Why drivers matter in Formula 1S

A few years ago I was a regular on a popular internet forum. To protect my dignity, I won't say which. There were heated discussions of most sports, from ice hockey to association football. But there wasn't a single mention of my favourite sport, in my view the pinnacle of human competition: Formula 1.

I started a topic asking why nobody seemed interested. The greatest drivers in the world, pushing each other to the limit on circuits from Belgium to Texas, in cars that ride the razor's edge between success and self-destruction. What's not to love?

The first response was immediate, sarcastic and damning: "Sure, drivers are important in Formula 1. Just not as important as the tyres." The next few responses agreed, and the discussion died a fast and painful death.

It's bugged me ever since. Not because what they said didn't make sense, but because it did. When a driver wins in Formula 1, is it because they've done a better job than their rivals, or because they were given better equipment? It's a question that never really goes away.

Lewis Hamilton's move from McLaren to Mercedes at the end of 2012 gives fans a perfect opportunity to see just how important drivers are, using Jenson Button's performances in the other McLaren as a yardstick to measure how new signing Perez stacks up against the 2008 champion. What difference does it make replacing the fastest driver on the grid with a young gun who's yet to prove himself?

A huge difference, as it turns out. In the four races so far this season, Perez has been outqualified by Button every time and has only finished ahead of the Brit once, after a fighting drive in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Together with Button's results – qualifying around tenth each time, and finishing a couple of positions above or below – this has given the impression that McLaren's current car is a dog, closer to midfield teams like Force India than to front-runners Red Bull, Lotus and Ferrari.

Yet in the four races between Barcelona and Valencia last year, where Button was performing at a similar level to this season, Hamilton won a race, was denied an almost-certain win by a team fuelling error, and fought for podiums in the other two. Journalists declared his MP4-27 the fastest car on the grid.

Two seasons, similar results for Button. In one instance the car has been written off as a failure, in the other it was hailed as the quickest thing since Speedy Gonzales. All because of the performances of guy in the other car.

More often than not, people take the shine off a great driver's performances by giving the credit to his car – just ask three-time champion Sebastian Vettel. But fans and journalists alike should give less credit to wheel nuts, and more to the nuts holding the wheels.

Because sure, tyres are important in Formula 1. Just not as important as the drivers.