Building the ultimate F1 driver of the 2010s

Hamilton, Rossi complete F1/ Moto GP ride swap (1:42)

World champions Lewis Hamilton and Valentino Rossi tried out each other's sports on a track in Valencia. (1:42)

The 2010s have seen some incredible drivers compete in the Formula One world championship. The argument of who is the greatest of them all is always a complicated one with no simple answer, and it can often be a tiresome debate. It's much easier to break the debate down by splitting it into categories around driver traits.

Jump to: Consistency | Overtaking | Race management | Aggression | Smoothness | Wet-weather racing | Composure | Mind games | Financial backing | Marketing | Personality

Raw speed

Max Verstappen

This is the first trait and the most difficult to decide. When all was laid out, it was a straight choice between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen -- in other words, the man who dominated the latter part of the 2010s versus the man who might dominate the 2020s. Hamilton is supremely fast and the biggest problem F1 has faced in recent years is that he also has been given a supremely fast set of race cars, which is hardly a good combination for competitive championships. But this has to go to Verstappen for a number of reasons.

Like Hamilton did in 2007, Verstappen has reshaped F1 since making his debut, which he did at the remarkably young age of 17. He quickly forced a move to Red Bull in his second season and remains the youngest man to ever win a grand prix. He has claimed eight wins in his career to date, several of which are the best victories in recent F1 memory.

Edging it for Verstappen is that, at 22, he is still so young and has yet to be given a car with championship-winning pedigree. It's a scary prospect for his rivals that he might get one any time soon.


Fernando Alonso

Alonso once said: "Maybe I'm not the quickest driver, maybe I'm not the most talented, maybe I'm not the hardest working, but I'm very consistent. I will always be there."

It's hard to argue with that self-assessment. Alonso was often called the most complete driver of the modern era, and that opinion was underpinned by his consistency. While he might not have pulled out a qualifying lap for the ages very often, he never seemed to have a bad day behind the wheel. Once he got comfortable in a car, you knew he would drive it to the limit of its performance every time, sometimes beyond it.

His ferocious consistency was a trait that helped him impress so many people on his maiden Indy 500 in 2017, and he displayed it during his famous midnight stint at the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours with Toyota. When in F1, the feeling was he always got the absolute best out of the machinery, even when laboured with the horrible McLaren-Honda cars he drove at the end of his career.


Daniel Ricciardo

Ricciardo is the last driver you want to see in your rearview mirrors. His ability to pull off incredible late-braking moves -- a mindset he memorably labelled as "lick the stamp and send it" -- became apparent once he got race-winning machinery at Red Bull in 2014. The Australian racer can make overtakes happen from nowhere.

Standout moves include his incredible switchback on then-Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel on the run down to the Roggia chicane at the 2014 Italian Grand Prix, or his race-winning pass on Valtteri Bottas in the final laps of the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix.

If you give him an inch, he'll take a mile.

Race management

Lewis Hamilton

A listen to Hamilton's in-car radio during a race weekend might suggest the six-time world champion is frantic or panicked every time he is strapped into his car. His constant desire to know the state of play, coupled with Mercedes' policy of airing any and all issues over the radio in the frankest terms possible, has become a hallmark of recent seasons and can be easy to ridicule or criticise.

But, in fact, it shows one of his greatest strengths behind the wheel: Hamilton's understanding of race strategy is second to none. While he has won plenty at a canter, Hamilton has also claimed a number of unlikely wins in recent seasons on the back of this unique ability to understand both the car underneath him and the race developing around him. It is one of the frustrating points of the modern era that it can be so easy to downplay Hamilton's prowess in this department and simply point instead to the strength of the Mercedes operation.

If you were a team boss forced to consider what seemed like an impossible strategy on paper, you'd still give it to Hamilton in a heartbeat.


Kevin Magnussen

Kevin Magnussen hasn't endeared himself to many of his rivals since arriving in Formula One -- he infamously clashed with Nico Hulkenberg after running the Renault driver wide while fighting for position at the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix. As that incident demonstrated, the Danish driver is not afraid to get his elbows out to fight for or keep position on the racetrack.

He might not be everyone's favourite driver, but Magnussen feels like a throwback to a previous generation with the way he races. The Haas driver told ESPN last year his aggression is often a way of compensating for being in midfield machinery, which has been the case his entire F1 career. So if it often looks like Magnussen is fighting tooth and nail to hold on to 10th position, it's because he is -- give him a front-running car and it might not always look like he is on the ragged edge.


Jenson Button

Driving what many termed to be a "classical" style, Button focused on wasting as little movement as possible behind the wheel. Button differed from many of his contemporaries as he would brake earlier, but more gently, on entry to a corner, turning in earlier before gently applying the throttle on exit. Usually this would mean he took more speed through the apex of a corner.

While this was already a hallmark before he won the 2009 world title, the smooth style continued into the current decade and was a key factor in the eight wins he claimed for McLaren in the first three years of the decade. There were obvious drawbacks, such as a susceptibility to struggling with cold tyres or an unbalanced car setup, but when given a car that was in the perfect window there were few better than Button.

Wet-weather racing

Max Verstappen

Like with the "raw speed" category, this was a straight choice between Hamilton and Verstappen. It's no coincidence that the two most naturally gifted drivers of their respective generations are masters in wet conditions, when grip is at a premium and instinct often has to kick in. Again, Verstappen gets the nod by the smallest of margins.

He does so purely down to a recency bias. Hamilton, usually the master of wet conditions, had an off day at this year's soaking German Grand Prix (although he had excelled in similar conditions at the same venue the year previously), while his best wet-weather display came in the last decade at the 2008 British Grand Prix. Verstappen's breakthrough drive in the rain at the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix and his victory at Hockenheim this year stand out as two of his best. It's a tiny blot on Hamilton's record, but Verstappen hasn't had a bad race in the wet yet.

Mind games

Nico Rosberg

Rosberg is the only teammate to have truly rattled Hamilton. It took almost everything Rosberg had to beat his old friend to the 2016 championship -- the mentally exhausted German retired almost immediately after doing so. The work he put in to beating Hamilton was not insignificant, leaving no stone unturned in improving himself, developing a win-at-all-costs mentality and making sacrifices of personal time along the way.

This all meant he managed to get under Hamilton's skin in a way few others have managed, revealing cracks in the Briton's armour on several key occasions. It took a remarkable amount of frank self-assessment to stay at Hamilton's level and Rosberg deserves respect for capping his approach off with a championship title.


Charles Leclerc

You will find Leclerc in the same place ahead of every F1 race -- sat a few metres from his car, against the wall and under an umbrella, casually sipping from a bottle. It fits his personality perfectly -- laid-back, but also cool and calculating ahead of battle. Kimi Raikkonen might have picked up the "Iceman" nickname, but it could easily be attributed to Leclerc, who has risen through the ranks of F1 despite a tragic backstory.

While his fast elevation to Ferrari is monumental in a sporting context, the events around Leclerc's life are even more remarkable. Leclerc's godfather, Jules Bianchi, died from injuries sustained in a crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, and Leclerc's father, Herve, died in the middle of what turned out to be a record-shattering Formula 2 championship season for Charles in 2017. This year, Leclerc claimed his maiden F1 victory one day after close friend Anthoine Hubert was killed in an F2 race at Spa-Francorchamps, driving past the same spot 44 times en route to victory at the Belgian Grand Prix.

Financial backing

Lance Stroll

Stroll is the perfect driver for a team at the lower end of the grid -- he rarely sets the world alight, but he's quick enough, and crucially brings a big wedge of money with him. After seeing his son cut his teeth at Williams, Lance's father, Lawrence, went one step further than your usual financial support deal, purchasing the team now known as Racing Point and placing his son in one of its two race seats. F1 history is littered with teams having to make do with volatile talents who brought stability -- in Stroll, Racing Point has a reliable hand at the wheel with a huge financial upside.


Lewis Hamilton

The importance of Hamilton to Mercedes' and F1's image cannot be understated. Hamilton managed to bring Tommy Hilfiger into F1 as a Mercedes partner and has launched several collections with the fashion brand over the past two years. His talent is recognised by his peers -- NFL legend Tom Brady praised Hamilton ahead of this year's U.S. Grand Prix.

As we have written previously, Hamilton is building an empire, of which F1 is but a small part. In an age dominated by social media and celebrity, Hamilton brings so much more to a team than being a phenomenally talented race driver.


Daniel Ricciardo

Ricciardo is a team boss and press officer's dream. Fun, quick-witted and laid-back, it is little surprise he is so popular with fans, sponsors and journalists alike. But like any world-class driver, that persona changes in the race car -- those who work with Ricciardo say he is as serious about his craft as any when he is in work mode. Beneath the genuinely endearing personality is a ruthlessness and steely determination, which makes him the perfect personality for any race team.

What about Sebastian Vettel?

If I had written this list at the end of 2013, Vettel's name would have appeared multiple times. But his final year at Red Bull and the past few seasons at Ferrari have shaken my faith in the categories that I might have given to him earlier in the decade.

Some examples:

  • Raw speed/qualifying: Pre-2014, it was hard to argue against. Vettel's relentless pace, especially in 2013, was often pretty remarkable and he had more than a handful of races on a different stratosphere to the rest. But his reputation has taken a battering in several campaigns since -- in 2014, when he was outperformed by a young Ricciardo, and this season when the same happened with Leclerc. Both are super talents in their own right, but it means Vettel just can't claim that accolade.

  • Consistency: While Vettel used to rarely have an off day, the only thing he has done consistently since 2017 is make race-defining mistakes, starting with the moment he lost his cool and sideswiped Hamilton at that year's Azerbaijan Grand Prix. A string of errors cost him the 2018 championship when consistency would have won it for him. This year, glaring errors in Bahrain, Great Britain and Italy saw that worrying trend continue. The gloss of early-2010s Vettel has definitely worn off.

What about the other obvious omissions?

A lot of the other big names who raced in this decade are missing from this list: Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and Robert Kubica, to name three obvious examples.

Schumacher's return with Mercedes between 2010 and 2012 was underwhelming and it was clear the German was not quite the same driver who had walked away in 2006. No shame in that when you've won 91 F1 races and seven world championships, but the Schumacher of the 2010s was nothing on the 2000s version which dominated the sport so brilliantly.

As for Raikkonen, his best days also came in the 2000s. He enjoyed a great comeback from sabbatical in 2012, but too often at Ferrari (2014-18) looked to be a shell of his former self.

Kubica is the great "what if" on this list -- his career was full of potential and he achieved some genuinely remarkable things at Renault in 2010. The onboard of his qualifying lap ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix that year is a treasure, but remains a sad reminder of just how phenomenally talented Kubica was before he sustained serious injuries in a life-altering rally crash in early 2011.