Assessing the top five F1 drivers at the end of 2011

By Mark HughesBBC F1 commentary box producer

Beyond the narrative of the championship and the technical contest between the teams, 2011 has been a fascinatingly revealing case study into the traits, strengths and weaknesses of Formula 1's top drivers.

Taking a dispassionate look at the performances in those 19 races, treating it as additional data in the bank, has enabled a lot of fine-tuning of what we know about Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.

New facets of their abilities have become apparent and partly this has been down to the introduction of the Pirelli as a control tyre in place of the Bridgestone.

It behaves in a very different way and has required a lot of adaptation from teams and, especially, drivers. This change in the demands and the differing ways it has impacted on the top drivers has been very informative.

The rear Pirelli tyre is less tolerant of slip angle (being slid rather than merely cornered) than the Bridgestone.

It has a very stiff construction - because being new to F1, Pirelli wanted to ensure a safe tyre above all else - and that means it does not like being asked to transfer lateral and longitudinal load at the same time, ie braking or accelerating while also cornering. So there is less 'give' in the construction to bridge the gap between the two types of forces.

The combination of stiff construction with soft compounds (introduced to spice up the racing) means that the tyre's performance drops off very quickly, as without much help from any flexing of the tyre's structure, the compound gets abused and overheats.

It is useful to view the continued development of Vettel within this context.

He has a very powerful array of assets but perhaps the most potent of all is his raw intelligence; a hungry mind and a sharp one.

Even in conversation he makes all sorts of cross-connections while maintaining a narrative, and in Brazil on Sunday he compared his drive while struggling with a gearbox problem with Ayrton Senna's similar circumstances at the same venue in 1991.

Vettel's hungry mind had absorbed the sport's history in detail and even in the midst of coping with a problem during the race, he had the spare capacity to start quoting it.

Earlier this year team boss Peter Sauber was reflecting on how he and BMW had relinquished Vettel back to Red Bull too easily when he was their reserve driver in 2007.

"I hadn't realised how much more there was to come from him," Sauber sighed reflectively. "The most amazing thing about him is his intelligence."

Alonso was another intelligent driver, someone ventured. "Yes, true. But Seb is much more so."

Vettel's intelligence seems to be of a broader spectrum than that of any of his peers, a sign usually that it's more adaptable - and it's adaptation that has marked out his performances this year.

The Pirelli delivers its single 'golden-lap' grip in a very narrow peak, it is prone to overheat its surface in long corners and in a race its performance degrades faster the harder a driver uses it.

Combine that with the traits described earlier - and those of the Red Bull RB7, a car with devastating performance but not very raceable on account of lack of straight-line speed and a weak Kers power-boost system. That is one very tricky package to maximise.

It must be qualified on pole, not lose the start and be out of range of a car that could use its DRS overtaking device by the end of the second lap.

Thereafter you must use its performance sparingly, otherwise your tyres degrade faster than those of the slower cars and you must have enough life left in the tyres at the end of the stints to be able to turn it on for a very fast in-lap to respond to the guy that's stopped before you and has got onto fresh tyres.

That is a combination that needs a lot of mental dexterity in addition to sheer skill.

Vettel's rears consistently run cooler than team-mate Webber's - Vettel gets a lot of the direction change done in the first part of the corner, between turn-in and apex.

The in-car footage of his Valencia pole lap was a beautiful study in how he uses oversteer - a loose rear end - in the first part of the turn to hurry the direction change so that the car is pointing straight at the apex with steering lock no longer needed, enabling him to then be very early on the throttle.

Managing that initial instability requires a great cocktail of balance and confidence and he does it beautifully. It also requires the ability to make the Pirelli do what it doesn't like doing - ie handle lateral and longitudinal grip at the same time.

A Bridgestone or Michelin in the previous decade used to accommodate that technique with ease, and therefore all the drivers were doing it. Doing it with the Pirelli requires more skill - and that's given guys like Vettel an edge.

That in itself is nothing to do with intelligence, merely feel - and it is feel that separates out who is quick and who is not.

The qualifying demands of the Pirelli - especially on tracks with largely slow-to-medium-speed corners, where downforce is less dominant - favour drivers that are at ease with using initial oversteer to hurry direction change.

Vettel is great at this, Hamilton arguably even better. Button doesn't like it so much. Alonso can do it, but the dominant understeering trait of the Ferrari means he doesn't.

But in the race the demands are different. Then it is about the trading of the degrading Pirellis for pace, of striking the most efficient balance between the two, of measuring out where and when to use up a very limited resource.

That is about a combination of feel and broad-bandwidth intelligence.

In this Vettel is superb, as is Button, as is Alonso. Hamilton and Webber have both struggled to do that this year, probably for different reasons.

Webber's a bright guy but says he is just not feeling these tyres well and the softer the compound the worse it is.

Hamilton's blessed with an ability to make a car do pretty much anything he wants, but does not seem to have fully taken on board the revised requirements of 2011.

So in the two very diverse demands, race to qualifying, of 2011, Vettel was perfectly equipped. Alonso, too, but an understeering car like the Ferrari does not allow him to maximise qualifying (for the Pirelli-related reasons above).

Button, the guy with probably the most finely-honed exquisite feel of all - enabling those sensational wet-weather drives - but who is over-sensitive to corner-entry instability, is not ideally placed to maximise the Pirellis over one lap.

Hamilton can do so but is then not efficiently using them in the race (see, most obviously, Hungary).

Webber has been hit doubly, his fantastic high-speed-corner commitment punished by excess Pirelli temperature, his difficulty feeling the tyre not allowing him the shallow oversteer on entry to slow turns that buys Vettel so much lap time.

This is just the smallest of windows into the kaleidoscope of driver performance - we have not even begun to get into the different technique over kerbs enabled this year by exhaust-blown diffusers. That will have to be left for another day.

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