With the 2014 F1 season in the books we’re rating the drivers’ performances over the course of the year. Finally, we look at the top-three performers.

3. Nico Rosberg

2014 was Nico Rosberg’s best year in F1. The German won five grands prix, scored a season-best 11 pole positions, and remained in the world title battle until the final race. He displayed bravery, cunning, and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.

But it was not enough. Rosberg showed tremendous dignity in defeat, but in truth the title never belonged to him. His claim to it was spoiled at the Belgian Grand Prix, where a rash move on team-mate Lewis Hamilton left the Brit with a puncture – and caused significant aftershocks. The manner in which he was admonished for this mistake clearly set Rosberg back. Lewis was able to steal a march, and a DNF in Singapore left Nico playing catch-up.

Ultimately his race-day pace was not good enough. Rosberg remained in the title race because the gap to the rest of the field was so large, but Lewis was clearly the fastest man over a grand prix. In Russia, for example, Nico’s huge first lap lock-up should have cost him dear, but the 2014 Mercedes was so quick that he was able to cruise through the field to re-take second.

But there were huge positives, too. Rosberg’s Saturday pace was spectacular. To beat Lewis Hamilton in the same car so many times is an incredible achievement.

He also showed impressive determination and mental strength, never letting Hamilton’s winning streaks bring him down and remaining in the fight until the very end.

Rosberg’s great misfortune was to have a driver of Lewis Hamilton’s calibre on the other side of the garage. Then again, you can be pretty certain that the Brit’s brilliance helped Nico to raise his game in 2014.

Next year’s Mercedes should once again be the class of the field. If Nico can make a few small tweaks over the winter there is no reason he can’t fight for the world title with even greater conviction in 2015. 

2. Daniel Ricciardo

There is a very strong case to call Daniel Ricciardo the driver of the year. Heading into the season, few gave the likeable Australian much chance of competing with the great Sebastian Vettel. Daniel was expected to keep pace with Seb, learn the ropes at Red Bull, and perhaps spring the odd surprise in qualy. That would have been considered a solid first season among the big boys.

The reality was one of the most surprising intra-team battles in F1 history. The largely unproven youngster simply blew the four-time world champion out of the water, and perhaps even helped to quicken his departure from the team.

Vettel had become a renowned qualifying specialist, but Daniel beat him 12-7 on Saturday afternoons. In the races he was equally convincing: when both drivers were classified, the Australian was ahead 11-3. But perhaps the most significant fact is that Ricciardo took three grand prix wins while Vettel failed to register any. He had more hunger and fight, and converted it into a hat-trick of superb victories.

And late in the season he showed that there is still more to come, particularly as he grew in confidence when going wheel-to-wheel with the best in the business.

Third in the world championship was a fitting reward for his fantastic season. Now he must take on the mantle of lead driver at Red Bull and seek to spearhead the team post-Vettel. If he can do that with the same aplomb he displayed this year, there should be more good times ahead for Dietrich Mateschitz’s squad.

1. Lewis Hamilton

Most multiple world champions view their first title as the most important, but Lewis Hamilton was quick to acknowledge that his 2014 triumph was uniquely special. He is older and more mature, and thus understands what it all means to a far greater degree.

Maturity is not all Hamilton has gained: his mental strength and resilience are key areas he has improved on since that 2008 triumph. He has always been lightning fast, but there was a fragility to his psyche back then.

This has clearly been worked on and was evident as Hamilton remained strong despite regularly losing to Nico in qualifying. In past seasons this may have flustered him, but in 2014 Hamilton was able to regroup and come back much stronger the next day. This title was not about outright pace, but rather Lewis’ exceptional speed over a grand prix distance.

There were a few signs that the mentally fragile Hamilton still exists: he seemed almost broken by his qualifying blunder at Silverstone and appeared emotional whenever relations became tense with Rosberg. Hamilton seems more consumed by Formula 1 than any of his rivals. That leads to emotions running very high, but it also makes him one of the most fearsome competitors the sport has ever seen.

That was perfectly demonstrated by his 11 grand prix victories. Of those, Japan and the USA were particularly symbolic: this was the new, stronger Hamilton, the one who could bide his time and pick Rosberg off at will. Nico is a world-class driver, but he had no answer for a fully hooked-up Hamilton.

It all leads to the conclusion that Lewis was the best driver this season. He thoroughly deserved this title and is a very worthy double world champion.