10 finishes, but also by defeating his previously thought of as stronger teammate Sebastian Buemi. 

    There is a hope therefore that a revitalised Jaime will land a seat elsewhere for 2012, as he most certainly deserves a full-time drive after this years campaign. 

Sebastian Vettel

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    Everybody knew that Red Bull were the strongest team of 2011. Yet too many people used this fact to undermine the performance of now double world champion Sebastien Vettel.

    Were they wrong to do so?

    Well, if Vettel's title was born solely out of Red Bull's dominance, then why could Mark Webber not match him for raw pace and results? 

    Vettel came fantastically into his own this season, and gave us a glimpse of the consistent star quality he possesses. Mark Webber as a result has been left a pale imitation of his former self, despite not actually losing much of his own capabilities. 

    His daring overtake of Alonso in Monza highlighted growth and a comeback to those who spoke of Vettel's inability to pass on track. 

    Had it not been for his shock retirement in Abu Dhabi, Sebastien would have finished no lower than fourth in every race this season. 

    This is a feat that consequentially should be commended as a massive slide into domination by the German. Many hope that this shift does not signal a Schumacher like domination of the sport, yet it is clear that he has taken things to a completely new and higher level. 

    I was fortunate enough to be at the Red Bull homecoming in Milton Keynes and witnessed the mass of appeal that the youngest double world champion now has. 

Michael Schumacher

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    Speaking of record breakers, 2011 was a vitally important season for German veteran Michael Schumacher

    Luca Badoer couldn't do it, and after 2010 most believed that Schumacher could also not return credibly after a long duration out of the sport as well as being advanced in years.

    But Schumacher showed he meant business in closing the gap drastically to Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg. In Japan, he became the oldest driver in 40 years to lead a race and was unlucky not to end the season without a podium. 

    To prove that growth can be accrued at any age Schumachers most impressive improvement came in his ability to race in the midfield pack. Last season, we saw several banzai moves and negative behavioural patterns from the driver, who had spent most of his career leading from the front. 

    The increased level of competitiveness accompanying his ability to challenge effectively for positions meant that 2012 looks to be another strong season for the German. 

    His turnaround even seems to have heralded the return of criminally underrated Pedro De La Rosa. 

Adrian Sutil

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    When the uninspiring Pastor Maldonado and the inconsistent Sergio Perez are your rookie rivals it was no wonder that Paul Di Resta was celebrated at Force India and by the Formula 1 world in general. The Scot burst into the sport and gained a healthy tally of points in his debut season. 

    There was much talk therefore that he could snatch the No. 1 position at the team away from Adrian Sutil. 

    Yet despite some early tussles between Sutil and Di Resta, it was the seasoned professional who rallied towards the end, gaining a first ever top 10 championship finish in the process.

    Adrian Sutil has long been a respected entity in Formula 1, but he is regarded as someone who is judged not to have delivered his absolute best. 

    This season he should be commended for controlling a driver of the calibre of Di Resta. It is worth remembering that his teammate has defeated Sebastien Vettel in the past and through his vast experience in alternative formula's was always going to be a strong addition to the sport.

    Adrian's season was one built on consistency and much improved race pace. Where in previous seasons he sometimes faded into the background on race day, this year he made a statement of his attacking prowess and ability to perform all of the time. 

    Coming into the final Grand Prix in Brazil he needed a ninth place finish to take 10th in the title. Instead, he went three places better, taking sixth in the race and ninth in the title overall.

    It is a shame that Vijay Mallya looks to be voluntarily letting the skills of the German go. 

    Sutil is a likely target for Williams, but with their performance this season you can't help but feel it would be a step in the wrong direction for a driver on the rise. 

    In saying that Vijay promised a decision would be made before the final Grand Prix of the season. Yet we are now a month into the aftermath of it, still none the wiser, suggesting that maybe Sutil is better off away from the team.

Jenson Button

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    In the past, it has been easy to downplay Jenson Button's results. He was outclassed by or did not dominate various team mates in his early career, before finding himself down and out after multiple lacklustre seasons at the likes of Benetton and Honda. There was a multitude of unfilled promise that looked to never be ended. 

    Even his title-winning season at Brawn did not change many people's opinions of the Englishman. His second half season performance at Brawn showed us still that in a car that wasn't light years ahead of the rest, he struggled. 

    Most, if not all, therefore expected him to be destroyed by Lewis Hamilton at McLaren. Last season, however he appeared to be a lot closer to Lewis than we predicted. And this season, he emerged at the triumphant number one at the team. 

    For me, the turning point actually dates back to the Brazilian Grand Prix of 2009 whilst he was at Brawn. 

    This was where we caught a glimpse of the previously unseen fight and determination that Jenson had within him. He bulldozed his way into third position, claiming the drivers title as a result. 

    The knock on effect was echoed in Canada this year where he pummelled his way from last to first in an awe inspiring comeback to rival the best sporting comebacks of all time. 

    Not only has his overtaking ability improved, his consistency in pace has also come on leaps and bounds. No longer is he a driver unable to chase a victory with consecutively flawless laps. Victories in Hungary and more so his triumph in Japan highlighted that he didn't require mixed weather conditions to come out on top.

    He showed that in normal racing conditions that he could dominate from start to finish in a car that was not visibly stronger than all others. 

    After this season he is a more mature and intimidating opponent, causing all of his rivals to take note. Lewis Hamilton now knows more than most, that Jenson is not to be underestimated.