It's easy enough to see the differences in technique between the great players in tennis. In motorsport, too, there can be a similar end result from very different approaches, but in our sport it's way less visible.
The patterns are easy enough to discern, though: over the years, Jarno Trulli has been dynamite at Monaco (LEFT), for example. Last year Heikki Kovalainen became the first teammate ever to outqualify Trulli there in what was Jarno's 14th appearance at the event. At Spa-Francorchamps, Kimi Raikkonen was utterly devastating even during those years when his performances were inconsistent elsewhere. Mark Webber's star invariably shines bright at the Nurburgring. Some of Rubens Barrichello's greatest performances have come at Silverstone, a track on which he held a qualifying advantage over Michael Schumacher during their six years together at Ferrari. Fernando Alonso, formidable everywhere, is invariably particularly brilliant at Monza. Lewis Hamilton, like Trulli, is seen to best effect around the streets of Monaco, or possibly Singapore. Jenson Button's form around Melbourne over the years has generally been electric.
Varying skill sets between even the very best drivers seem to play out differently from track to track. There's still scope for a huge variety of driving technique even within a sport where every technical aspect is optimized. Drivers feel the car in different ways and derive their speed from different sensations and balancing points. Here's Button comparing his preferences with those of Barrichello, his teammate of four years at Honda and Brawn:
“He can adapt to rear instability on corner entry better than I can. When he has that, he just throws on a lot of steering lock very suddenly, making the car understeer, and balancing it just right so that, by the time the understeer's reducing, you're into the corner and the transient instability is gone, or has been sort of damped out. I've seen it time and time again on the telemetry. When I try to do that, I just lose all feeling for the car; I cannot judge how much to do it by, it just feels so alien.”
Here's Barrichello on Button: “When I was at Ferrari, I'd say my inputs compared to Michael [Schumacher]'s were softer, smoother, more precise. So when I came to Honda, I was amazed to see that Jenson was yet softer. At first he could get more from the brakes than me until I was able to change the pad material to suit me.”
The pattern during their four years together was when the car was good, Button was the quicker driver. When it was at all imbalanced, however, Barrichello would be ahead.
Robert Kubica – sadly incapacitated at the moment, but arguably F1's most impressive driver over the previous few years – describes his driving style thus: “I need the rear of the car to be stable, so preferably with a little bit of understeer so I can take a lot of speed into the corner. So long as it is grippy understeer so that I can still ask more on the steering and it will respond, then it is good. If I get oversteer on entry, I'm dead. My style of taking the speed in just doesn't work if the back is loose. Obviously you can adapt as you feel the car, but some drivers are better suited to one thing, some to another.”
The diametric opposite to Kubica's style is Lewis Hamilton's. He thrives on a bit of entry oversteer – into slow corners at least – and it is into slow corners where there is the greatest variation of workable techniques, at speeds where downforce isn't imposing its blanket dictates. Lewis uses oversteer to hurry up the direction change and have the car balanced, straight and pointed at the apex early, enabling him to get earlier on the gas.
Kubica's and Button's need for stability makes them less adaptable than Hamilton or Nico Rosberg to a big spectrum of car characteristics. But it may also allow a higher peak to be reached when the car is exactly as they like it. Hamilton's ease with a variety of handling styles allows him to be more reactive and less anticipating, but Button's sensitivity makes him a more useful analyst of a car's behavior.
Taking Kubica and Hamilton as the two extremes of technique, into a slow turn in a notionally identical car, Kubica would be quicker into it, able to carry more momentum, perhaps beginning the turn a little earlier and with less initial steering lock. Hamilton, on a more geometric line, would need to input a lot of steering quite suddenly and would have to allow for this in his approach speed. (A combination of Kubica's entry speed with Hamilton's aggressive steering would see the car spin like a top.) However, from the moment between turn in and apex, if Hamilton has judged it right – and his judgment is exquisite – his initial, sharp oversteer will have gotten him on trajectory almost instantly at a place where Kubica will still be struggling to get the necessary yaw onto the car. So, from that moment, Hamilton will be quicker. Which will be the quicker method overall will depend upon the duration of the corner, and the length of straight after it.
Note: there is no definitive “better” or “faster” technique; the difference is more akin to handwriting. The two drivers in the above example are supremely gifted and it would be hard to determine who was quicker. They're simply doing it in different ways. There has been very little research on how these differences form, whether they're learned or instinctual, but the suspicion is the latter.