Reject of the Year: 2018 Rankings

The goalposts for ‘reject’ performances in current era Formula 1 have shifted a metaphorical mile since those halcyon days of Life, Andrea Moda, Forti and Pacific capturing our hearts in the 1990s. Gone are the haphazardly run outfits without money for a set of dry tyres or functioning pressure gauges. That puts the benchmark for rejectful performances higher than ever, catching an ever higher calibre of drivers and teams in our Reject of the Year net.

None of the teams or individuals on this list are fundamentally undeserving of a place on the F1 grid; far from it, as you’ll notice a trend of sleeping giants under-performing throughout this list. There are no easy targets left; Sauber, the basement boys of the past two seasons, has turned the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes under Frederic Vasseur’s tutelage and Charles Leclerc’s sublime rookie season. There are no guaranteed results – though certain teams perhaps put themselves in the firing line with some substantially below-par performances.

Taking on the unenviable task of ranking the seasons of F1’s protagonists from ineffectual to disastrous, a group of gprejects.com forumites banded together to score their candidates the old fashioned way: 10pts for 1st, 6pts for 2nd and 4pts for 3rd. This is their collective top five Rejects of 2018.

GPR’s 2018 panel: DemocalypseNow, Nuppiz, RobDylan, Simtek, tommykl, WaffleCat.

5

Sebastian Vettel, Scuderia Ferrari, 2018 Italian Grand Prix

Photo: Scuderia Ferrari

Sebastian Vettel

A title contender also a Reject of the Year contender? Hard to believe but perhaps also justified. Vettel had put himself in the box seat for a run at breaking Hamilton’s title streak. His true peak was at the very start of the season, Australia, where both Vettel and his Ferrari team pulled a strategy blinder by cleverly exploiting pit lane speed regulations under a mid-race virtual safety car. But it was one of the few grands prix where Vettel would be the underdog pace-wise with title rival Hamilton and defeat him.

Germany was the tipping point, Hamilton winning from 16th while Vettel skated off at the Turn 13 hairpin in wet conditions. It was a mistake of fine margins; 5mph or 10mph slower and he’d have been able to tip-toe around the corner without race-ending drama. Being on the wrong side of fine margins killed his season both before and after Germany, though.

A lunge gone wrong on Valtteri Bottas cost him what would have become victory at Azerbaijan (he went wide at Turn 1 attempting to pass). At Monza, impatience to pass team-mate Kimi Raikkonen left the door open for Hamilton and, in his haste to defend, Vettel clumsily clattered into the side of the Mercedes. Japan was a disaster, botching his Q3 lap when track conditions were at their best during the ever-dampening session to start ninth and then clatter into Max Verstappen during the race with a rash move at Spoon. One race weekend later, it was the other Red Bull he clashed with, tapping Daniel Ricciardo when fighting over fourth and spinning out.

Ross Brawn had suggested Vettel was “a little out of sorts” after Austin. Fernando Alonso suggested his string of incidents were merely coincidence. But in a title fight with razor thin margins in car competitiveness – the closest Mercedes and Ferrari has ever been since the hybrid era’s debut – repeated Vettel mistakes allowed Hamilton to get off the ropes after some early blows and romp home to a knockout fifth title. 2018 was the best chance yet for Ferrari to turn the screw on Mercedes. For the first time since 2014 the second Ferrari had outscored the second Mercedes yet still there was no constructors’ title for Maranello. Hamilton might have edged the title either way. But Vettel’s second half should have been stronger than it was.

RobDylan: What more could he ask for? He finally had a car that could be argued to be better than Mercedes’ challenger this season. He put up some incredible drives early in the season, especially in Bahrain, fending off Bottas on tyres declared legally dead. He was ready to make this a brutal title fight. And then he threw it all out of the window.

Vettel’s downward spiral was odd in how consistent he was in throwing away results. Be it from spins, stupid strategies or something else, Vettel found new and inventive ways to throw away the title in every race. It takes a new level of rejectfulness to pull that off, hats off to him.

Nuppiz: Great car. Good team. Bad self control yet again. Had it not been for the mistakes, he could’ve even edged out Hamilton for the title. Or at least he wouldn’t have lost it with an over three-win gap in points.

4

russia-gp-start

Photo: Scuderia Ferrari

Formula 1.5 (a.k.a. Class B)

Complaints about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Where have we heard this one before?

F1’s structure is broken at its core. Constructors’ championship payments are heavily slanted towards finishing positions. Three teams with ample backing of their own, two from manufacturers and one from an extremely well minted energy drinks baron, also receive the most prize money, while patrons of Class B scrimp and save on whatever pittance their year-on-year WCC performances affords them. But that’s only half the problem.

A need to survive has created the unthinkable; a field of customer cars. The Team Formerly Known As Force India kicked all this off by borrowing a McLaren gearbox to mate to its Mercedes engines in 2009; now everyone in Class B, bar manufacturer-backed Renault, is at it. Haas (legally) uses Ferrari-derived resources wherever it can, Force India spent the next decade leaning on its technical alliance with Mercedes to get by (and still veered into administration anyway), Toro Rosso is not only a feeder for Red Bull but now also a Honda B-team, and Sauber’s upturn in form coincides nicely with its re-established ties with Ferrari.

The solution isn’t banning these collaborations, though. That would only serve to thin the already sparse herd of F1 teams further. Prize money redistribution as part of the 2021 Concorde Agreement would be a good start. This is very much the Premiership of motorsport – two or three teams will continue to dominate for the next four to five years, even if a drastic restructure of prize money arrives in the next Concorde Agreement.

WaffleCat: The fact we had to manufacture an alternate championship just to generate some excitement for the majority of the field speaks volumes. Never before have we seen such a gap between teams in F1. The phrase “a class of their own” is often overused, but for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull, they were truly, definitively, in a class of their own. The rest were too ‘slow’ to truly compete in F1. They were more of a ‘Formula 1.5’.

Sergio Perez was the only driver able to finish on the F1 podium from the F1.5 class. But that stat isn’t definitive enough. From Austria onwards, not a single F1.5 driver finished ahead of anybody in the big three. If there was a driver from the big three trapped in the midfield, by mid-race, they’d find themselves running back in the top six, blasting by other drivers as if they weren’t even there. If you weren’t from the Scuderia, the Silver Arrows or Horner’s corner, you might as well kiss your chances of a top five finish goodbye.

We’ve had dominant seasons before from other teams, like McLaren 1988 or Ferrari 2004, but at least there was that hint of unpredictability and a sense that battles for the podium seemed to matter.

Nuppiz: I thought we’d got rid of mixed F1/F2 races after the early 1970s?

3

russia-gp-start

Photo: McLaren

Stoffel Vandoorne

Poor Stoffel. To succeed in 2018 would involve an uphill battle akin to riding a BMX with a broken chain up the Alpe d’Huez. Unsurprisingly, such a miracle did not occur.

Pitched against team-mate and all-time F1 great Fernando Alonso, he was the only driver smashed 21-0 in qualifying. It was a similar story in races too. He had proportionally the fourth worst points scoring record in F1 (less than 1% better than Marcus Ericsson was relative to Charles Leclerc, though well clear of Sergey Sirotkin and Brendon Hartley) and only once all year did he finish ahead of Alonso when both cars reached the chequered flag. And that one instance was also something of a fluke, with Alonso being put on an early undercut strategy that backfired with a slow stop and higher-than-expected degrading mediums.

When Force India’s drivers were still grappling with what was essentially a 2017 car, Haas was losing golden results with pit-stop problems and Sauber’s renaissance was still in its infancy, Alonso was brilliant. An opening run of five top eight finishes formed the bedrock of McLaren’s sixth place in the WCC.

Vandoorne was close to Alonso in Bahrain, one of two positive performances this year, where he finished directly behind his team-mate (the other, at Mexico, also netted him an eighth place). Vandoorne also fought a positive, combative race to an ultimately futile 15th at Interlagos but, that’s about as good as his season got. He was dealt a bad hand with a chassis that was fundamentally broken in aerodynamic design and consequently unpredictable but couldn’t find any means to drive around some of the MCL33’s shortcomings like Alonso did.

It’s something of a shame that Vandoorne’s entire F1 career was spent driving crooked machinery, with no baseline as to what a properly functioning F1 machine should feel like. But then again, Alonso’s brilliance still shone through in the less-than-competitive Minardi PS01 in his rookie season.

Simtek: Stoffel Vandoorne’s 2018 season wasn’t spectacularly awful in the manner we normally love to celebrate here on GP Rejects; there were no Arnoux-esque blue flag blunders or offs under the safety car like Grosjean entertained us with earlier in the season. In fact, there was not much crashing at all, Stoffel kept that McLaren between the lines as much as possible. But really, that’s about all that can be said.

Stoffel is the first driver to be out-qualified by his teammate in every single race of a season since 2008. “That’s bad,” would be the normal reaction to that kind of statistic. But when you consider that his teammate is an ostensibly top-of-his-game Fernando Alonso then it still looks bad, but it becomes a question of how bad exactly because judging the quality of racing drivers is a nightmare.

But consider this: Stoffel very quickly established himself as a frontrunner in all of the junior series he’s raced in. He won the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup, he was Kevin Magnussen’s main rival for the Formula Renault 3.5 title in only his rookie season, and in just two years he set the record for most wins in GP2. Give him the benefit of the doubt for 2017 as it’s a learning year and F1 is hard. This season he should have made clear his role in the future of McLaren.

Instead, whether through a lack of talent or through McLaren’s own sense of devotion to Alonso (or both), he’s come up just as short as the rest of the team in their own efforts to reclaim a dignified place amongst the F1 elite.

WaffleCat: I am, unashamedly, a crazy Stoffel Vandoorne fan. I usually one that will defend his name and his honour to the ends of the earth if I have to.

Even then, Stoffel’s poor form is indefensible. If he wanted to show his F1 credentials to the world, this was the year to prove it. Yes, McLaren had a godawful car but at least Stoffel could try to put in a good shift.

However, unlike Leclerc or Ericsson at Sauber, Vandoorne just let the car suck him into anonymity. There was talk of intra-team difficulties, like Vandoorne’s chassis mysteriously underperforming to ‘politics’ within McLaren. But Stoffel, sad to say, didn’t do much to prove himself worthy of another drive in F1.

I love Stoffel Vandoorne. I love rejects in F1. Somehow, I don’t love associating those terms together. But that’s the truth…

Nuppiz: Once McLaren fell out from the competitive midfield, he seemingly lost any competiteveness left in him. Tried to flip around his career, but ended up flopping.

2

russia-gp-start

Photo: Andy Hone / Williams

Williams

There’s nothing especially unexpected about Williams’ struggles this year. It is an inherently logical outcome. A cash-strapped team leaning on a pair of pay-drivers (Lance Stroll funded by family money and Sirotkin by SMP) is not a recipe for success. But it’s lazy to simply point the blame at its driver line-up.

Despite Stroll’s pay-driver reputation and Sirotkin’s inexperience, neither fundamentally failed to deliver. Williams had built the worst car of 2018 and, despite having a headcount above that of solid midfielders Haas and around the same as the works Renault team (fifth and fourth in the WCC respectively), they were unable to leverage that extra resoruce into a Sauber-esque development curve. Think of it like building a house; it matters little how well the exterior is built if the foundation is shoddy. Claire Williams believes spending three time as much money wouldn’t have fixed the FW41. What could Stroll and Sirotkin have possibly done?

They couldn’t rely on an engine advantage to propel them up the grid to compensate either, with Mercedes’ hybrid-era power unit advantage now completely wiped away by Ferrari. But still it was no coincidence the team’s only points came at circuits with the longest straights on the calendar; Baku and Monza. Stroll was able to capitalise in both cases with points finishes (and Sirotkin inherited a point after Grosjean’s disqualification for an illegal floor) but little consolation for a former leviathan of F1 experiencing its worst season ever.

Simtek: It seems in this decade we’ve often had to confront ourselves with the question “can things get any worse for Williams?” 2011 saw them finish in the points three times across the whole season and finish ninth in the constructors’ standings – last apart from the three “new teams” of Lotus, Virgin and Hispania. They rebounded the following year and won their first race in nearly a decade before sinking to the bottom again in 2013. The hybrid era that followed next had been somewhat kind to them at first, but even then they couldn’t keep up in the long-term development race.

It’s clear even from the onboards that the FW41 may well be the worst car that this once-great team has ever designed. Forget the inexperience of Stroll and Sirotkin, there’s no way in this era of high downforce that we should be seeing a driver sawing at the wheel like a lumberjack (as exciting as that looks). This undriveable machine would only yield seven points, meaning that now they’ve finally done it: Williams Martini Racing is the first World Constructors’ Championship-winning team to finish last in the table since Tyrrell in 1998.

A cursory look at recent history might suggest that next year will be a good one, but with the double blow of Martini & Rossi choosing not to renew their contract and Lawrence Stroll pumping his son’s trust fund into Force India, long-suffering Williams fans may well be faced with another difficult year, once the initial euphoria of Robert Kubica’s long-awaited return has subsided. If there’s one positive that can be taken from Williams’ 2018 season, it’s that, position-wise, things can’t possibly get any worse next year.

RobDylan: Yet another bad season from Williams. Their car has been moving further down the grid every season since their renaissance in 2014/5. They’ve lost past star drivers, though it’s almost irrelevant who drove for them this season, as it seemed a miracle for anyone to have got more than a few points positions out of that chassis. By far the worst team of 2018, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope on the horizon for them.

WaffleCat:This might be the worst season in Williams history. It may be worse than Patrick Neve’s single-season stint with the March. At least they had the excuse of being a new team with a customer chassis in 1977. Only 2013, where they had to rely on the ‘leadership qualities’ of Pastor Maldonado, could be argued to be subjectively worse. But at least they had Marussia and Caterham to cushion the blow. This season, though, there was nobody to comfort them from the fact that they finished stone, dead last.

Nuppiz: This is not a downward spiral. This is a nosedive.

1

russia-gp-start

Photo: McLaren

McLaren

McLaren suffered a near identical season to our runner-up for 2018 Reject of the Year. Design choices gone wrong had created a fundamentally unstable and flawed F1 machine. The worst they’d ever built, admitted its CEO Zak Brown. But with Williams firmly in last place and McLaren able to salvage sixth in the WCC, what are they doing above them in ROTY, you may ask?

We try to contrast expectation against reality. Williams was somewhat lacking the main ingredients to build a ‘Class B/Formula 1.5’ winner, along with the calibre of drivers to maximise anything decent they built. McLaren does not have these problems. Yet it still suffered the same fate anyway. Without Alonso’s brilliance at dancing around a car which steadfastly refuse to play ball, it’s entirely feasible McLaren would be ninth in the standings. That’s exactly what happens if you replace Alonso’s points with Vandoorne’s total doubled.

After three years of complaining that they had built brilliant chassis and Honda powerplants were at fault for its woeful results, 2018 was time to show the MCL33’s anticipated brilliance. Red Bull had taken three wins with Renault power the previous year (and four would come in 2018) so, while a title challenge was likely off the cards, a hard-fought scrap for third place was firmly in their sights, surely.

Though McLaren is now a customer team, that does not detract from its failure. Its formative years aside, McLaren has been here before. Senna took five wins and second in the championship when forced to use customer Cosworth engines after Honda’s withdrawl in 1993. Even when saddled with the uncompetitive Peugeot A6 units a year later, McLaren still mustered fourth overall with eight podium finishes.

McLaren believes it now understands what went wrong with its 2018 design and won’t repeat the same mistakes with next year’s car – albeit solving the mystery so late into the season that a B-spec MCL33 was not practical. Even though they’re coming off the back of a terrible season, simply improving somewhat won’t suffice. If they remain the worst-placed Renault-powered team in 2019, they could well win this award once more.

Simtek: Expectations were modest for the Woking team, even after they showed Honda the door and took the only other option available to them. After all, the last two years of their Mercedes marriage were also competitively tepid, just with the added upside of not having grid penalties forcing them to start each race from the next country over. But if McLaren could put Fernando back on the podium and finish, say, fourth in the constructors’ championship, Zak and the boys could say job well done.

No podiums were achieved, and they finished sixth in the constructors’, a slight underachievement. But considering that they were somewhat gifted that position due to Force India’s creative interpretation of split-personality disorder and one third of their entire points total behind fifth-placed Haas, McLaren didn’t just fall short of their goals. They hardly even got off the ground in the first place.

Things started decently for McLaren in 2018. They scored points in the first five races, something they hadn’t achieved since 2013 and, in general, they were in a good position in the fight for ‘Class B/Formula 1.5’ honours. What we perhaps didn’t expect was that the 40 points they scored in those opening five rounds making about two-thirds of their whole tally for the season. There were some further heroics for their main workhorse Alonso, but the points well eventually dried up. Even Alonso was on the verge of becoming a permanent Q1 fixture by year’s end.

The team is currently undergoing a major restructuring, a sign of either inspiration or desperation. Several leadership positions have been subject to the game of musical chairs we normally come to expect from the silly season and the driver slate has also been wiped clean, with Alonso now (temporarily?) gone and Vandoorne very definitely gone. Their places will be taken by a Red Bull reject and a complete rookie. Clearly, 2018 is just another chapter in the decline of another one of the sport’s greatest teams. 2019 will be a bellwether of its short term future, good or bad.

RobDylan: They have no-one to blame this time but themselves. A bad chassis, unmotivated drivers – neither of whom will return next season – and an all-round test of fortitude going into next year. There will be plenty of self-reflection of their internal failure and, after all the promises and hype to have improved for 2018, they were about as good as they ever got when they had Honda engines.

WaffleCat: McLaren this year was much like seeing a previously unstable and unpredictable ex-lover ending up in a healthy, stable marriage, while you’re still unsatisfied even after you’ve finally been able to move on. You start realizing the problem might not be with your partner. The problem lies with you, McLaren. Pick up a self-help book and get to work. You need it.

Nuppiz: Alonso kept dragging the MCL33 to places it did not belong, until he got bored of having to constantly perform miracles just to score a couple of points at best. The team formerly known as Silver Arrows is increasingly looking like the former Orange Arrows.

What’s your take on our Reject of the Year list? Vote in the poll below and discuss our choices in full on the Paul Stoddart Memorial Forum!