F1’s points thought bubble misses the point

Formula One’s new management is slowly trying to remodel the sport in its own image, but it’s not all smooth sailing.

The world’s premier motorsport category is fraught with division and political intrigue, and finding agreement amongst the relevant stakeholders is notoriously difficult.

Liberty Media, the company at the wheel for the last 18 months, has learnt this the hard way. Coming to the sport with an ambitious agenda, change has been gradual and mostly around the edges.

The implementation of new — and at times ostentatious — television graphics, improved at-track fan experiences and new digital offerings have all been big ticks, but substantive alterations to the product itself have been few and far between.

But slowly the sport is lining up its ducks, and as it does so it reveals glimpses of its vision for the sport from 2021, when the technical, sporting and commercial framework must be renewed.

As is the case with all changes in F1, its latest proposal is divisive.

°They’re considering whether the points system should go all the way down to 20 [positions],” said Force India team principal Vijay Mallya at Silverstone. “Every car scores a point if they finish the race; the bottom starts with one point and it then goes up.”

Mallya said extending the points-paying places down to 15th was also being considered alongside a full points-paying classification.

The points system in Formula One has been revised many times. Only the top five drivers earnt points early in the championship’s history, and before 1960 the fastest lap also paid points.

From 1960 until 2002 points were paid down to sixth place, though the sport experimented with a variety of confusing dropped-score rules according to which only a certain number of races could count towards the final points total. This notably cost Alain Prost the championship in 1988 when he outscored Ayrton Senna by 11 points but was deducted 18 points because only a driver’s 11 best results counted in the 16-race season.

For seven seasons from 2003 the points were paid to eighth in the familiar 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 format, but since 2010 Formula One has awarded points down to 10th in an expanded 25-18-15-10-8-6-4-3-2-1 format designed to create greater gaps between places as an incentive to race for minor points-paying positions.

It was a change not without criticism, the most significant of which was that it is too significant a break from the past. Total scores today now bear little resemblance and therefore are of little use in comparative terms to those scored 20 years ago — though the relatively recent rapid growth in the calendar has also blurred this comparison.

This criticism would also ring true for the revision to the points structure currently under consideration, but the proposed changes would have broader consequences than just the historical perspective — it would eliminate completely an important part of the challenge of being a Formula One driver.

Scoring points isn’t supposed to be easy. Even today, when half the grid can score, actually finishing in a points-paying place is an achievement, and scoring one’s first Formula One championship point is an important milestone in a driver’s career.

“I think Formula One has been always quite difficult to get points,” said two-time world champion Fernando Alonso. “Elite guys take points, and it was kind of a reward, a big moment, when you score even two points.

“I remember now Jules [Bianchi], when he scored a ninth position in Monaco it was some kind of a miracle, and that was a big moment for the sport.

“If everyone is scoring points now, maybe we lose that unique thing in F1 that other categories do not have.”

In all facets Formula One is supposed to be difficult, so to reward drivers and teams for effectively just turning up would do a disservice to a sport that is supposed to be founded on the pursuit of excellence.

But not only would it dilute history and achievement, a dramatically expanded system would risk confusing what has up to now been a relatively straightforward formula divided by simple intervals.

The worst-case scenario would be to end up with a more complicated points format. The points system used by the Supercars, for example, is not only incalculable without having access to the full table of points but also reads like a hyperinflated currency compared to models widespread in Europe. IndyCar points are similarly inflated, and NASCAR’s system is too convoluted to explain within my word limit.

To use the Supercars example, having the first, second and third-placed drivers score 300, 276 and 258 points and having championships decided by hundreds or thousands of points would be no improvement for a sport already criticised for being too complicated to understand, and the idea of having a car take the chequered flag two laps down in 20th place and still collect 90 points feels contrary to the spirit with which the sport has been conducted for decades.

Formula One should not fear review and change, but in this case F1’s points system is motorsport best practice. For the sake of history, challenge, and simplicity it should be left alone.