The first part of our end-of -season driver analysis looks at the back end of the grid, known in these parts as the Sleeping Dogs.

Williams

  • Rubens Barrichello: Points – 4 – Championship – 17th
  • Pastor Maldonado: Points – 1 – Championship – 19th

barrichelloWho saw Williams’ worst season in F1 on the horizon for 2011? Not us. We didn’t expect them to move forward significantly from last year but nor did we see them finishing ninth in the constructors with a miserable five points – a full 36 shy of next-best Toro Rosso.

And yet Sam Michael, having tendered his resignation to the team, subsequently lands a plum job at McLaren. What’s that about? In F1 you really can dine out for a long time on one decent car.

Driver-wise things weren’t awful. Rubens Barrichello plainly never stopped trying (witness his charge through the field in Abu Dhabi) but by mid-season became a test mule for the 2012 car, which explains why Pastor Maldonado beat him on a few occasions in qualy around this time. The Brazilian was always committed but the car – and it could well be his last car – just wasn’t up to it.

On to Pastor. GP2 champions are meant to be a bit special: Nico Rosberg was in his debut year, as was Lewis Hamilton in his. Timo Glock put in some fine displays in his maiden campaign with Toyota, whilst Nico Hulkenberg scored that pole and a few other impressive drives in his first year at Williams.

But aside from Monaco, where Maldonado is basically incapable of doing badly, there wasn’t much this year. Spins weren’t in short supply – and he lost his rag fully when he veered at Lewis in Belgium – but otherwise it was a bit ‘meh’.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. He reached Q3 on three occasions (Barrichello did not once get there) and we can’t ignore how good he was in Monte Carlo, even if it was obvious long before F1 arrived there.

Still, Rubens scored the bulk of the points (a whopping four) and did significant work on next year’s car. Sadly for the Brazilian, it is Maldonado and probably not he who will reap the rewards of that effort.
Badger’s Best: Barrichello

Lotus

  • Heikki Kovalainen: Points – 0 – Championship – 22nd
  • Jarno Trulli: Points – 0 – Championship – 21st
  • Karun Chandhok: Points – 0 – Championship – 28th

kovalainenRight now there is no less inspiring team to write about than Lotus/Caterham, so excuse me if this is short.

It’s not that we don’t like them – Tony Fernandes has admirable commitment to F1, Mike Gascoyne is a smart and sound bloke and Heikki Kovalainen has been re-born at the team – it’s just that they existed in limbo this year. Far quicker than HRT and Marussia Virgin, not quite on the pace of Williams/Toro Rosso/Sauber.

That left the two drivers to fight a personal battle, one that Heikki won hands down. The Finn out-qualified Jarno Trulli a mighty 17-2 and was generally ahead in the races. No surprise that the one-time McLaren flop was being linked with the vacant Renault seat before countryman Raikkonen returned to scene – and Trulli enforced retirement.

It’s still possible: word has it Red Bull want Daniel Ricciardo in there for 2012 and are willing to flash a bit of cash – and reduce the price of their gearboxes – to make it happen. So that’d be a rejuvenated Koavalinen, the young, fast and hungry Ricciardo, piles of Red Bull technology, Renault engines and Fernandes’ financial support. Anyone else fancy these boys to make a serious move up the grid next year?

Badger’s Best: Kovalainen

HRT

  • Tonio Luizzi: Points – 0 – Championship – 23rd
  • Narain Karthikeyan: Points – 0 – Championship – 26th
  • Daniel Ricciardo: Points – 0 – Championship – 27th

Tonio Liuzzi made sense for HRT this season as they looked to move beyond the ridiculous merry-go-round of rookies, Christian Klien and Sakon Yamamoto that they ran in 2010. He was never stellar but did a solid job and gave the team the benefit of his experience in F1. That said, with de la Rosa on board for 2012 he’s probably surplus to requirements.

Narain Karthikeyan was the oddest F1 returnee in years. He’s not much good, by F1 standards anyway, but economically it was a sound choice. The Indian never troubled Liuzzi and was mercifully replaced by Daniel Ricciardo from Silverstone onwards, though we must congratulate him on his strong drive at the maiden Indian GP. That said, it’d be best that it was his last in the top flight.

And on to Ricciardo, a man used to dominating every category he has driven suddenly thrown in to the slowest car on the grid. He took to it well, getting on terms with and eventually beating Liuzzi – and the Virgins – towards the end of the year. Given his total lack of experience compared with Tonio it’s pretty plain who is the better driver. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be back at the team in 2012 (our money for the second seat would be on Liuzzi or Spanish rookie Dani Clos) but Red Bull will see him right.

Ultimately there is no future in F1 for Liuzzi beyond perhaps another year pootling around at the back; ditto Karthikeyan, who probably shouldn’t be a grand prix driver at all. But Ricciardo has the world at his feet. Red Bull were impressed with his performance for the Spanish squad and are keen to move him up the grid in 2012. Definitely one to watch.

Badger’s Best: Ricciardo

Virgin

  • Timo Glock: Points – 0 – Championship – 25th
  • Jerome D’Ambrosio: Points – 0 – Championship – 24th

glockMVR lurched from the disaster of 2010 to an equally rubbish campaign in 2011, finishing bottom of the pile for a second successive year.

There’s not much to say about Timo Glock beyond asking whether he still holds much appeal for top-end teams. When he departed Toyota there was interest from Renault; are team principals at the front of the grid still mentioning him when discussing potential drivers?

Jerome d’Ambrosio did a solid job this year in trying circumstances, so hats off to him. However he departs the team to be replaced by Charles Pic, who brings a big cheque to the team. Not that this is unjust: d’Ambrosio only got his seat because one of Lucas di Grassi’s major backers pulled out. The Belgian found the money to usurp him and duly got the drive. Live by the sword die by the sword, JdA.

And running funded drivers is fine. Renault ran two for the second half of this season; the mighty Williams had one, whose financial contribution supposedly secured the team’s sallaries for the next five years; Force India have run one since 2007.

But therein lies the problem: Adrian Sutil, for example, is not a Vettel/Alonso/Button level talent, but he’s a quality professional driver who, with experience, settled in to an impressive rhythm at Force India. Di Grassi and d’Ambrosio are of about the same level, but both left after a single season. They got the difficult first year out of the way and were then shown the exit just when things would have become a lot easier.

Now Pic – who we know to be a very decent driver from his GP2 exploits – comes in. But he too will have a tough first season learning the ropes. He won’t push Glock.

And it’s this that contrives to hold the team back. By all means run a rent-a-driver – we understand the difficult economics of F1 – but if at all possible leave them there for a few years. Otherwise it simply becomes a vicious circle of tough teething years.

Badger’s Best: Glock