I think if you really want to tackle this question, you should reverse engineer the question. What performances do people put down to the car, and what do they put down to the driver? Generally speaking, qualifying is (in equal conditions) almost always held to be indicative of a car’s pace, and for some reason the race is more a function of a driver’s capability. As such this really hampers qualifying specialists, such as Webber and Vettel. I’m no Webber fan, but anyone who thinks that qualifying is a true reflection of a car’s pace in the pecking order should take a good look at Malaysia 2004 and where Webber placed his car on the grid.
The current qualifying format where people just go for runs with 1 qualifying lap means that drivers don’t get a chance to “build a rhythm,” meaning they have to rely on a more “instinctive” grip which they immediately feel from the first run, with no chance to truly build yourself up to it. Which basically is what people say makes the wet a good equaliser anyways – that because the grip is constantly changing (water is constantly getting added or decreased to the circuit) drivers cannot rely on a rhythm to carry them through the race, and so those with a better instantaneous sensitivity rise to the fore.
I think this is especially the case in 2012 actually. Because you have the tyres to look out for, you have to drive to your strategy. If you start “working miracles” of pace, then you’ll burn the tyres out quicker.
An easy way to gauge this is GP2. In equal cars, that means that, driver aside, the cars should all (track conditions allowing) actually set identical qualifying times, and will complete the race distance in identical times (ie cross the line together, molecule for molecule). Let’s call this race-finish time X minutes. For the sake of a better comparison let’s leave aside the reverse-grid race.
Now – generally GP2 qualifying is separated in a manner of tenths. The race finish is separated by a manner of seconds. Do the maths and you’ll soon see that in the race the laptimes are a lot closer to each other, as the drivers gravitate towards X minutes of a finishing time.
Sad fact of life is that some people choose to believe what they want. Apparently for some drivers they are able to affect the laptime the car produces, and some drivers aren’t. If Driver A can “outdrive” a car – then it is also possible for Driver B to do so. Problem is once people get stuck in the rut of “Driver A always outdrives his car” then in their view the car is always slower than the achieved result. “Driver B is all car, no driver” – then suddenly when the guy gets beat, it’s despite having the fastest car, but when the car wins, it’s because of the car.
I’m not saying this is the case – but take 2011 as an example – it’s possible (unlikely, but possible) that Vettel is just outdriving the car so much more than the others. Maybe the McLaren was actually the quickest car at every race and every qualifying, but their drivers are slower than Vettel. Maybe the Ferrari actually was very quick on the harder tyres, but Alonso just was unable to get on terms with them, just as Webber was unable to get on with the softs for pretty much the first 90% of last season.
Bottom line is, we don’t know these for sure. The final result is that these are all dependent on each fan’s self-rationalising view of events. You could say for example that Button is slower than Hamilton, since Spain. But all we know is that Button is slower than hamilton in the McLarens we have driven so far. Who knows? Maybe if he had joined McLaren in 2007/2008 instead of Alonso/Heikki, he would’ve swallowed Hamilton head over heels? Every driver, no matter how adaptable, always has a certain type of corner, circuit, setup, car AND (not or) tyres that will suit their driving style better than others. Put Alonso and Massa in the MP4-27. Who knows? Massa might start beating the cr*p out of Alonso.
Right. I’m done with my rant. Thanks for listening :P