Medals or points, to be or not to be

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Medals or points, to be or not to be

Recently the FIA published an analysis of the medal system as proposed by Bernie Ecclestone. It revealed that a medal system would have had a serious impact on the results of the past 59 years of Formula 1. It would have changed the result of 37...

Recently the FIA published an analysis of the medal system as proposed by Bernie Ecclestone. It revealed that a medal system would have had a serious impact on the results of the past 59 years of Formula 1. It would have changed the result of 37 out of 59 championships. According to the FIA analysis we now would have three new World Champions, Stirling Moss, Didier Pironi and Felipe Massa.

Nelson Piquet.
Photo by Jean-Philippe Legrand.

I don't like the idea of comparing the current points system with the medals system on past Formula 1 seasons, as it is a bit like trying to rewrite history. It is also not fair to the drivers involved: with a medal system Nelson Piquet would not have been a triple world champion, people might be tempted to think he wasn't a such good driver after all and shouldn't have been crowned a triple world champion - and that is of course a horrible misconception. Nelson Piquet was a worthy F1 champion in all respects, and the FIA analysis of the medal system doesn't change that at all.

Mr. Ecclestone argues that with a medal system in place drivers will give it "their all" to win the race, and that would improve the spectacle and spectators would see more overtaking. Let's make one thing very clear before we look at the pros and cons of the medal system: a Formula 1 driver always wants to win races and always wants to win the championship, the motivation of a race driver is always the same - winning - and does not depend on any points counting system whatsoever. He won't go faster if he gets a medal instead of a trophy and points or vice versa.

People in favour of the medal system always come up with two examples, the 1958 and 1982 championships.

In 1958, Mike Hawthorn became World Champion, and people in favour of the medal system argue it should have been Stirling Moss, because he won four races and Hawthorn only won one race. Tony Brooks scored three wins, so he would have been in second place with only 24 points, and Hawthorn in third place with 1 win and 42 points.

First of all, the points system in 1958 included the rule "the best six results count towards the championship" - which meant for Hawthorn that he ended up with 42 points instead of 49 points under normal rules, Moss became second with 41 points, without any points being deducted of his total as a result of this rule. So, to put things in the right perspective, in reality the score was 49 to 41 and not 42 to 41.

Furthermore, Moss did not finish 4 out of the 10 races that year (and that is exactly the reason why the "best of six races" rule did not affect his points total), Hawthorn only had one DNF, the GP of Germany. Points system or wins-only system would not have made a difference in terms of "excitement", in both cases the championship would have been decided during the last race, both Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks had scored three wins before the start of the Moroccan Grand Prix.

And yes indeed, the question remains: was it fair that Hawthorn won the championship and not Moss? Hawthorn with 49 points in third place, Brooks with 24 points in second place and Stirling Moss with 41 points the World Champion? It somehow just doesn't sound right to me.

Which brings me to the another famous example of a "is it fair or not" championship, the disastrous 1982 season. In that year Keke Rosberg became World Champion with only one win and only 44 points out of the total of 144 points that could have been scored in those 16 races.

But can we blame Rosberg for the fact that Ferrari lost Gilles Villeneuve at Zolder and Didier Pironi couldn't defend his title aspirations as a result of his terrible accident at the Hockenheimring? Was it Rosberg's (political) decision for the FOCA teams not to race in San Marino where Pironi scored his first out of two wins for Ferrari that year? In this case a famous statement by Juan Pablo Montoya seems in place: "What can you do? Shit happens".

Keke Rosberg.
Photo by Jean-Philippe Legrand.

And again, medal or points system, the championship would have been decided at the last race, the Las Vegas Grand Prix. For me, Didier was the moral winner of the 1982 championship - he wasn't able to defend his leading position because of his accident - and it must have been horrible for him to watch Keke Rosberg take the championship while he was sitting at home with two badly fractured legs.

And 1982 was a very close championship, Pironi scored two wins and two second places, John Watson and Alain Prost also had two wins and two second places, but Pironi scored 2 third places, Watson one and Prost had no third place at all. With a wins-only scheme Pironi indeed would have been the 1982 World Champion, albeit with only 39 points.

And there is another case of "is it fair or not": in 1984 Alain Prost lost the World Championship to Niki Lauda, with only a half-point difference, Prost won seven races, Lauda five. Again, regardless of the points system used, the championship would have been settled during the final race in Portugal. At the time I never heard anyone complain about the points system being unfair. Not even Prost or Lauda themselves.

In 2003 there was a change in the points system, from then on the first 8 positions were rewarded with points, the difference between first and second place used to be 3 points (9 and 6), but was reduced to 2 points (10 and 8).

And do you remember why was that done? Because we were getting bored by the dominance of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher (sorry Michael...), who won race after race and made the championship more or less unattractive. So the FIA decided to decrease the points gap between first and second place, and added a reward for seventh and eight place, hoping it would be easier for other drivers to keep up with Schumacher and thus making the championship more exciting. You could also say the FIA actually made it more difficult to win the championship. With a wins-only system it will become easier to win the championship.

But let's go back to today's Formula 1. I don't share the opinion that races would be more exciting as a result of a wins-only scheme. The FIA analysis shows that in 8 cases the championship would have been decided later, and in 13 cases would been decided earlier in the season. The 2008 championship was decided at the last corner of the last lap of the last race, you can't get it more exciting then that, can you?

Bernie Ecclestone was specifically speaking of a medal system, meaning only the first three places are awarded with a medal. No points are awarded, just medals. And how should spectators judge whether Mark Webber is better then Jarno Trulli, or anyone else, if they have no points? We need something for comparison, awarding points is the most obvious and also most fair and widely spread method to achieve that.

Eddie Jordan, Gerhard Berger and Jackie Stewart already said it in the media, small teams are very motivated to score that one point they get for the 8th place, without it there is nothing to fight for. Ask Webber, Alonso, Heidfeld, Kubica, Button or Vettel what scoring that first point meant for them. They all celebrated their first point as if they won the championship.

And what about the Constructors' Championship? Also medals and no points? And if we still use a points system for the Constructors Championship, we might as well do the same for the Drivers' Championship, it's a bit weird to use two different systems at the same time. In A1GP drivers get medals, but they still use a points system to determine who becomes the champion, the medal is the symbol for victory, and nothing more.

Podium: race winner Niki Lauda.
Photo by Jean-Philippe Legrand.

So, in a nutshell, I have many questions and reservations about this proposed medal system, I'm not saying it is a bad idea, and I'm not saying it's a good idea either, but I think the question should be: Should a driver win the world championship by points or by counting his victories? I honestly don't know the answer to that question.

But, if I were a Formula One driver, I would like to see a nice big shining trophy on my mantelpiece and not a medal on the wall. And how on earth can you drink your champagne from a medal? You need a trophy for that...

FIA's analysis can be found here:
http://www.fia.com/public/medal_analysis_results.pdf

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Series GENERAL , F1