Why the “medals” system might not be so bad

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.


  1. one supporting argument for the medal system – a fluke win will not win a title for anybody, unless we have each race won by somebody else. but look at how close to winning title was Kimi few years back while winning only a single race

    what would be the order in 2008 with the medal sysyem in place ?

    1. Massa
    2. Hamilton
    3. Raikkonen
    4. Alonso
    5. Kubica
    6. Kovalainen
    7. Vettel

    Yes, the champion would be Massa because of the extra win, but I am sure that with a fifty fifty situation going into the final race the McLaren tactic for Brazil would be very different 🙂

    What esle is different ? Winless Heidfeld drops behind the race winner.

    I would say pretty fair order we would have …

    calling this idea “medal system” is a bit weird but you say, it may not be that bad

  2. Two points:

    1. Great to see more people coming around to the ‘medals’ argument. I’ve been banging that drum since I started F1 Fanatic!

    2. Retro-actively applying the ‘medals’ system (or any other points system) to past seasons in order to prove ‘what would have happened’ is a classic fallacy. We all know drivers adjust their tactics in accordance with the scoring system to maximise their chances of winning the title.

    It’s more instructive to look at occasions where the medal system might have caused drivers to use different tactics. Would Massa have let Hamilton by so easily at Hockenheim? Would Hamilton have been so conservative at Singapore and Interlagos? I say ‘no’ on all three counts, and I think the net effect of these changes would be good for the sport.

  3. I agree with you, however as far as I can tell all Bernie has really said on this has outlined a very basic proposal.

    Personally, I can’t see the need to get worked up one way or another until he actually comes out with anything concrete which explains literally everything – at the moment it seems to me that people are arguing over their interpretation of how a medal system would work rather than how it really would operate.

  4. Unfortunately we also get the situation where it is much easier to manipulate the system (Massa would have won 2008 in a straight medal substitution purely because of a stewarding decision that broke the conventional position given to the drivers and also the “new position” generated post-Spa). In addition, it means unless a driver is likely to match or beat their personal-best position for the year, there’s absolutely no incentive to race.

  5. Essentially, you’re arguing for an increase in the difference between points awarded for first and second places, Doctor. And virtually every F1 fan would agree with that.

    To merely count up the number of wins to decide the championship is too simplistic, however, giving a huge advantage to the guy with the best car (and that advantage is big enough already) and ignoring the fate of those who achieve miracles in lesser cars. Keke Rosberg!

    This business of drivers not trying for wins is nonsense anyway. It may be true that the leader in the championship takes it easy in the final one or two races of the season but, believe me, he’s done his trying to win in every race before that! And it will still be true once a driver gets enough wins to be champion – will happen earlier in the year, most likely.

    The medals system is a wrong answer to a problem that doesn’t exist.

  6. I agree with Clive, the medals system would reward cars more than drivers.

    I think consistency *should* be rewarded. I’d rather see the points system extended: 1 point for 20th place, 2 points for 19th etc. so that every place counts for the Hondas and Force Indias of the grid.

  7. Alianora, I don’t know if there is not necessarily any incentive to race if a driver is unlikely to match their personal best result again. For one thing, if they are tied on their PB with another driver, they will still need to collect another “second-best” result. Then what about drivers that are catching them up from behind in the championship? They’ll still want to get the results to put a stop to that, even if they don’t think they’ll match their best result, just in case their other rivals can.

    Clive, as I see it there are a couple of problems with merely increasing the number of points for a win. First of all, how many points? F1 runs the risk of turning into Nascar where drivers score thousands of points over the course of the season. Fred B’s suggestion of having a point for 20th place would undoubtedly lead to that.

    Then, when you get lower down the field, presumably there will still be positions which are separated by only a point. That might be suitable for something like 10th -> 9th place, but what about 5th -> 4th?

    We could always go back to the 10-6-4… system. But that would probably be unpopular as it does no reward anyone who does not finish in the top 6. It seems to me that one of the most popular aspects of the current system is the fact that lower down teams can occasionally score points. Reverting to the old system would almost entirely eradicate that.

    Plus, a 4 point gap is still not really enough between 1st and 2nd in my view. 1.67 2nd places would be equivalent to one win, which is patently not enough.

    Perhaps a good solution would be to make each position worth double the previous one (even though, in my view, two 2nds are not equivalent to a win). Let us say, for the sake of argument, that we keep one point for 8th place. The system would go like this.


    But 128 points for a win? That’s definite Nascar territory. And given that I still think this overvalues 2nd place, and is therefore a ‘moderate’ version of the system I’d like to see, I think it’s worth seriously considering adopting the medals system rather than simply increasing the amount points dished out again and again.

    Fred B, as I pointed out in the post, the medals system would reward drivers throughout the grid so long as they finished a race, without resorting to the need to dole out points like candy.

  8. Let’s not over-complicate things, Doctor. It’s a matter of opinion (and always will be) just how much more a win is worth compared to second place – I would say that two second places are definitely worth more than a win. But then one of my old heroes was Chris Amon…

    So much depends on the circumstances, anyway – to finish second in an inferior car is more impressive than the winner’s drive in the best car on the circuit, whereas a number 2’s routine drive to second, half a minute behind his team leader, is not very inspiring.

    To be fair to all, the points system works best, especially if two or three more points were to be given for winning. Any more than that and you might as well be handing out medals. It is fine adjustment of a system that has worked well enough for fifty years that is needed, not a radical change such as the one Bernie proposes.

  9. What I find difficult to understand about it is how on earth do we convey the results in a table mid-way through the season?

    It’s very clear at the moment who is first, who is second and so on because the number of points after their name tells us so. If we’ve got 3 different race winners after the third race of next season, how do we show the rest within the table?

    Are these three shown has having “1” and the rest having “0”?

  10. I don’t think that would be such a problem Neil. After all, many sports fans are well accustomed to seeing, for instance, football league tables with multiple columns.

    One good solution would be to have one column each for gold, silver and bronze, then another column for the next-best result in the event of a tie from the medal positions.

    Just as an example, let’s use this year’s results as they stood after the third race of the 2008 season, when there were three different winners. The top five would look like this:

    Pos Driver G S B Next best
    1 Raikkonen 1 1 0
    2 Hamilton 1 0 0 5th
    3 Massa 1 0 0
    4 Kubica 0 1 1
    5 Heidfeld 0 1 0
  11. @ Keith – you perhaps missed my point or I did not make it clear enough when I listed that table how would the rankings look this year if the medals were used.

    what I wanted to say is that in general the order would not be too different, so the final results would still be quite fair. and then comes the positive part (where I agree with you as well) – “We all know drivers adjust their tactics in accordance with the scoring system to maximise their chances of winning the title.” – Hamilton would definitelly approach the final few races more agressive than he did this year, knowing that he simply must win more races than his closest rival …and that is what we want.

    I sure do not like many things that Ecclestone is doing to F1 these days, but I am really starting to like this medal idea

    @ Clive – miracles in lesser cars – well we always want to see that but the ultimately the chapmionship is about winning, isn’t it ?

  12. At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Thinking I couldn’t live without points by my side.

    Your arguments and the provided examples are so convincing that I eager to see the new season with this medals stuff.
    Great job!

  13. By the way vee, I would really love to see the option of subscribe to comments by mail. There are plenty of plugins to do that, and it would enhance your loyal commenters’ experience.

  14. I am totally against the medals system whether or not medals are awarded. Bernie may be championing it this time but this is a re-hash of a system Max suggested 15 years ago that a win would be worth ten times a second place and a second worth 10 thirds etc. How he got from that position to the point where he changed the 10, 6 etc system to the 10, 8, 6 etc system I don’t know.

    The medals system is too easy to fiddle. This season officially Massa won 6 to Hamilton’s 5. In reality Massa should have had a drive through at Valencia and then there was Spa where he would have been given gold despite never leafing the race. The real score should have been 7:4 to Hamilton. Fortunately the points system saved us from the FIA donating yet another championship to Ferrari.

    Only giving points for the first three positions which is effectively what this system is, is insane particulary as we are getting closer to the stage where each of the top teams has influence over four cars. Imagine for example McLaren build an awesome car and Force India have access to the key parts. Ron Dennis can now appoint the champion and any other team has to hope two ‘McLarens’ drop out before they have a chance of a single point. Medals make no sense whatever.

    Imagine 1982 when 11 drivers won races and the most anyone won was 2. I know that drivers may change the driving to reflect the points system but not to the extent that 11 winners drop significantly. How are you going to sort out 11 drivers using a medals system? In such a season you could have someone win 2 races and never be onthe podium again especially in a situation like that season where Villeneuve died and Pironi was seriously injured. You could have someone score 2 wins and nothing else and someone else score one win 5 seconds and 4 thirds. Should the guy who won two and maybe died in the third race be champion or at least above the other?

    What happens if you have a season like 2002 where Schumacher just disappeared into the distance at every race. With medals the season would be finished after 8 or 9 races.

    You have to consider the negative implications of the medals system as well as the potential positives.

  15. Steven:
    The ‘medals system’ gives points to every driver, it’s just that only the first three have proper ‘medals names’. Just take the table on comment 10 and make it 20 columns wide. Of course, most of the time it will suffice with 3 or 4 columns to do the job as doctorvee did.

    1982 (as 2002) where one on a kind of championships. With any point system you will find a situation at which there will be a ‘non-wanted’ result. And as every single person has his own idea of what should not happen (or what is ‘fair’), any point system will end up being ‘unfair’ for somebody. Let me remember you that Schumacher actually ended the season pretty early in 2002, with or without medal system. That’s the reason why we have today the 10,8,6 system (which didn’t prevented him of taking the 2003 and 2004 titles anyway…)

    At the end, I agree with the concept that says that drivers will adapt to the system in use. Give them a 10,9,8 system and they will cruise to the best non-risking position, give them a 10,0 system and they will kill each other for the first place (Ok, that’s extreme, but you get the idea).
    And in any system the best driver with the best car will disappear in the distance…

    I actually don’t care the system in use, but I’ll rather prefer one rewarding a more ‘aggressive’ approach to the races than one that rewards mostly the consistency. One that could be interesting to think about is this (used in Argentina in a stock-car series): you use a point system that rewards ‘fairly’ the consistence (the present F1 would be fine), but you can’t be champion if you don’t win a race in the year. But this is only useful when you have a series in which ANYBODY can have a shot to the win (which is not the case of F1 today).

  16. Bernie apparently said to The Times that he has the backing of all teams and the FIA on his proposal.
    I have been trying to find any comments from teams or drivers on the “medal” system without any success. Has anyone else seen a reaction or comment from teams or drivers?

  17. I understand why Bernie is trying to find a solution but he is trying to fix a aerodynamic issue by changing how the points are handled. Fix the real problem first, the turbulence created by the leading car. Get rid of that and you’ll have more draft passing and closer racing. THEN, and only then should you consider messing with how the points are handed out.