Formula One has probably never had a less popular rule than Bernie Ecclestone’s plan to offer double points for the final race of this season.
It has come under intense criticism from fans – 96% of F1 Fanatic readers opposed it – journalists, team managers and drivers past and present. Few will be disappointed that Ecclestone – however grudgingly – now intends to drop it.
But how should Formula One structure its points system? It’s a subject which tends to provoke a diverse range of opinion.
The point of a points system
‘The DNA of Formula One’ is an increasingly well-worn phrase. But the means by which points are distributed certainly qualifies as one of the sport’s fundamental characteristics.
It translates drivers’ and teams’ performance in the races into a final championship position. If any F1 rules deserve to be etched in stone, surely it should be this?
But the points system has importance beyond deciding who wins the titles. The constructors’ championship is linked to F1’s prize money distribution – a major bone of contention at the moment. Last year an eight-figure sum turned on which driver finished in 13th place in one round.
Drivers’ contracts often contain clauses based on their performance and that of their teams, which are measured by what position they occupy at different stages of the championship.
A lot of power is therefore invested in who finishes where, and that is decided by the points system.
The points system also shapes our perception of how well each driver is performing. For example, here’s how Lewis Hamilton’s championship position would differ under the past four points systems given the same results over the first 18 races:
|Points system||Hamilton’s lead||Value of a win in final race||Notes|
|2014||17 points||50 points|
|2010-13||17 points||25 points|
|2003-09||1 point||10 points|
|1991-02||13 points||10 points||Hamilton would already be champion|
Data from the F1 Fanatic Points Calculator:
What should a points system do?
Formula One cannot resist tampering with its points system. Since 1950 the value of a win has increased from eight to twenty-five points. Sixth place used to be worthless – it’s now valued the same as a win was in the first year of the championship.
At different times Formula One has awarded points for fastest lap, only allowed drivers to count their scores from a limited number of rounds, and offered double points for the last round.
This tinkering has usually been done with some goal in mind. But instead of making constant reactive changes, Formula One should have a goal in mind – a sense of which priorities matter when it comes to setting a points system. Here’s a few examples of what a points system should do.
Decide a worthy champion driver and team
The first thing a points system is expected to do is crown the correct champion. Of course this is subjective, but there have been past occasions when the circumstances of a championship outcome has raised questions over whether the points system is fair.
In 1958 and 1987, the world champion scored three fewer wins during the course of the season than one of his rivals, leading some to suggest that winning was undervalued by the points system.
Contrarily, in 1988 some questioned whether winning races was over-valued compared to scoring consistently. In that season each driver could only count their best 11 results from the 16 rounds. The runner-up in the world championship scored 87 points but had to drop 18. Had all the results counted, the runner-up’s tally of 105 points would have beaten the actual champion’s 94.
Ranking the drivers and teams
Behind the champions, does anyone care who finishes second, third and so on? Does it even matter?
These two questions may have different answers. The contest for second place in a championship is unlikely to inspire much public interest. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. When it comes to questions of contracts and prize money, it certainly does.
And it’s an area in which the current system arguably falls short. With points only being awarded to the top ten finishers, it’s become common to see some drivers and season end the year point-less.
As a fall-back, they are then ranked by who has the ‘most best results’, which was how last year Marussia took a lucrative tenth place in the championship by dint of having a single 13th place. This creates a ‘two-tier’ effect, where drivers who regularly finish near the front are rated based on the sum of their achievements throughout the year, and the rest simply need one good result to rank more highly.
The simpler a points system is, the easier it is for new fans to grasp. This is particularly important when it comes to motor racing because sports which take the form of one-versus-one competitions inevitably have simpler points systems.
A football fan watching his team knows they can only win, draw or lose, which in the English Premier League means three, one or zero points respectively. Motor racing points systems are almost inevitably going to be more complicated. In a football game there are three possible scoring combinations. Assuming Sunday’s race features 20 cars, there will be 2,432,902,008,176,640,000*.
There is therefore something to be said for not complicating the potential outcomes any further. The old ‘dropped scores’ system, for example, was a constant source of confusion – and continues to be, as this comment in response to a recent article demonstrates.
Keeping the championship alive
Should the points system be designed in such a way to ensure the championship is decided late in the year? This is a concern for television broadcasters, as they can expect to attract larger audiences the longer the championship remains in the balance.
This has become an increasing problem in recent years. More and more races have been added to the schedule – with a record-equalling 20 planned for next year – and mathematically the more races there are, the greater the chance the championship will be decided before the last race.
However skewing the points system too far in this manner can lead to accusations of unfairness. Double points for the final race of the season for this reason, but was strongly criticised by fans, which has to cast doubt on whether the anticipated gains in television audiences would actually happen if a down-to-the-wire finish were perceived to have been rigged.
NASCAR has taken the idea a stage further this year, introducing a complex knockout-style tournament at the end of the season, to ensure the title goes down to the final race every year. The results is a system which takes a lot of explaining.
In NASCAR, after the 26th race of the season, the 16 drivers who have won the most races go into contention for the championship (the 16th of these will be the points leader if they haven’t won any races). Each driver’s points total is re-set to 2000 points plus three points per win. After three more races the four lowest-scoring of these drivers are eliminated (unless they win one of those three races, in which case they continue). This process is repeated after two further sets of three races, leaving four drivers in contention for the championship at the final race.
NASCAR’s system guarantees every year will finish with drivers fighting for the championship at the final round. But as well as being very complicated, it leaves little room for the championship narrative to change from year to year, and makes the bulk of the early portion of the season irrelevant, particularly for drivers who score a couple of wins early on. It also still potentially undervalues winning – yesterday Ryan Newman came within two points of clinching the title without having won a single one of the season’s 36 races.
But given F1’s current obsession with gimmicks it would be no surprise if it devised its own version of this plan in the near future.
Example points systems
Before we get on to designing some points systems, let’s start by making a few assumptions. We are going to ensure each finishing position is awarded a different number of points, and to future-proof it we will assume that a race will feature 26 cars – the maximum currently permitted in Formula One.
Several other championships operate different points systems. For examples of these, and to see how the current F1 championship would look under them, see the Points Calculator:
The most basic way to fulfil this would be for each successive position to be worth one point more than the preceding place, like so:
By coincidence, this leaves a win still worth 25 points, as it is under the current system. The reduced gap between the different finishing positions also increases the possibility of the championship being decided later in the season.
This is the philosophy behind NASCAR’s points system, which gives 43 points to the winner down to one point for 43rd (and last) place. But significantly NASCAR does not have F1’s rule which prevents a driver from scoring if they fail to complete 90% of the race distance.
In F1 the high value given to lower finishing positions under this system could penalise a driver who wins a lot of races but also suffers several car failures.
So let’s see what happens if we progressively increase the gaps between each position.
In this points system the value of each place is worth one more than the preceding position:
This shows the limitation of even fairly simple mathematical systems – a win is now worth a rather cumbersome 325 points. And although the relative value of lower finishing positions has fallen, second place is still worth more than 92% of a win.
Let’s try to take the advantages of this system but smooth out the rough edges and restore the value of winning to something closer to what we have under the current system.
The following points system has simple round numbers for the top points positions, makes a win worth slightly more relative to second place than it is today, and gives points for every finisher barring the driver who comes in last on a full grid:
This seems like a good compromise. But I still think we can do better.
To me, the most important thing it should do is give the title of ‘champion’ to the most deserving driver. The definition of ‘champion’ is a person who “has defeated or surpassed all rivals in competition”. Therefore I believe it’s wrong to give the title to anyone other than the driver who wins the most races.
Having a points system is an obstacle to doing this, because it will always involve ascribing a value to a lower place finish which makes it comparable to a portion of a win. Giving each finishing position a points value is therefore always going to be arbitrary and open to criticism. Instead of trying to calculate how much finishing second, third and so on should be worth compared to winning, we should only consider the lower finishing positions when they become relevant.
Fortunately, F1’s existing rules and regulations already does exactly that in the event of a points tie between two drivers:
In the event of a tie the holder of the greatest number of second places will be taken into account and, if there is still the tie, the holder of the greatest number of third places and so on until a winner emerges.
FIA Sporting Regulations
For me, the solution to the question of which points system to use is not to have one at all. The true champion is the driver who wins the most races – so instead of giving points, we should use use the ‘tie breaker’ the FIA has already devised.
Every driver who finished a race would be ranked – behind the drivers with the fewest wins would be those with the most second places, then the most third places and so on. For example:
Of course under this system one driver or team who scored a lucky result may end up slightly higher in the championship order than they arguably deserve to. But that’s a sacrifice worth making because in exchange we will be certain that the champion will be the driver who’s done the most winning.
This system also does nothing to increase the chance of the championship being decided later in the year. I don’t care about that because I know whether the championship is decided or not is no impediment to great racing – look at the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix for an example.
And I know that by weighting the points system to make sure that the championship is decided at the last race every year will only make the spectacle of motor racing increasingly derivative and predictable. It’s better to let it happen naturally.
If there must be a points system, I think the ‘stepped’ one above offers some worthwhile improvements over the current system. And of course the nonsense of double points deserves a place in the dustbin of history.
But I say let’s make it simple. The champion should be the driver who wins the most races. End of story.
*i.e. 20 factorial, which is over 2.4 quintillion.
Over to you
What should F1’s points system set out to achieve? Pick which criteria matter most to you.
What are the most important things F1's points system should do?
- Be clear and simple to understand (7%)
- Award the same number of points per round (14%)
- Weight the points towards deciding the title at the final race (1%)
- Rank all the drivers and teams (30%)
- Decide a worthy champion driver and team (49%)
Total Voters: 333
How would you change F1’s points system? Would a NASCAR-style elimination system be an improvement? Have your say in the comments.
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