O Opinions & Commentary

A wins-based championship for Formula One? Yes!

This winter Bernie Ecclestone has been advocating a new championship schema for Formula One – one that would award the drivers’ championship to the driver who scored the most wins during the season. He calls it a ‘medals’ championship in which the top three finishers (the ‘podium winners’) would be awarded gold, silver and bronze medals like they do in the Olympics and the driver with the most ‘golds’ at year’s end would be the champion.

Of course there would have to be a tie-breaker in case two drivers had the same number of wins, and that would be based on the driver with more seconds and then more thirds, and so on. This is actually the current tie-breaker formula without the points-based first step at the top.

This is an idea that has been floating around for a long time and I believe that this is the best and the most logical way to determine the champion of any year-long racing series like Formula One (or NASCAR Sprint Cup for that matter).

People tend to be a bit uneasy with proposals to revise the formula for determining a champion. They look back at previous years and figure out what the results would have been under the proposed new formula – and, of course, they are going to be different. What else would you expect if you change the basis for determining the champion? And, people may feel that if you change the formula going forward, it brings into question the legitimacy of the championship results in the past. A glaring example in Formula One is the 1958 championship which was won by Mike Hawthorn despite his having only won once that year, while Sterling Moss – with more wins than anyone else at four – would have been champion. While I do feel that the four wins would have made Moss a more legitimate champion and I would be happy to see him having won at least this one world championship before his glorious driving career was cut short a few years later, Hawthorn’s championship is not under threat from Bernie’s proposal. Hawthorn won that championship fair and square under the points system of the day. (Nor would Jimmie Johnson’s three consecutive NASCAR championships be threatened by a move to a wins-based championship in the future.).

So the FIA’s recent announcement that they had gone back to the beginning and checked out the impact that a wins-based formula would have had on the championship results – and that they had discovered that the results would have been different (including the aforementioned championship to Moss in 1958) – is pretty meaningless. Of course, a different formula is going to produce a different result. It would have been surprising if the wins-only formula had not produced some different results. And, no, nobody is suggesting that we go back and apply the new rules retroactively.

So why should auto racing championships be based on wins rather than on accumulated points totals. In short, because a wins-based championship is a better way to identify the true champion at the end of the year. The points-based championship rewards ‘consistency’ as much as it does excellence – and produces that mind-numbing points racing in which a driver opts to run mid-pack and collect sure points rather than go for the win.

In any sports competition, assigning points to results through the year and then adding those points up to determine the champion or to determine who becomes eligible for a season-end playoff which in turn determines the champion is a second-best method and should only be used when the direct wins-based method can’t be applied.

In team sports, one team competes against just one other team at a time. So you have to have some way to combine all the one-on-one match results into an overall championship. If every team plays every other team the same number of times during the season, then it makes sense to allocate points to wins and ties and then add up all these points over the season and award the championship to the team with the most points. If, because of geography or different leagues, not all the teams plays equally against all the other teams, then it makes sense to use some kind of points-based formula to determine regional champions or league champions and then have a playoff to determine the overall champion.

In the main, this is not the way auto racing works, Normally we have a series of races in which every driver competes in every race against every other competitor. Hence the winner of the race is the champion of that race and the one who wins the most races has proven that he is the champion having bested every other competitor over the season.

If the champion is determined by points, you can have the nonsense result of someone who never won but scored a lot of second-place results being declared the ‘champion’ – that is, the best. I don’t think that most unbiased race fans (as if there were such a thing) would acknowledge that Moss, not Hawthorn was the true champion in 1958.

Nor is there, in these circumstances, any excuse for holding a ‘playoff’ to determine the champion. Playoffs are a very imperfect way of determining who is best and should only be used when there is no better alternative. I know that this may sound like heresy to many sports fans who are still coming down from the emotional high of the NFL Superbowl, but there is no way the outcome of a single match-up in a single final game can have much credibility in determining who is best. Sure, it can determine who is the champion under the rules but not who is best.

There are times when a playoff makes sense. For example, a playoff between the champions in two different leagues - hence the baseball World Series playoff makes sense even if the playoffs to determine the league champion do not. In amateur or school sports, there are too many teams and the travel costs too high to match all the teams up against each other during regular season play – hence, you need to have playoffs to determine (somewhat arbitrarily) the overall champion.

In car racing the best example of where a playoff is logical is the SCCA Runoffs. Here the class champions – and others with good results – from across the continent meet up in a single race and the winner of each class race is declared National Champion. It’s pretty arbitrary but it does reward one of the best, if not the best, and there’s no other better way to determine a National Champion.

Of course, we all know that playoffs in sports like hockey are popular with the owners because fans get caught up in the excitement of a late-season shootout and don’t much care that this playoff is a unfair way to determine the season’s best team and that they are being manipulated by the owners into shelling out big bucks to watch these artificial playoff games.

Of course, this criticism applies in spades to NASCAR and its hokey 10-race Chase for the Championship playoff –which tends to reward good luck as much is it determines who is the best driver of the year. Who hasn’t wondered in their heart of hearts whether the championship should really have gone this year to Carl Edwards with his nine wins or to Kyle Busch who had eight wins was leading the points chase at the end of the ‘regular season’?

Of course, the Chase was created in a desperate attempt – in the face of competition for audience with NFL football – to deliver ratings to the TV network that had paid a huge sum for the rights. So far, it has been at best a mediocre success as a race competition and as a way of building audience in the fall.

One thing the FIA study did look at was how late in the season the F1 championship was determined and they found that in the 59 seasons to date, fourteen years would have seen the championship determined sooner and in eight years the championship would have been clinched later. This might be important if the race promoter or the TV-rights holder (i.e. Bernie) is counting on a tight championship race to build the audience for the final few races of the season. Those of us who argue for a wins-based championship tend to think that race fans come to see a race for the win, not some esoteric points battle back mid-pack.

Consider the final race in 2008, it came down to a weird slow-motion struggle by Hamilton to finish fifth, while the true hero of the race – the winner – was all but ignored. Under the wins-based system, the focus would have been on Massa, who by winning the race could tie with Hamilton for wins and, on the basis of more second-place finishes, take the championship. Don’t you think that Massa winning the race, and thereby the championship, would have been a more emotionally satisfying result that the strange way that Hamilton squeaked into fifth and beat Massa out of the title? And in every race leading up to that, the focus would have been on winning the race because each win would have been worth infinitely more than any number of second-place finishes.

In addition to the inherent excitement of seeing everyone making a maximum effort to win every race, you would also have see every driver who would have to settle for a lower finish, struggling for the absolute best finish possible – for it is also true that one fifth-place finish is worth infinitely more that any number of sixths. Isn’t that what we go to the races to see – racing for position and for wins?

I have long been an unabashed advocate of the wins-based championship in all auto racing series be it Formula One or NASCAR. Yes, it would change the race strategy – for the better – and it would likely produce somewhat different championship results – also for the better. And I, like Bernie, believe that this wins-based championship would produce individual races and championship battles that would be more exciting and entertaining for the race fans.

Bernie Ecclestone has been a controversial figure for a long time and I am used to reacting negatively to everything he comes up with – but this time, he’s on the right track. Let’s swallow out pride and admit it. Let’s support the move to a wins-based championship in Formula One and let’s hope that the certain success of the formula in F1 will spread this idea to the other big-time race series as well – NASCAR, IndyCar, and them all.

All that said, I suspect that the unimaginative people –at the FIA, the team owners, the race promoters, most of the fans – will prefer to stick with the known quantity and persist with the illogical and unfair points-based championship system to determine the World Champion. So, I guess, I may have become excited about the prospect of a major breakthrough for this wins-based championship formula for naught.

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