Background It is commonly accepted that embryonic segmentation of vertebrates is regulated by a segmentation clock, which is induced by the cycling genes Hes1 and Hes7. Their products form dimers that bind to the regulatory regions and thereby repress the transcription of their own encoding genes. An increase of the half-life of Hes7 protein causes irregular somite formation. This was shown in recent experiments by Hirata et al. In the same work, numerical simulations from a delay differential equations model, originally invented by Lewis, gave additional support. For a longer half-life of the Hes7 protein, these simulations exhibited strongly damped oscillations with, after few periods, severely attenuated the amplitudes. In these simulations, the Hill coefficient, a crucial model parameter, was set to 2 indicating that Hes7 has only one binding site in its promoter. On the other hand, Bessho et al. established three regulatory elements in the promoter region. Results We show that – with the same half life – the delay system is highly sensitive to changes in the Hill coefficient. A small increase changes the qualitative behaviour of the solutions drastically. There is sustained oscillation and hence the model can no longer explain the disruption of the segmentation clock. On the other hand, the Hill coefficient is correlated with the number of active binding sites, and with the way in which dimers bind to them. In this paper, we adopt response functions in order to estimate Hill coefficients for a variable number of active binding sites. It turns out that three active transcription factor binding sites increase the Hill coefficient by at least 20% as compared to one single active site. Conclusion Our findings lead to the following crucial dichotomy: either Hirata's model is correct for the Hes7 oscillator, in which case at most two binding sites are active in its promoter region; or at least three binding sites are active, in which case Hirata's delay system does not explain the experimental results. Recent experiments by Chen et al. seem to support the former hypothesis, but the discussion is still open.