There has been a lot of talk recently about Bernie Ecclestone wanting to introduce a “medals system” whereby the driver who wins the most races wins the World Championship. I have been quite surprised at the amount of derision the suggestions has received from so many F1 fans. I know it’s a system that some have fantasised about having introduced and the arguments in favour of it seem pretty sound.
I suspect a lot of revulsion is surrounding the “medals” metaphor. It is a good metaphor in that it allows for the system to be explained really easily and quickly (rather than using that clunky, ugly word “winningest”). It is a bad metaphor in that it seemingly has some bad connotations, and it has allowed for a few misconceptions about the system to spread like wildfire.
I have grown fed up with the amount of times I have seen it said that the new system would not reward anyone who finished outside the top three. As far as I know, drivers won’t be awarded actual medals. The top three get trophies already. The “medals” will simply be metaphorical ones, existing only on championship table.
In fact, drivers will be rewarded for finishing in any position. If two drivers are tied on wins, then the number of 2nd places decide it. If they’re still tied they look at 3rd places. What happens if they’re still tied? You guessed it, they look at 4th places. And so on all the way down to 19th place. Even if you manage to trundle home in 19th place, it can ultimately contribute to your final championship position.
This shouldn’t need to be explained though. Why? Because this system is already in use in Formula 1 — except most people don’t realise it. Did you notice that Giancarlo Fisichella finished 19th in the championship even though he didn’t score a single point? He got that for finishing in 10th place more often than the other drivers who were on zero points.
Kimi Räikkönen was 3rd even though Robert Kubica in 4th scored the same number of points. The Finn triumphed over the Pole because of his extra win. Indeed, this is the very reason why Hamilton needed to take 5th in Brazil rather than settling for 6th. Being equal on points with Massa was not enough, because the Brazilian had taken more wins.
This is a quandary then. Here we have a system that is currently in use in Formula 1, and has been since the first World Championship in 1950, is being described in some quarters as being antithetical to everything that F1 is about. That is clearly a nonsense.
I think the reaction can at least partly be put down to the fact that some people are simply used to the idea of scoring points. But the advantage of having a points system is not clear to me. If we were to face the opposite situation, and switch from the “medals” system to a points system, what would be the rationale behind it?
One thing that the points system has going for it is that it rewards consistency. It seems fair enough that a driver who regularly finishes in a strong position but never quite manages to win (let us call him “NH”) is rewarded in comparison to the driver who gets one flukey win (“HK”).
But this is also the biggest flaw of the points system. Why risk going for a win rather than 2nd place when it only gains you two points? Why, indeed, go for 2nd rather than 3rd when that only gains you two points? Why plough on for 3rd rather than 4th for the sake of one point?
The medals system would not make a win worth merely two points more than a 2nd place. It would make it infinitely more desirable. No amount of 2nd places can compensate for a win you couldn’t clinch. Indeed, each and every position through the field would be infinitely more desirable than the next one, not worth just one extra point.
The 2006 season is a model example of the flaws of the points system. Fernando Alonso blasted his way through the first half of the season, winning six of the nine races up to Canada and picking up 2nd in the rest. With a hefty lead in the Championship, Alonso could afford to take it easy, so he did. He won just one more race all season.
Michael Schumacher could have hoovered up the wins for the rest of the season — as long as Alonso settled for 2nd, his championship was safe as houses. Not exactly a recipe for spicy racing. If you want to increase the amount of overtaking, introducing a medals system seems like a good way of doing it.
The thing about this debate that confuses me is the fact that most people already generally judge drivers on their ability to win races rather than score points. Take Sebastian Vettel. What will you remember about his 2008 season? It won’t take too long to work it out. It will be his victory in Monza. Impressive though his other results are, they pale into insignificance. Yet they make up almost three quarters of his Championship haul.
How about Alonso’s victory, in Japan (let us use this one since there was a fluke element to the Singapore victory)? Was this not the towering achievement of Alonso’s season? Would you say it was equal to the combined achievements of Australia and Hungary (where he scored five points each)? Maybe you do, but I don’t.
Now let’s take Nick Heidfeld. He has a lot of fans, and I count myself among them. But I think it’s fair to say that the opinion of him among the F1 community at large is that there is nothing particularly special about his talents. And yet, he has sackfuls of points to his name. Despite his success in finishing high up in the Championship standings, it seems that many observers have their lingering doubts.
And where do those doubts stem from? It’s not a huge leap to assume that what he really lacks in the mind of most is a race win. How many 2nd places does Nick Heidfeld need to become as good as he would be if he could win a race? The points system says just 1.25, in which case Heidfeld vaulted it long ago. The fans, though, say otherwise.
I’m not completely won over on the “medals” system yet. But it is clear that the current system simply does not value a win highly enough. Two measly extra points? That is wrong. A system that values a win infinitely more than a second place, as the medals system does, might be a bit overboard. But I’d argue that the difference in value between a win and a 2nd place should be much higher than 2. In that sense, I’d welcome the introduction of the medals system with open arms.