The third part of RaceFans’ mid-season driver rankings effectively acts as the ‘mid’ tier of the 20 drivers, covering those whose performances through the season to date have been impressive at times, but not as consistently as others.
12 – Valtteri Bottas – Alfa Romeo
When you’ve spent the last five years of your career winning races and constructors’ championships with a team who enjoyed arguably the longest period of sustained dominance Formula 1 has ever seen, you arrive at a modest team like Alfa Romeo with big expectations about what you can do for them. And last year, Valtteri Bottas’s impact on his new team could be felt from his very first weekend in red and white, eventually leading them to a highly respectable sixth in the 2022 standings.
But in 2023, Alfa Romeo’s first half of the season played out much like the second half of last year’s. Points finishes have been rarer than a raw steak for both Bottas and younger team mate Zhou Guanyu, with the 11-year veteran taking points only twice in the opening 12 rounds. However, while every major metric suggests that Bottas remains the best performer in his team, it’s not as lopsided a battle as last year by any means.
The opening weekend in Bahrain saw Bottas and Alfa Romeo peak instantly. Only just out-qualifying his team mate and then jumping four places over a strong opening lap to sit in eighth. Over the rest of the race, Bottas held onto that position to secure four points as ‘best of the rest’ and it looked like another season of picking up points through the year was on the cards. However, it has not played out that way.
He was out-performed across the weekend in Jeddah but picking up debris on the opening lap of the race did him no favours. He couldn’t follow Zhou into the points in Melbourne, but Bottas was even more underwhelming in Baku, where he struggled in the sprint race after gambling on soft tyres and then was the last driver running at the chequered flag on Sunday.
He bounced back in Miami with a solid performance while the car was unable to trouble the top ten, then he just missed out on a point in Monaco by finishing 11th after being one of the first drivers to switch to intermediates as the rain came. His poor performance in Spain was explained by suffering floor damage early on, but he secured his second top ten finish of the year at the next round in Canada, despite being beaten to the line by Lance Stroll.
The final three rounds of the first half of the season were solid enough, even if they didn’t stand out compared to others in the field. He was disqualified from qualifying after running out of fuel at Silverstone which left him at the back of the grid, but he started the race on hard tyres and made good use of them to climb to 13th by the finish. He backed up Zhou in qualifying at the Hungaroring to sit seventh on the grid but was bullied at the start and got stuck behind Alexander Albon in the final stint, then headed into the summer break as the better of the two Alfa Romeo drivers over the Belgium Grand Prix weekend.
With no major errors or exceptionally poor performances, Bottas has been decent enough so far in 2023. But the fact that his younger team mate is just one space behind him in the rankings suggests he might not be fully realising all of his potential.
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11 – Pierre Gasly – Alpine
After several seasons stuck at AlphaTauri, few would argue that Pierre Gasly had not earned a fresh start with another team higher up the order to compete for podiums and wins over the years to come. And so by joining Alpine at the start of this year, Gasly had an opportunity to establish himself outside of the Red Bull ecosystem for the first time.
However, it was never going to be an easy start for the 27-year-old. Not only because he was now alongside his historic nemesis Esteban Ocon but because he remained just one penalty point away from being the first driver to be banned from a race for exceeding the 12 penalty point limit over a 12-month period. But despite the pressure, Gasly kicked off life as an Alpine driver in solid style.
In Bahrain, he recovered from the back of the grid to rise up the order and eventually score two points in his first race with his new team, before emulating that result again at the second round in Jeddah, finishing just behind Ocon. While his Melbourne weekend will always be remembered for how it ended at that final restart, his performance up to that point was commendable. He was running as high as fifth until the crash and deserved what was likely to be his best result of the season.
More disappointment followed at the next round in Baku, where he started Friday by catching fire in practice, then crashed out of Q1. He was knocked out down in 19th in sprint qualifying, then finished well outside the points in the grand prix. But from then on, things picked up for Gasly with four top-ten finishes over the next five race weekends, including his best performance of the first half of the year in Miami where he qualified fifth and finished eighth ahead of his team mate after a solid drive in the race. The next round featured his season-best of seventh in Monaco, although he was overshadowed by his team mate’s brilliant podium.
Gasly continued to pick up points, even if he took 15 seconds’ worth of track limits penalties in Austria. There was frustration again in Silverstone and at the Hungaroring where he was taken out of both races by errors of others but he headed into the summer break in style by out-performing Ocon in Friday’s qualifying and Saturday’s sprint sessions, taking a third place finish in the sprint race after being one of the first to pit for intermediates. In the grand prix, more bad luck left him stuck behind a damaged Oscar Piastri at the start and cost him multiple places, finishing just outside of the points in 11th.
Although he is currently 13 points behind his team mate in the championship, Gasly has been closer to his team mate than the standings suggest. With a little less misfortune, he could end up closing that gap over the second half of the season.
10 – Nico Hulkenberg – Haas
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With three rookies joining the 2023 grid, Nico Hulkenberg’s return to the world championship as a full-time driver for the first time since 2019 singled him out as a fascinating case study among the four additions to the field this season.
Given that Haas had chosen not to continue with the young Mick Schumacher and bring in a driver in their mid-30s to replace him, there was a fair degree of expectation on Hulkenberg to prove his new team right. But he didn’t get off to the best start of the season in Bahrain when, despite reaching Q3 at the first attempt to qualify tenth on the grid, he bumped into Ocon on the opening lap and then finished behind his team mate Kevin Magnussen in 15th after being handed 15s in time penalties for exceeding track limits no less than five times.
But despite that rocky return to racing, he quickly silenced his team’s critics with a solid 12th place in Jeddah before an excellent performance in Melbourne saw him take six points for seventh place after running there for the majority of the race – and he was only a red flag call away from securing a top-four result through the chaos of the finish.
Miami was not a good weekend as he crashed in first practice at a new track, then finished a lowly 15th as Magnussen took a point. And in Monaco, a silly divebomb on Logan Sargeant on the opening lap rightfully earned him a puncture and a penalty. But from Barcelona onwards, Hulkenberg found real form.
Even though he continuously had to battle with his car eating its tyres in races, Hulkenberg began to regularly out-perform his team mate. He drove exceptionally in qualifying in Montreal to secure a front row start, except he was dropped to fifth for driving too fast under red flags. Sadly in the race, tyre wear was again a problem. However, he suffered the most from a badly timed Safety Car period. Austria was a definite highlight as he secured eighth on the grid in Friday qualifying, then a very strong second row start for the sprint race to run second for half of the 24 laps ahead of Sergio Perez. Frustratingly on Sunday, his car let him down after just 12 laps.
While luck wasn’t on his side in the rounds leading to the break, he continued to be the better of the two Haas drivers. Front wing damage from contact with Perez compromised him at Silverstone but he still rose to 13th, while a 14th place finish at the Hungaroring was probably better than he would have expected. Sadly in Spa, nothing went his way, but that was in spite of him rather than because of him.
Rejoining the grid after so long away, it was easy to be cynical about Hulkenberg’s merits as a driver. But on the basis of what he has shown so far, he’s almost certain to be staying around beyond 2023.
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9 – Esteban Ocon – Alpine
Ocon headed into his first season at Alpine without a vastly more experienced team mate for the first time in 2023, knowing that as a driver entering year four at Enstone, he would be expected to be the driver to spearhead his team’s charge. While he sits above new team mate Gasly in the standings after some very strong performances, he has not been without his faults over the first half of the year.
It was not the best start to the championship – quite literally speaking – in Bahrain. Despite reaching Q3 at the first attempt, he was penalised for an incorrect starting position on the grid, then hit by a second penalty for a team procedural error, then a third for speeding in the pit lane before retiring. However, he bounced back with a strong weekend in Jeddah, starting on the third row of the grid and showing solid race pace to finish eighth. He should have followed that up with more points in Melbourne, but a clash with his team mate in which he was not at fault put paid to that.
Nothing went right for Ocon in Baku but there was virtually nothing he could do about any of it. But at least he could add two more points in Miami. However, his Monaco Grand Prix weekend was outstanding. Ocon almost took a stunning pole position and ended up lining up third on the grid, then absorbed pressure across the race and kept cool when the rain came to secure a brilliant podium in third what will likely remain one of the best performances of the entire season.
A pair of eighth places followed in Spain and Canada before his weakest performance of the first half of the season came at the Red Bull Ring. He did a decent enough job in the sprint sessions on Saturday, but lost his best time in Friday qualifying for track limits before earning ten track limits strikes in the grand prix – setting a new record for receiving five penalties in the same race, even if one of them was for an unsafe release.
Disappointment followed with back-to-back retirements at Silverstone and the Hungaroring, but neither was his fault. However, he added four more points to his tally at Spa to head into the summer break tenth in the standings, but only after running into the barriers in qualifying and rising from 14th to eighth in the grand prix.
As Alpine head into a period of transition over the summer, they need Ocon to be at his best more than ever before. But he has shown that if Alpine can give him the car, he can deliver the points.
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