But while dialing in as much oversteer as the driver can cope with will make for quick qualifying laps, it's not as simple as that once you introduce the complication of tire life to the equation and when the parc ferme regulations prevent you from having one setup for qualifying and another for the race. This year's Pirelli tires are weaker at the rear than the front, and so they often need protection from the setup. The title-winning Red Bull RB7 has been particularly hard on rubber – mainly on account of going faster than the others! – and, in several races, World Champion Sebastian Vettel had to live with more understeer than he'd ideally have chosen, just to limit the loads being put through the rears.
The way that Jenson Button's feel allows him to measure out tire life has also played its part in allowing him to be more competitive with teammate Hamilton than was the case last year. Hamilton's setups induce more performance degradation of the rear tires than Button's who can thereby lap fast for longer. This is what would have allowed him to beat Hamilton to the checkered flag at this year's Hungarian Grand Prix, irrespective of Hamilton's drive-through penalty.
The balance changes through a race, not only through tire performance but also the reducing fuel load. A full-tank car will tend to understeer, moving toward oversteer as the fuel load lightens. Obviously the setup has to take account of this as there are only a limited number of ways the driver has of changing things from the cockpit. The most significant of these are the differential settings, varying the pre-load via controls on the steering wheel. These are typically variable in three parts, comprising corner entry, mid-corner and corner exit. Greater locking of the diff gives better traction but more understeer on entry, especially in slower turns. Last year, the Lotus, HRT and Virgin teams all used an inadequate hydraulics system that came as part of a package with the Cosworth engine. Among its many failings was that it could not generate enough pressure to lock the diff at certain critical loads, giving those cars traction limitations as well as stability issues in higher-speed corners.
A race stint invariably brings further imperfections to setups mapped in the perfect conditions of simulation. At the Korean Grand Prix this year, Hamilton was finding increasing understeer and the team could see on the telemetry that there was a 10-point reduction in front downforce (measured by load sensors on the car). The explanation was only discovered post-race: the front wing slot gap was partially sealed by congealed rubber picked up from the track.
The aerodynamically crucial floors also degrade in performance through a race as their edges are rubbed on the track surface. A lot of attention is devoted to smoothing their extremities and they're covered with a silicon spray, making them more slippery to the air. Typically, aero losses from the floor alone from the start of the race to the end are in the order of 15-20 points – a difference of around 0.2sec per lap.
In a sport so machinery-dependent, we never get a definitive answer on which driver is actually doing the best job of pressing the pedals and turning the wheel. But achieving the optimum setup is inextricably linked with that skill set, the place where the visceral skills of the driver and the cerebral qualities of the engineer come together.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the January 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.