I observed at the end of the F1 season that, although I did warm to James Allen somewhat over his years in the commentary box, I have more time for him as a columnist than as a race commentator. Happily, therefore, he has started a rather excellent blog on F1, which shows every sign of flourishing – certainly I am getting into the habit of checking it.
At the moment there are two consecutive posts on there between which, rather surprisingly, nobody has drawn a connection. The first concerns Bernie Ecclestone’s somewhat crazy plans for medals rather than points in F1; the second concerns the farce of the Austrian grand prix in 2002, when Rubens Barrichello infamously moved over for Micheal Schumacher’s benefit in the very final corner.
On the medals issue first, I understand that this scheme would do away with points altogether, at least for the drivers – I am unsure whether this would extend to the constructors’ title as well. This seems to me to run totally against the nature of F1: while F1 can at times be deeply exciting, it is more often interesting – not the same thing. To the regular or semi-regular viewer, much of the attraction lies in tracking the fortunes of drivers and teams all down the grid, including for the lesser points-scoring positions. By removing any significance from the finishing order from fourth downwards, much of the interest will be removed from F1. This is a particularly bad idea at a time of new regulations, when the field is likely to be spread out and only two – at most three – teams are likely to be challenging for wins: the medals positions will always be filled by three of the four same drivers. Removing the strategic, long-game element of F1 can surely only be a mistake.
Secondly, awarding the title to the driver with he most wins will put grand prix victories at a premium. Ecclestone’s argument that this will encourage overtaking is bizarre: if racing drivers can overtake, they usually do – the rarity of decisive passes for the lead of a grand prix is down to the cars being closely matched and their fundamental aerodynamic characteristics. The new regulations should address the latter point – whether it will produce a lot of overtaking for the top positions remains to be seen. But how many times have we actually seen – as Ecclestone implies happens all the time – a driver in second place who would be capable of passing the leader, but decides against it to collect a safe eight points? I’m struggling to think of any examples at all, other than where the two cars belong to the same team.
But putting wins at such a premium will not only fail to bring the predicted benefit: it will also add new dangers. It will create a massive incentive for team orders, to repeat the Barrichello situation (I wonder if that term – “a Barrichello situation” – could be coined to cover similar dilemmas in the future?). Now, the FIA would not stand for this… but there could be a glut of bungled pit-stops, unforced driver errors or inexplicable technical faults afflicting leading drivers. It would also make teams think twice about their line-ups: having two race-winners already creates a risk of drivers taking points off each other, which cost Ferrari the title this year and has cost McLaren in the past; but if they start taking wins off each other the problem will be even more obvious. Teams with race-winning cars will be handed a clear incentive to hire one top driver, and one not-so-good one – this will leave some of the sport’s top talent shut out from competitive seats (as effectively the number of competitive seats available to them will be halved), and deny us a lot of excitement in racing, and variety in race winners.
It’s madness. At least the last time they changed the scoring system it was in response to a real problem, namely the deathly dull 2002 season and Schumacher’s easy canter to the title. But we’ve just come off the back of the best F1 season in years, and probably as good a show as the category is capable of producing. Why tinker with it? OK, admittedly the rule changes already constitute tinkering – but there are at least good answers to the question “why?” there, to do with overtaking and costs. The scoring system has, however, proved its worth. Constant changes undermine the sport’s credibility over the long term: even with awarding points down to eighth, it’s awkward – under the current system, Eddie Irvine would have been world champion in 1999, so previous results are questioned. Perhaps the answer is to go back to 10-6-4-3-2-1 if there must be change. But then, the last couple of years have shown that arguing for or against something in F1 on the grounds that it could undermine its credibility doesn’t get you very far.