Autosport's Top 50 Drivers Of 2015
Brendon Hartley
50
Brendon Hartley
World Endurance champion
New entry
Hartley came of age as a sportscar driver on the way to becoming a world champion with Porsche this season. The Kiwi managed to eradicate the mistakes that had been part of his game during his first campaign with the German manufacturer and even at the start of season two in 2015. That immediately made the 26-year-old one of the star performers in the WEC. There were mistakes at Spa and Le Mans but, like team-mate Webber, he seemed to raise his game for the start of the second leg of the championship. What's more, he kept getting better through the season. His drive as he strove to make up lost ground in the Bahrain finale was simply stunning. If that upward curve continues, Hartley is going to be at the forefront of the LMP1 division for a long time to come.
Esteban Ocon
49
Esteban Ocon
GP3 Series champion
Down 21
The calculated approach never hurt anyone. Esteban Ocon is living proof of that. The Frenchman was staggeringly consistent on his way to the GP3 crown, with nine consecutive second-place finishes and 11 straight podiums. OK, he may have only taken one victory all season, but let’s not forget that he lost two wins to penalties. With back-to-back single-seater titles now on his CV, Ocon is going to be on everyone’s radar in 2016. With a Mercedes F1 deal in place the 19-year-old could be heading to DTM in the footsteps of Pascal Wehrlein. “I don’t know what I’m doing yet but I think the tendency is more towards DTM,” says Ocon, who owes the fact that he raced at all in 2015 to Merc’s support. “If I had to choose between DTM and GP2 I would go towards DTM.”
Daniil Kyvat
48
Daniil Kyvat
7th in Formula 1 World Championship
Down 19
Last year’s standout rookie in Formula 1 made a slow start to life at the senior Red Bull team, but got stronger as the season progressed. Finishing fourth in Monaco was important psychologically, as Red Bull’s early struggles getting the RB11 to work properly, combined with unexpectedly strong displays from Kvyat’s former team Toro Rosso, exacted a mental toll. A second-placed finish in Hungary was a breakthrough result in statistical terms, but Kvyat’s best drive arguably came in Mexico, where he squeaked ahead of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying and almost beat the Williams of Valtteri Bottas to the podium. Although the final points table tells a different story, Kvyat was actually not the best of the Red Bull drivers this season. But he still did enough to justify his early promotion from Toro Rosso, and suggest he can put Ricciardo under serious pressure, if given a smooth enough run-up.
Sam Bird
47
Sam Bird
World Endurance champion (LMP2); 5th in Formula E Championship
Re-entry
The anchoring role Bird played in the G-Drive/OAK squad's run to the WEC LMP2 title made him the standout driver in class. There were times when it seemed that the first-year sportscar driver was carrying up-and-down team-mates Roman Rusinov and Julien Canal, though the the engineering and tactical acumen of OAK Racing played a role too. There's no hype surrounding Bird; he's a belt-and-braces driver who gets on with his job in a matter-of-fact way and always performs. And that wasn't just the case aboard the lead OAK Ligier in 2015, for Bird showed his talents with Virgin in Formula E. There was a dominant win in Putrajaya and a fortuitous one in Battersea, plus a wasted opportunity in Miami through no fault of his own. A win in Florida might have made him more than an outside bet for championship honours heading into London.
Jason Plato
46
Jason Plato
2nd in British Touring Car Championship
Re-Entry
The two-time champion left an established touring car programme for a team that was just a couple of years old and had a car that hadn’t won a non-reverse-grid race. How he dominated the opening half of the campaign and almost snatched the title in dramatic fashion is a testament to Plato’s enduring class and the investment pumped into Team BMR. He won more races than anyone else but it didn’t quite translate into a third crown. “Yet again we’ve proved we can jump in a different car, engineer it and bang! – we win,” says Plato. “That’s something I’m very proud of.”
In his own words...
Jason Plato on his first year with Team BMR

“Yet again we’ve proved we can jump in a different car, engineer it and bang! – we win. That’s something I’m very proud of. There’s not many other drivers in existence that move around different teams and different cars and still produce the goods.

“I can’t take all the credit but that’s part of my brand. Team BMR has something really special. Everybody is totally motivated and I’m signed for another two years – I’m having a great time.

"Gordon and Honda performed brilliantly this year – his performance when he’s had maximum ballast has been very strong. We’ve got some improvements to make; we could have beaten them this year and should have beaten them. And we didn’t.

“We’ve got to come back a bit stronger, but I’m pleased with the year. I played a straight bat and gone about my year with a great deal of integrity.”

Nicki Thiim
45
Nicki Thiim
Mr Versatile: a star in Audis, Astons and Porsches
New Entry
Thiim might unwittingly have played a part in Aston Martin Racing's abject season in the WEC in 2015. Strange but true. The Dane's qualifying lap at Silverstone in April and then a stunning start to his opening stint were almost certainly on the minds of the rulemakers when they gave the Vantage GTE a draconian Balance of Performance hit for the second half of the championship. Or at least it gave Porsche the ammunition it needed when it went into the smoke-filled room to argue its case. Bizarrely, Thiim was never actually handicapped by the changes. Le Mans has its own BoP and Thiim's Audi commitments kept him out of the Aston Martin line-up until the changes had been fully reversed for the series finale in Bahrain. The only negative impact it had on his season was the withdrawal of his Danish-funded Vantage at Shanghai when he was due to return to duty with Aston. It was at the wheel of a new-shape R8 LMS that Thiim arguably posted a performance that was even more special than the dozen or so mega laps at Silverstone. He was stunning at the Nurburgring 24 Hours even though he only finished seventh with WRT. He was the fastest on the averages of Audi's drivers aboard the four new-shape factory-backed R8 LMS GT3 contenders. That's no mean feat given that he was in the company of Vanthoor, Rene Rast, Markus Winkelhock and Mike Rockenfeller.
Mark Webber
44
Mark Webber
World Endurance champion
Re-Entry
Webber came alive as a sportscar driver with the arrival of the high-downforce version of the Porsche 919 Hybrid. By his own admission, he struggled with the understeering original in 2014 and didn't quite look the real deal at the start of this season, but the arrival of the new package for the Nurburgring this year, coupled with a season and a half of experience in sportscars, allowed him to hit his stride. Austin and Shanghai were probably his best races and he looked at those venues to be a match for just about anyone in a 919. They were part of a purple patch in which Webber, Bernhard and Hartley won four races on the bounce to set themselves on course for the drivers' title. Webber can't be rated higher in this list because he wasn't quick at Le Mans. Tandy destroyed him when they went head to head in the night, though the Australian did look better than in 2014, when he erred on the side of caution with an ill-handling car on what was his first appearance in the race. Le Mans remains the nut left to crack if Webber is to come to be regarded as the complete sportscar driver.
Gordon Shedden
43
Gordon Shedden
British Touring Car champion
Re-Entry
Shedden’s first BTCC title was closed out in relatively sedate circumstances, but the same cannot be said about his second. The Scot turned up at round one with “the paint still drying” on his brand new Honda Civic Type-R and took a win on its debut weekend – setting the tone for the rest of the year. Relentless consistency and sheer pace combined to put him in the pound seat, though he had to overcome a rollercoaster final day to clinch the title in the final laps of the season. His speed with maximum ballast was a sight to behold.
Matthieu Vaxiviere
42
Matthieu Vaxiviere
2nd in Formula Renault 3.5 Series
New entry
Matthieu Vaxiviere ended the season with an enhanced reputation, thanks to an appealing fighting spirit gained during innumerable wheel-to-wheel battles with Formula Renault 3.5 champion Oliver Rowland. The Frenchman would finish a worthy runner-up. Speed was never in short supply, as five pole positions and five fastest laps attest. But the Lotus racer was consistently frustrated to be outshone by the smallest margins. Races were often decided by pitstops, or Rowland’s nous in close dicing. Displaying versatility, Vaxiviere also stepped back to FR2.0 to compete at his favourite circuit Pau and ended the year as a dominant race winner in the Andros Trophy electric series.
Q&A
Matthieu Vaxiviere on returning from injury...

You appear to be more competitive since your injury at Monaco last year. How do you explain that?
I spent two months in a corset, with no racing. It was a really difficult moment for me. You think about absolutely everything. I thought, ‘OK you need to work really hard if you want to continue your career and be a professional driver’, so I set about improving myself in every area. Post-season we had some tests with Lotus. I worked really well with the engineer and I always had a good feeling with the car. I did my best to find some solutions to continuing in FR3.5, because I was convinced we could do a good job.

How do you sum up your season?
I am really happy about it. We didn’t win, but we I think we were strong. The season was kind of fun, because all of the team was behind me, and it’s really nice to have this feeling with the mechanics. I have a lot of things to improve, but I think I can be a professional driver now.

What about the future?
For sure I want to test GP2, but I don’t have the opportunity yet. My goal it’s to make a really nice, long career. To drive for a manufacturer is my passion.

Mark Winterbottom
41
Mark Winterbottom
V8 Supercars Champion
Re-entry
For so long, Mark Winterbottom and Prodrive Racing Australia lived in the shadows of the Jamie Whincup/Triple Eight juggernaut. Since 2006, Winterbottom has finished second in the points once, third five times, fourth once and fifth twice, but something was missing: a title. But he made amends this year. Prodrive's new FG X Ford Falcon was quick and Winterbottom turned his best chance to win a title into an overdue championship. Sure, Whincup had an off year, but Winterbottom made himself the man to beat with a mid-year run of eight wins in 13 races, and duly brought it home.