Sunday, November 30, 2008

Points Mean Prizes?

In recent years, there has been a seemingly irresistible urge on the part of F1's governing body to meddle with Formula 1's rulebook. It reminds me of nothing so much as a hyperactive child who can't stop fidgeting, and as with the hyperactive child, I wonder how much of it is simply about trying to get attention.

I'm not talking about the technical regulations, which have always had to be amended every year or two, in an effort to keep one step ahead of the teams constant fight to make their cars ever faster. What I've become increasingly tired of is the constant fiddling with the format of the race weekend itself. It started in 2003, with the introduction of single-lap qualifying on race fuel and a change to the points-scoring system to award points to the first 8 finishers, rather than the first 6. Then, in quick succession, we had knock-out qualifying, the one-tyre-per-race rule, two race engines and a host of other rule adjustments which it seems only serve to make the sport more confusing (though regular readers will know that I happen to be in favour of the one-tyre rule).

The latest proposal, this time from Bernie Ecclestone rather than the blazers at the FIA, is that the points system for deciding the driver's championship should be done away with entirely and replaced with a 'medals' system, similar to that used (albeit only informally) to decide the winning country in the Olympics. My first reaction on hearing the news was that this was just Bernie floating a daft idea to get a bit of press coverage over the winter, though it now seems he's more serious about it than that. One can't help but wonder if Mr Ecclestone has been impressed by the Festival of Minor Sports' ability to extract sums from Governments to host the event that dwarf even F1's deals with such motorsporting capitals as, um, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.

Bernie has claimed that his proposed system for deciding the world championship is preferable to the current points-system because it will reward drivers for going all out for the win, rather than settling meekly for a good points finish rather than risking an accident in search of victory. Too many races, he argues, become dull processions because there's little incentive for title contenders to run the risk of actually racing each other. As the idea seems to be gaining some traction, I think it's worth explaining what is wrong with it, why it is not the answer to the problem which Bernie has identified.

The first, and most glaring problem is that under Bernie's 'medal' system, all places below 3rd become an irrelevance from the point of view of the driver's title. If the title contenders are fighting over 4th or 5th places, the result will be of no consequence. The battle between Massa and Hamilton at Monza this year wouldn't have counted for anything, neither would drives through the field by the pair of them at Fuji. Far from giving drivers more incentive to really race, it actually gives them less in some circumstances.

The second problem, in my eyes, is that it utterly rules out the possibility of a quick, consistent driver sneaking away with the title in an inferior car. This year, Robert Kubica remained in the title battle until the penultimate round in a car that really had no business being there - by being consistent and by always extracting the most from what he had. Come to that, I still think Kimi Raikkonen's best season in F1 came back in 2003, when he nearly stole the title from under Michael Schumacher's nose in a year old Mclaren. He only won one race, but then in the Mclaren MP4/17, that year, it was about as much as anyone could hope to achieve. That he nearly won the title anyway, was testament to an unerring consistency in a year when all his major rivals let points-scoring opportunities slip through their fingers.

That said, it is worth noting as Mark Hughes did in Autosport last week, that prior to this year, the 'medals' system would not actually have resulted in a different driver being crowned champion since 1989, when it would have handed the title to the faster but more erratic Ayrton Senna over his slower but more consistent team mate, Alain Prost. Who would have made the more worthy champion that year? A tough call, but it's certainly not obvious that Bernie's proposed method for deciding the drivers title produces fairer, more representative results. In fact, mostly, it produces exactly the same result - it just means the championship gets decided earlier. In 2003, for example, Schumacher, rather than fighting Montoya and Raikkonen right down to the wire, would have wrapped up the title with four or five rounds to go!

I happen to agree with Bernie Ecclestone that the current F1 points system does not adequately reward victories. A Grand Prix winner takes away only two more points than the guy who finishes second. And the difference between finishing first and second is the same as the difference between finishing second and third. The solution to this, though, is not to rewrite the rules so as to disregard any finish lower than a 3rd place, but instead to change the points system so as to reward wins more. The scoring system used by the World Rally Championship for many years - of 20-15-12-10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 would be ideal in my view. Ironically, of course, the points system used to reward race wins more in the days when a win got 10 points and a second place got 6, but that was changed in 2003 (it is widely thought at Bernie's behest) because it was felt that it resulted in the title being decided too early, after Schumacher dominated 2002 to such a degree that he had the title in the bag by early August.

Bernie Ecclestone's medals idea sounds to me like a cheap gimmick, and I don't believe it will do anything to improve the quality of the racing we see. Making overtaking easier might achieve that. Overzealous stewarding has much to answer for too. Not penalising drivers every time they go out on a limb and try to make a pass that doesn't quite come off would certainly encourage drivers to race each other. Let's hope the World Motorsport Council show sense when they meet next week and treat this idea with the contempt it deserves.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more, especially the last paragraph concerning the overzealous stewarding after the flag has fallen.
Belgium, Spa this year springs to mind as a clear case of Hamilton racing for a win and being penalised to ensure the title wasn't decided to early.
What the present stewards would have made of two drivers racing like Villeneuve and Arnoux did at Dijon all those years ago would probably beggar belief, and yet it was a wonderful moment whereby both drivers could still embrace without an animosity afterwards.
Bernie is going to have to come up with something better than his trivial tinkering especially if he wants to retain the interest of the public.

2:56 AM  

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