Feature: Why there are good points in F1 points for everyone
Let me tell you a story.
I was at the BARC club meeting at Thruxton last weekend. It included Caterham Graduates races. And that championship’s points system goes thus: 30 for the win, then down by one for each place – 29 for second, 28 for third etc etc - to five for placing 26th, as well as four on offer for all other finishers, two for those starting but not finishing a race and finally one point for those who qualified but fail to take the start.
It wasn’t entirely alone either – Mighty Minis and Kumho BMWs among others had not dissimilar systems.
And the possibility emerged over the Silverstone weekend that Formula 1 could veer in their direction. Force India boss Vijay Mallya let the cat out of the bag that F1’s considering, rather than the current top 10, that the top 15 or even all 20 cars get points if they finish – “the bottom starts with one point and then goes up,” Mallya said.
Much of the reaction to this has been negative, and it’s easy to work out why. F1’s idiom is that there are no free lunches; everything – points most of all – should be earned. Just handing them out to all-comers is akin to one of those school sports days where everyone gets a prize so they don’t feel left out.
Yet as for the point of my initial story, which I’d imagine you’ve worked out by now, points for everyone in motorsport series is far from uncommon.
Yes, you may be retorting, it’s different in club events which are more about participation than raw performance and you’re dealing with people with tight budgets who need an incentive to show up? That’s true, but points for all happens in bigger motorsport forms too, not least in America’s two largest series NASCAR and IndyCar.
In both everyone gets at least something from their weekend – in NASCAR it ratchets from 40 points for the win down to one for those classified 36th and lower (and they don’t necessarily have to have finished, in apparent variation to the F1 suggestion). IndyCar does similar, from 50 for the win to five for 25th and below.
One drawback of such a system is that a driver or team’s first point, always a milestone, would suddenly not be one. Fernando Alonso pointed out as an example what a popular achievement Jules Bianchi’s ninth place for Manor at Monaco in 2014 was.
Yet, while we should whisper it, a move to points for everyone would also have benefits. Plenty of them.
If we are working on the premise that the championship table is a meritocracy then why should a single 10th place count for more over a season than any number of 11th places?
The first point is to ask what is so special about finishing in the top 10? And why should finishing below it in effect render your efforts worthless? Scoring only up to 10th is inescapably an arbitrary level. And it’s not just a touchy-feely point, as having an arbitrary hero or zero cut off point brings tangible problems.
The main one is that if we are working on the premise that the championship table is a meritocracy then why should a single 10th place count for more over a season than any number of 11th places?
The fight of tail end teams Caterham/Lotus, Virgin/Marussia/Manor and HRT used to neatly encapsulate the matter. In their day there were more than 10 competing teams and getting into the top 10 of the final constructors’ placings was linked to all sorts of financial benefits. For the squads mentioned this became the main aim of the season, possibly a matter of team life and death.
And yet. It wasn’t any sort of standard fight, due to their low probability of scoring and also due to ‘countback’. Constructors’ placings instead tended to come down to who had the best solitary individual finish. Just as a single 10th place would trump any number of 11th places, a single 11th place would trump any number of 12th places and so on.
Therefore the prize pot usually was decided by who got a finishing place early in the season when attrition generally was higher. Some teams’ seasons were therefore in effect over after a few rounds. For example in 2011 even though Virgin was almost always faster than HRT, HRT’s 13th place in the crazy Canadian race trumped anything Virgin could do and HRT thus finished ahead in the table. It looked like Virgin – by now called Marussia – would in turn do the same to Caterham the following year until in the equally crazy Interlagos season-closer Heikki Kovalainen’s 11th place finish got his team ahead.
Points given out to all would halt this nonsense and put all teams into a proper battle for every single place.
Also the trend over time has been to extend the number of F1 cars scoring and for good reason. Back in the day – roughly until the early 2000s – routinely half or more of the grid would not reach the end of races, therefore opening up opportunities for the rest to score. By contrast reliability these days is near-absolute. Opening the scoring up more therefore seems a logical extension.
Likely falling into the trap of liking whatever F1 was doing when you were younger the 10-6-4-3-2-1 system in use from 1991 to 2002 always gets instinctive affection from me. Yet at more sober moments I release that were it used today it would stink. Because of the reliability point in harness with that the ‘big three’ teams Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull barely occupy the same planet as the rest.
'When the number of cars awarded points went from six to eight in 2003, it was a real help for the teams. It meant you had something to sell to the sponsors, since going into a meeting and being able to say you had 20 points is much better than saying you had picked up a load of sevenths and eighths but with nothing to show for it.' - Gary Anderson
The big three would therefore almost entirely monopolise the points. Nico Hulkenberg, currently sitting pretty as best of the rest with 42 points, would with this old system have just three. Haas would be fourth in the constructors’ table with a mere nine points – five of those coming from one round in Austria.
And it’s not a point to be sniffed at, as Gary Anderson recently explained. “When the number of cars awarded points went from six to eight in 2003, it was a real help for the teams,” he said. “It meant you had something to sell to the sponsors, since going into a meeting and being able to say you had 20 points is much better than saying you had picked up a load of sevenths and eighths but with nothing to show for it.”
Also the rarer the opportunities to score the greater their potential to distort. Take again as a demonstration the 10-6-4-3-2-1 system. If we apply it to 2018’s results then Alonso all of a sudden would only have two points this year and would not have scored since Melbourne’s season-opener. Pierre Gasly, by dint purely of three points for coming fourth in Bahrain, would leapfrog him. Sergio Perez with his third in Baku would leapfrog them both.
Another benefit – albeit one dependent on the extent that Mallya’s “finishers” is intended literally – is that the current system heavily punishes a rare non-finish or severe delay when it does occur (you can ask Max Verstappen about this one). Currently 25 points lost to a rival who wins when you get nothing takes four races to make up even if you win them all so long as your foe follows you home in second. Before with the 10-6-4-3-2-1 it took only two and a half rounds in that scenario to claw the loss back. Giving non-finishers or delayed ones something to show for their weekend would mitigate this.
On deeper exploration there are potential auxiliary benefits. Dreaded grid penalties could become a thing of the past. Really – whether it’s replacement engine and gearbox parts or for driving standards with everyone scoring it suddenly becomes a lot easier to deter these things with points penalties – which also surely is the most satisfactory sanction on a number of levels. The current argument against points deductions is ‘well what about those drivers/teams that never score?’
Drivers parking late in races to ‘save engines and gearboxes’ would be consigned to history as well. And as is the case in NASCAR and IndyCar – and was the case in F1 in 2005 when race order dictated the one-by-one qualifying order for the following race – teams almost no matter the problem or delay in a race will have more of an incentive to fix it and get the car back out, in turn giving the fans more cars to look at.
Dreaded grid penalties could become a thing of the past. Whether it’s replacement engine and gearbox parts or for driving standards with everyone scoring it suddenly becomes a lot easier to deter these things with points penalties.
Might it be confusing, and make mental arithmetic of a points table changes following a race result near impossible? Probably, but then again I’ve felt that way since the current system brought in for 2010. Even after this time I find myself on occasion checking the number of points a certain positon gets and I’d like to think I’m more of an anorak than most. Plus in an average F1 race broadcast points projections should the current placings stay as they are appear on screen pretty regularly. It also doesn’t appear to cause much bother in the other series mentioned.
F1’s points system has evolved over time though and did for a long while at least have a family resemblance. It started with 8-6-4-3-2 for the top five and one for fastest lap. Come 1960 that one point was instead transferred to the guy who finished sixth (not convinced that was a good move) and by the following year the winner got an extra point, giving us the 9-6-4-3-2-1 system that survived all the way through to 1990.
Though it wasn’t perfect continuity as various systems of dropping worst scores were in place too – which in turn could make championship permutations both confusing and sometimes silly (in 1988 Alain Prost set the then record for points scored in a season, but due to dropped scores missed out on that year’s title to Ayrton Senna). Only in 1991, for the first time ever, did all scores count and that year another point was added for the winner.
Come 2003 the system changed again as Anderson noted, though notably the change also meant there were now just two points between the 10 for winning and eight for second. Plenty reckoned that was inspired by Michael Schumacher winning the previous two titles by mid-summer (to give you some kind of reference in 2002 he wrapped it up on July 21 which is just next weekend) and a desire to keep the matter open for longer.
But in 2010 there was a grand departure to the system apparently in order to again create more of a gap between winning and coming second. And they settled on the points for victory ballooning to 25 and points being awarded right down to 10th place.
It rendered points records and comparisons over time meaningless, to the point that when Alonso broke the all-time total points mark in late 2013 and came to the next race with a helmet livery marking the fact, it was met with a round of mirth. There was double points too in 2014 but we won’t go there…
Yet for the purposes of this change to points for everyone it’s a final boon – we wouldn’t lose a historic continuity thread, as we’d lost it long ago anyway.