With Formula 1's future tyre supply about to be secured, whether it be with Michelin or Pirelli, it's going to offer another variable on driver form. It's a plain fact that in current F1, much of what is put down to peaks and troughs in drivers' performances is actually variation in how their styles mesh with the rubber characteristics.
Felipe Massa has probably been the shining example of that this year. His form dive-bombed horribly after a great performance in the season-opener in Bahrain, and then just as mysteriously returned in Monaco. What Bahrain and Monaco had in common was that the designated tyre compound choice was on the racier side, given the demands of the track. So they got up to their correct working range very easily.
In between those two races came Australia, Malaysia, China and Barcelona, four consecutive races at which the compound choice was very conservative for the demands of the track. In a Ferrari that works its front tyres perhaps easier than any other car, Massa was struggling just to get the tyre to the threshold temperature at which the F10 'switches on' its tyres. So suddenly his future was in question. In fact his future probably still hangs upon how the tyre choice in the coming races dovetails with the demands of the tracks.
But Massa's team-mate Fernando Alonso has not been so affected, proving that good drivers adapt, right? Yes, up to a point. Alonso has always been brilliant at getting the necessary heat into his tyres - think back to the tyre war days and how he would be sliding the whole car on the final safety car lap. But how much is adaptation and how much simply that it's his natural style - that just so happens to fit the requirements?
We've seen career-defining driver reputations won or lost on the vagaries of the tyres, particularly in the control-tyre era. When rookie Lewis Hamilton began his '06-07 winter test programme in earnest, McLaren was still on Michelins - and Alonso was consistently quicker by whole chunks. The moment it switched to the 2007 control Bridgestones, and the car suddenly became very oversteery into slow corners, Hamilton clawed back all the deficit and more. Had the McLarens been on Michelins in 2007, would Lewis have looked anything like the force he was, or would Alonso's ease with the Michelins have allowed him to dominate?
What if Juan Pablo Montoya hadn't flounced off mid-season '06 and stayed at McLaren in '07, alongside Alonso? JPM's style, like Hamilton's, would have been perfectly suited to the Bridgestones, but he'd been on Michelins his whole F1 career. Imagine: he'd have been able to drive instinctively against a team-mate - Alonso - with a big reputation but who took time to adapt to the Bridgestones. Montoya would have looked mega.
Yes, a great driver can adapt and Alonso did. But it took him most of that 2007 season. Kimi Raikkonen's reputation went downhill fast at Ferrari because he never did fully adapt to a car that didn't put heat into its front tyres quickly enough, against a team-mate - Massa - who could maintain big momentum with understeer. So if Massa could do that then, why not this year? Because this time, his front tyres have not even been in their working temperature range, and so never 'switched on'.
Robert Kubica looked great on grippy, understeery tyre war Michelins in '06, but struggled in '07 on oversteery control Bridgestones. In '08 he adapted his style and was again superb, but it was not his natural way. This year's smaller front tyres have gone some way to allowing him to revert back - and he's frequently looked like the giant we glimpsed at the end of '06, someone who can take more entry speed than anyone.
If next year's control tyres have suitable characteristics, he could easily be the world's fastest driver. If they are not, he could look ordinary. Michael Schumacher will now understand this very well.
To continue reading this feature, join Autosport Plus today.
Are you an Autosport magazine subscriber? Activate your online account
- Your Autosport Plus membership includes:
- Unlimited access to Autosport's news - no monthly cap.
- Read the best motorsport features, analysis and opinion.
- Explore Forix, our comprehensive motorsport stats database.
- Choose from a monthly or yearly membership.