Autosport's Top 50 Drivers Of 2016
Autosport's Top 50 Drivers Of 2016
Words Ben Anderson, David Evans, Bruce Martin, Scott Mitchell, Marcus Simmons, Edd Straw and Gary Watkins
Stoffel Vandoorne
Stoffel Vandoorne
4th in Super Formula; scored point in F1 one-off
Down 45
McLaren's new F1 driver reflects on his past year

What did you learn from your year in Super Formula?
Nobody was expecting me to win there but it’s been a good season with ups and downs. We won two races and had a pole position and we had some tough races. It’s been good to understand the car, to work with some Japanese people, which I will have to do more next year with McLaren. Just keeping sharp, fit, racing and having that thinking process about making the car better.

What were the challenges?
Communication was very difficult at the beginning because there were only one or two guys I could speak to – my engineer and team manager. It’s difficult to build that relationship with the team. How they operate and set up the car is quite a bit different to Europe, so it was good to experience that.

How was it being the outsider in Japan?
It’s a professional championship. I’m one of the youngest drivers in Super Formula, which was strange but because everyone has so much experience there it wasn’t easy to come in. But that made me raise my game.

Jamie Whincup
Jamie Whincup
2nd in Australian Supercars
To say Jamie Whincup had a strong 2016 might seem odd. After all, he has won six Supercar titles, but the last of those was 2014 and this year, for the first time, he was beaten to the title by his team-mate, Shane van Gisbergen. But Whincup drove at a level never before seen, mainly because he had to; van Gisbergen’s arrival at Red Bull Racing Australia raised the bar and Whincup responded. But things didn’t go Whincup’s way when he needed them to. At Bathurst he crossed the line first, but a time penalty over an on-track incident put him back to 11th place. While arguments raged about the penalty, what was clear is that Whincup and co-driver Paul Dumbrell dominated the 1000km race in a way not seen for years. A fair result would have been not just a win, but a win by 30 seconds. Whincup needed van Gisbergen to make mistakes at the final rounds at the Gold Coast, Pukekohe and Sydney’s Olympic Park, but there were few to speak of. With one more race win and one more pole than Whincup, ‘The Giz’ won the title. Whincup congratulated him and sportingly moved into the background – but don’t think he will stay there for long.
Felix Rosenqvist
Felix Rosenqvist
Wins in Indy Lights and Blancpain Sprint Cup; Mr Versatile
Down 10
In his own words
How many different cars did Felix Rosenqvist compete in this year, and drive well? He reveals all...
Prototype Challenge, Daytona 24 Hours
"Unfortunately I didn’t race because our car had too much damage before I had to jump in, so it was a weird experience, but it was a special car to drive. There were a lot of crashes in that category, especially among the amateur drivers, but it was cool to be there and I hope I can do it again."
Indy Lights
"That was going to be the main programme this year. It was a bit up and down. I had some really tough weekends and some really good weekends. The ovals seemed quite tough for me. Overall it was really cool to spend time with Belardi Auto Racing. I had a nice time with my team-mate Zach Veach as well."
GT3 with Mercedes in Blancpain, plus one-off in ADAC GT Masters
"Blancpain Sprint was the only full championship I actually did this year. It was fun. Mercedes helped me out by putting me there. The highlight of the year was definitely the Spa 24 Hours – one of the coolest races I’ve done. Such a nice race and we also did really well, finishing second. It was also good to win the last race of the season in Barcelona with Tristan Vautier. We developed a really nice relationship through the year."
IndyCar test with Ganassi
"That was definitely a memory for life. It’s the quickest car I’ve driven and also something really special to drive – Scott Dixon’s car with the same configuration as he was driving it, and also quite successfully. I’m still in contact with some teams over there. Maybe we’ll do something in the future."
Swedish Legends Championship at Karlskoga
"My former team boss when I did Formula Renault in Sweden runs a team there. I have a lot of support from fans in Sweden, so it was nice to give something back. It was good – more than 30 cars and a fun race. I was leading, but I went off into the gravel on the last lap and finished second. It’s one of those cars that when you drive it for the first time, you know there’s nothing to complain about – it feels so bad anyway, but you just drive it!"
DTM with Mercedes
"It was my target since 2011, when I joined Mercedes [as a Merc-backed F3 driver], to race there one day. Obviously it was very tough to join mid-season considering it’s one of the hardest cars to drive technically. Also the fact that we had a lot of BOP or performance weight at that time of the season, but it went a lot better than expected."
Formula E with Mahindra
"From the first time I tested a Formula E it went very well. It’s a very difficult championship to join – the level is more or less the same or maybe even better than DTM. You have one very short day and you need to nail everything. Qualifying is difficult and then the race is difficult in a completely different way. My pole in Marrakech was something none of us expected."
Toyota GT86 on Nurburgring Nordschleife
"When you drive around the Nordschleife, especially in the wet, you just don’t go to the limit. One little twitch and you’re in the grass and then the wall. It’s like a different sport compared to every other track."
F3 in Macau Grand Prix
"It was my first time in F3 on Pirellis, so it was a little bit of a rush to get them working before Macau. The car itself I know very well. It’s basically where I gained all my experience in my career. It’s nice to be back and I can really confirm it’s one of the nicest cars you can drive."
Jenson Button
Jenson Button
15th in F1 World Championship
Down 12
Jenson Button feels he needs a break. Seventeen unbroken seasons of Formula 1 competition have taken their toll. Being team-mate to a rival as relentless as Fernando Alonso for the last two of those can’t have helped either. Button admits he made his call to step back from racing in F1 in 2017 too early, and that the timing of that decision affected his mindset for the final third of the campaign. That’s a shame, because up to and including September’s Italian Grand Prix he performed very well indeed. Button wasn’t a match for Alonso, but was pushing him hard – particularly on Sundays – and felt he was driving better than ever. Alonso reckons Button is “probably the best team-mate I’ve ever had”, and on his day (Austria, Germany, Italy) Button is still capable of being right up there with the very best.
Andre Lotterer
Andre Lotterer
5th in World Endurance LMP1; 2nd in Super Formula
Down 27
You’d normally expect to find Lotterer higher in his list based on his performances in the World Endurance Championship and the Super Formula in Japan. It is fact that he didn’t win in either series in 2016 (though a WEC victory was lost in the scrutineering bay at Silverstone), but did he perform at a lower level than in the past? Not consistently so. There were strong drives, as one would expect, but also there appeared to be some off days and even some mistakes. Interpreting what was going on at Audi isn’t easy, however. Lotterer and his team-mates were effectively out of the championship equation early on and weren’t getting quite the same equipment as the sister car in the final races. Lotterer was still picked up pretty quickly by Porsche for 2017, so it will be interesting to see how he gets on in a new environment.
Josef Newgarden
Josef Newgarden
4th in IndyCar Series
Down 14
The Team Penske race shop in Mooresville, North Carolina is a ‘Garage Mahal’, with the IndyCar team located on one side and the NASCAR squad on the other. The team’s newest driver is 25-year-old Josef Newgarden, who replaces Juan Pablo Montoya in 2017 after another superb season with Ed Carpenter Racing. He is the first driver from the US to race for Penske’s IndyCar team since Sam Hornish Jr left in 2007. Newgarden bounced back from a huge crash at the Texas Motor Speedway round, before it was rained off and delayed for a couple of months. By the time he returned to Texas, after recovering from injury, he’d already won at Iowa Speedway. He’s a force on road circuits too, as two podiums in 2016 on such layouts attest. “It really is a privilege,” said Newgarden of joining Penske. “You get to walk into the building, see all the people that work here, all the equipment and capability that we have – just to be a small part of the team working towards the bigger goal of success."
Christopher Mies
Christopher Mies
2nd in Blancpain Sprint Cup; 1st in ADAC GT Masters
New Entry
Mies has often been overshadowed by the likes of Laurens Vanthoor, Rene Rast and others in Audi’s GT roster. The German finally emerged from those shadows in 2016 with two impressive sprint-racing campaigns that would have yielded two titles but for race-date clashes. Mies played a key role in Enzo Ide’s championship success with WRT in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup, but wasn’t able to take a share of the title on the final race weekend because he was racing the same day in the ADAC GT Masters curtain closer, a series he did win with Connor de Phillippi and Land Motorsport. Mies backed up his endurance credentials with another strong drive at the Spa 24 Hours with Phoenix.
Ott Tanak
Ott Tanak
8th in World Rally Championship
New Entry
North of Elk, west of Olecko, there are 13.13 miles of road known as Swietajno – Rally Poland’s fastest of fast stages this year. It’s a pretty fearful stretch, starting alongside a lake, tearing between the trees to a hairpin left at Dobki before the dash to the finish. Nine minutes and 54 seconds after he dropped the clutch at the start, Tanak flew across the finish line. He’d averaged 79.40mph – and such an average down that road made no sense. It was narrow, tight and tricky in places, and much of the open and quick was unseen and unsighted. And it was so slippery in places. Nobody came within 3.5s of Tanak there. In Finland, the season’s other speedfest, he won six stages and was in the lead fight until he hit trouble. Then the trees. The argument for Tanak being the sport’s fastest on fast gravel grows with good reason.
Gordon Shedden
Gordon Shedden
1st in British Touring Car Championship
Up 1
Things had started well enough for Gordon Shedden. There was no doubting the pace of the car and he had a very able team-mate to work with, a fellow multiple winner who had helped him to success the year before. But then there were some setbacks and suddenly it didn’t look like he would be able to repeat his 2015 victory. Shedden dug deep, never gave up and, after some very tight tussles, came out on top. He crossed the line at Goodwood to take his second consecutive RAC Tourist Trophy in JD Classics’ Jaguar-E-type. Oh, and he also retained his British Touring Car crown with Honda by two points!
Matties Ekstrom
Mattias Ekstrom
1st in World Rallycross; 7th in DTM
Swede Mattias Ekstrom became the first person to dethrone Petter Solberg as World Rallycross champion with his own Audi-blessed Team EKS operation. Ekstrom and the S1 Quattro won four events – including a run of victories at Hockenheim, Mettet and Lydden Hill early on – and his success was such that he skipped the DTM finale to prioritise his RX world title bid. Ekstrom’s main reputation comes from his time in the DTM but he has prowess going slightly sideways, having contested World Rally Championship rounds in the past. He’s not lost any of his conventional circuit-racing speed – he won the second Hungaroring DTM race and was fifth in the points before skipping Hockenheim to wrap up the RX title at Estering.