Top 50 racing drivers of 2017: 50-41
Motorsport.com's sister publication Autosport counts down the top 50 racing drivers of 2017 in a five-part feature series.
50. Dane Cameron
2nd in IMSA SportsCar Championship
He didn't manage to retain his title, yet Dane Cameron emerged from the 2017 IMSA SportsCar Championship with arguably an even bigger prize – a drive for next season with Penske Racing in one of its Acuras.
It was a fitting reward for one of IMSA's consistent top performers who arguably drove better than ever this year.
There was only one race victory for Cameron in the #31 Action Express Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R he shared with 2016 co-champion Eric Curran, but there were some sterling drives on the way to second place in the points.
Most pertinently, however, he was the fastest on the race averages of all Prototype drivers across the 10 IMSA rounds in 2017.
Cameron is an elbows-out kind of driver who makes things happen. Bang on the pace from the moment he jumps in the car, he's surely destined for even bigger things in the rough and tumble of the IMSA series.
The Engineer's View (from Simon Dowson)
“Dane is extremely motivated and driven. He pushes the engineers and the mechanics to help him get the best out of the car. He's one of those sportsmen who's aggressive, as well as a little bit angry and sometimes moody, which I think is a good thing.
“That helps in extracting the performance from the car when it's maybe not at its best. The confidence and belief allows him to get a little bit more from it in certain situations, like when he's on new tyres.
“I wouldn't say there's much difference in out-and-out lap time in comparison with, say, the Taylor brothers or Filipe Albuquerque, but he has an ability to wring the neck of the car.
"He positions the car in traffic well, which made the difference on a number of occasions this year.”
49. Nicki Thiim
6th in WEC GTE Pro
Photo by: Anthony Rew
The WEC’s reduction in the allocation of tyres per weekend hurt Aston Martin’s venerable Vantage more than most, but outgoing GTE Pro champion Nicki Thiim extracted the most from it at every opportunity.
Yet as Aston Martin Technical Director Dan Sayers explains, the Dane’s best performance is easily overlooked.
"The standout for me was Le Mans. He was brilliant there, he didn’t put a foot wrong," Sayers says.
"Of all our drivers I think he had the strongest Le Mans, although it is kind of forgotten because of the mistake from Richie [Stanaway] that put them out of contention.
"They had a mishap early in the race with a puncture and they were literally last, a couple of laps down, but they fought back and he’d got the car back up to the front with an incredible stint.
"The regulations didn’t help us in terms of results and consistency, but every time he had the car and the package underneath him, Nicki always made the most of it and eked out absolutely everything."
48. Raffaele Marciello
Spa 24 Hours standout, 12th in Blancpain GT
A driver who was once on the books of the Ferrari academy, Raffaele Marciello returned the wider world of his talents with a starring performance at the Spa 24 Hours.
For the Italian, it was really the Spa 14 Hours, because that's how long he spent behind the wheel — bar the odd three minutes — of the Mercedes-AMG GT3 he drove for the French Auto Sport Promotion team.
The Merc wasn't a truly competitive proposition in the blue-riband Endurance Cup round of the Blancpain GT Series back in July, but a combination of clever strategy from ASP and Marciello's talents — not to mention his endurance — kept the car in the hunt until the final hour.
That he outperformed Edoardo Mortara says a lot - the Italian went on to claim a fourth victory in the end-of-season Macau GT3 extravaganza this year.
The team wanted to maximise the time Marciello was in the car, which explains his 13 hours and 57 minutes behind the wheel.
Photo by: Marc Fleury
The Engineer's View (from Nicolas Dumas)
"There were 28 or 29 laps in a stint, and Raffaele would be flat through Eau Rouge for 20 of them. The other Mercedes drivers were only flat for four or five laps when the tyres were new. He was so impressive and so consistent.
"I asked him to do a triple stint at the start, and he said he was fine when he got out of the car. I asked him to do another, and he reckoned it was easy.
"He was our fastest driver, so it made sense, though he did struggle right at the end when the conditions were hotter. Maybe 14 hours was a bit too much.
"Raffaele isn't the smallest of drivers — he's 192cm [6ft 3in] — which probably hurt his single-seater career. But I think in the next few years we will see him with a factory, maybe in Formula E or the World Endurance Championship."
47. Alex Lynn
Sebring 12 Hours winner, Formula E pole-sitter
Sebring 12 Hours debut win? Check. Nurburgring 24 Hours debut in a factory BMW? Check. LMP2 pole for debut Le Mans 24 Hours? Check. Pole for debut Formula E race? Check. Promotion to a full-season Formula E drive? Check. Earn factory Aston Martin GTE deal for 2018? Check.
Put together a year that “has been so important for my career?” You better believe that’s a check.
Lynn was at a crossroads at the end of 2016, when he made the decision to stop pursuing his dream of a Formula 1 drive.
His stint as Williams development driver came to an end and, much like he did when he left the Red Bull programme of his own volition at the end of his GP3 title-winning season, Lynn decided to take matters into his own hands.
He was so effective that a successful year has now laid the foundations for what should be a fruitful, and long, professional career.
In his own words
"I feel like coming from single-seaters I needed to do something different to prove my worth to several different teams. Some of those was going right out of my comfort zone. It’s been a crazy year.
"The thing that sticks out in my mind was doing the Nurburgring 24 Hours in a factory BMW. That was a real jump into the fire pit really, and I think that was probably the one race that got me the Aston Martin drive.
"It’s been such a busy year, but so enjoyable honestly. The main thing has been getting into Formula E, and then the Aston Martin drive I’m so proud to be representing a brand like that and going to Le Mans with them."
46. Kimi Raikkonen
4th in Formula 1
Kimi Raikkonen is endlessly frustrating. Every so often you see glimpses of what made him the most exciting talent of his generation, but these moments are too regularly tempered by chances that go begging to errors.
It is difficult to think of a driver more committed at high speed, but too often Raikkonen falls the wrong side of that fuzzy line between over-commitment and adhesion.
Pole at Monaco – his first since 2008 – shows what he can do when it comes together, but for every Monaco there is a Malaysia - an opportunity squandered.
How does your performance this year compare to other years at Ferrari?
I don't know. Being in one of the top teams you want to always win and it's pretty much failure if you don't. Out of all the years I've been here I've won one and the rest you can pretty much say it's not been what we always want.
There's been maybe some years that the car was not strong enough that you could honestly say you could have won, but that's always the aim for all of us. I got fourth place this year and that's how it goes.
Next year we try again. We just have to put things together a bit better and start stronger next year in the first race and keep fighting and hopefully it will go our way.
Is there anything about set-up direction of Ferrari in second half of the year that you didn't like or got away from you?
I don't think so. It's more that quite often with the tyres it was quite tricky to make them work on one lap. Hopefully next year with the new tyres they should be softer, so it's more easy to switch them on.
Some surfaces of the circuits are not very rough and then it's hard to switch them on. That really dictates it. Even if the car's perfect, the tyres either working or not makes all the difference.
It's small things. Most times we were very close, but then you try to push and get that little bit extra and you make a mistake and then suddenly you are four tenths, five tenths away. I can deal with that, but obviously on paper it looks worse than it is.
Are you still enjoying it as much as you did when you started?
I enjoy the racing. The rest I never enjoy. Every sport goes that way - that there is more money involved, more things to do, but as long as the racing is main thing I'm happy and I enjoy it.
You enjoy it more when you do better, but I've been in the sport a long time and it's not always going to be happy days. We try next year to do better again.
45. Ricky Taylor
IMSA SportsCar champion, Daytona 24 Hours winner
The Taylor brothers, Ricky and Jordan, were again equally matched in the family-run Cadillac DPi-V.R in this year's IMSA SportsCar Championship. Jordan was slightly quicker on the race averages, but Ricky stood out with a run of pole positions.
It wasn't just that he topped qualifying five times in the 10 rounds, it was the margin by which he claimed pole on the majority of those occasions.
The elder of the Taylors took the pole at Austin by a whopping 1.5 seconds, followed that up with a one-second margin at Road America and then took the top spot at Laguna Seca by eight tenths. It was impressive stuff from the Wayne Taylor Racing driver.
It's not always easy to read qualifying performances in IMSA. But given the style in which he took the poles, there can be no doubting Taylor's speed. Penske certainly didn't and have lured him away from General Motors for next season.
In his own words
"Last year, Jordan and I shared qualifying duties — we picked the tracks that we preferred. But I really like qualifying and Jordan really likes finishing the races, so we decided that I'd qualify all the time this year. That changes your mindset going into the weekend and really allows you to focus on the job.
"These cars need different things to make them quick in qualifying compared with the race. We were always able to roll a good race car off the trailer, which meant we could focus on qualifying set-up during practice. We worked hard on getting the most out of the tyre at its peak, which was different from track to track.
"Qualifying is the only time that you really get to go for it and take risks. This year I felt I could really attack in qualifying and it paid off."
44. Jari-Matti Latvala
4th in World Rally Championship
The last Saturday in July is not one Jari-Matti Latvala will forget in a hurry. Rally Finland’s middle day, during a season in which he got Toyota’s comeback victory on Rally Sweden, was his best ever in a rally car. And his worst.
He’d ended day one 4.4s down on his rookie team-mate Esapekka Lappi. Latvala took his hat off to his countryman, then plotted his downfall through Saturday’s stages.
Paijala, Pihlajakoski, Ouninpohja are all names J-ML knows and loves. He led after the day two opener and built that lead through day two. Fastest every time.
At the end of the first afternoon stage, he grinned. “I could only go faster in one corner… It was fantastic.”
An hour or so later and disaster struck. The Yaris WRC stopped. It just stopped. Latvala thumped the steering wheel until his hand hurt. The broken car broke the man, ruined his best day ever and cost him another home win.
43. Ash Sutton
In winning the British Touring Car Championship, 23-year-old Ash Sutton became the youngest driver to do so since John Fitzpatrick 51 years earlier.
But such a result seemed a distance away after the opening Brands Hatch round, following a point-less weekend in which the Subaru Levorg driver accrued two strikes for crashes.
“We all sat down after and could see how quick he was," says Carl Faux, BMR's former technical director. "We said to him ‘everyone knows you're quick, but you're going to get the nickname Smashley’.
“I'll nick this quote from Ian Harrison [former Triple Eight team principal]: you can tidy up speed, but you can’t speed up tidy. That's what we did, and it was that one time we fired into him about it.”
Two podiums followed at Donington Park, and Sutton later strung together a run of 11 podiums from 15 races to assume the points lead.
His mental fortitude was tested again at the season finale, but a refocused Sutton defeated WSR's Colin Turkington to claim his crown.
42. Jamie Green
3rd in DTM
Jamie Green came closer than ever during his 13-year DTM career to winning the title in 2017. In fact, you could say he was robbed of it.
Three times in the last four races, the Audi star lost a significant chunk of points, twice for reasons that were outside his control and once because he’d picked up a very harsh penalty – and he fell only six points shy of Team Rosberg stablemate Rene Rast in the final reckoning.
Did Green himself feel robbed? “When I look back, after the final race, then yeah,” he says. “But I wasn’t leading the championship like I was in 2015 for a significant period, so I didn’t feel as though it was perceived as people saying it was mine to lose.
“From my point of view I performed really well, and when things fail on the car [like when leading race two at the Red Bull Ring], what can I do about that?”
Photo by: Alexander Trienitz
Losing the win at the Rеd Bull Ring in race two, with three laps to go, was critical, wasn’t it?
I lost the championship by six points and I lost 25 there... [Rast also moved up from second to win, meaning a 32-point swing against Green]. I couldn’t change gear – 90% of the shift request didn’t work. Every now and then it would work, but not enough to do a competitive lap time.
Apparently it’s a very cheap part, a spring that probably costs less than €1 – a standard part in the [control] Hewland gearbox – and it broke.
It’s bizarre that the same part has failed on me twice, and both times were at Spielberg while leading – it happened in 2015, on the second lap, yet when I’m running around in 15th place that’s never happened! What’s the likelihood of that?
You also lost seven points by handing the win in race one at the Rеd Bull Ring to Mattias Ekstrom, who at the time was leading the championship against a perceived threat from BMW and Mercedes. Are you philosophical about that?
At the time, Audi felt that was the right thing to do. But it’s a tricky thing for me to elaborate on.
Then you won the first race at the Hockenheim finale to put yourself right back into contention, only to get a very harsh grid penalty for the last race for a warning after a racing incident with Timo Glock. That also possibly cost you the title...
I won the race, and it wasn’t nice to hear I’d be starting the next one from 10 places further back. I understand that if you get five warnings over the season you get a 10-place grid penalty – I also had a five-place penalty at Moscow Raceway because I’d got two or three warnings.
But one of my warnings was after race two at Hockenheim [at the opening round] when I stopped the car to celebrate with the mechanics who were hanging over the pitwall. I got put under investigation and then I got a warning for celebrating with the mechanics. We all want the drivers to make a show.
Another one: I got a warning for crossing the white line at pit entry in Moscow. A lot of the warnings are petty and there needs to be a bit of common sense. Regarding the one with Timo, they changed the rules during the season in terms of forcing cars off track, and said you need to leave a car width if you’re side by side, so they have what you’d call overly-strict rules.
I had another one at the Nurburgring with Maro Engel – because I was in front I couldn’t see him, but they deemed that I forced him off track.
41. Johan Kristoffersson
World Rallycross Champion and tin-top ace
Photo by: FIA World Rallycross
After he'd come third and then second in his first two full-time World Rallycross Championship campaigns, the stage was set for Johan Kristoffersson to go one better and secure the title at his third attempt.
He joined Petter Solberg’s Volkswagen-backed PSRX squad to drive a Volkswagen Motorsport-built WRC-derived Polo and claimed the crown in style by winning seven events (five consecutively) and achieving 10 podiums from 12 starts.
He also won six Scandinavian Touring Car Championship races from 10 starts, a trajectory that would have taken him to the title but for missing rounds due to clashes.
DTM and rallycross Engineer Laurent Fedacou worked with Kristoffersson in 2015 and 2016. “He’s a very good driver and a good human to work with. I was awaiting that he would be world champion, but in such a manner is really fantastic,” he explains.
“When we started working together, I saw he was looking at the vbox [data] until midnight, at every single acceleration. He’s really into every single detail.
"You could give him a skateboard and he could do good things with it. In the past I did Bathurst with him and after four laps he was there already on the lap times and we were fighting for the win."
How was it working with and competing against a rally and rallycross legend in Petter Solberg as your teammate?
I had really high expectations for working with Petter and his team but I have to say that Petter himself over delivered on my expectations. He helped me so much with a lot of things, I’ve learnt so much from him during the whole season and he is a big factor why I won the championship.
What was your highlight of 2017?
Of course when I wrapped up the championship in Riga, but also winning my home event. I’ve been going to Holjes since I was young and this was the fifth time I went there trying to win it. In the past I didn’t have any success there at all, so this year to have a weekend where everything just worked my way was really good.
As an unemotional guy, how surprised were you at becoming emotional after securing the title in Latvia?
I couldn’t imagine how the feeling would be. I think I was most effected by seeing the people around me, how happy they were. I saw in others that this means a lot and then I understood.
How special was it to win an unprecedented five events in a row, seven in total and 10 podiums from 12 events?
Now I understand a little bit more when I look back. During the season I didn’t think about it at all, I was just focusing on what I was doing. It was outrageous; it should not be possible to win five in a row, it definitely should not be possible to win seven races and 100% not possible to make 10 podiums out of 12. Even for myself it’s hard to understand how I did it, it’s just incredible. The team gave me all the tools to do it.
From myself, after winning three I didn’t arrive to the fourth and fifth race with the goal to win. I would go and take no risks and really focus on the event itself, not only on winning. Of course the team came well prepared for every race, me and Petter had a good plan. We did the homework.
Could you have won the STCC title if you had competed in the full season?
I believe so. I like the touring cars. Rallycross is a sport where the cars are very extreme but touring cars, with the TCR regulations, are not the most extreme cars to drive. For me it doesn’t matter.
One weekend I drove the Polo which is a super-extreme car, then the next I drove more-or-less a road car with bigger brakes and slick tyres. What I enjoy is to find the key to perform the best and win the race I’m in. That’s what drives me.
How difficult it is to switch from a rallycross Supercar to a touring car in consecutive weekends?
2011 was the first year that I started to do it, then I drove in Porsche Carrera Cup and touring cars on the same weekend. That was really tricky, but I’ve learned ways to handle it so it’s no problem at all.
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Top 50 racing drivers of 2017: 40-31
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Top 50 racing drivers of 2017: 50-41
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