Points mean prizes

It is virtually assured that Fernando Alonso will be the 2005 champion – if not at Brazil then in a couple of weeks’ time. He deserves it because, while he has not been the fastest driver in the class of 2005, he has been the most consistent finisher at the front end of the field.

Canada and Hungary aside, Alonso has been a fixture in the points. But surely, some would argue, the McLaren has been the fastest car, and Raikkonen the best driver – so how can it be that both could walk away from 2005 with as many trophies as Norwich City?

Engine failures are a pretty good place to start, but before Norbert Haug disappears into another bout of comfort eating, it is worth considering how the current points system has conspired against the Finn. From very early in the year as Alonso racked up the wins as McLaren struggled with the qualifying system, it was evident that both Montoya and Raikkonen were going to have to string together some seriously good results to stand any chance of a shot at the title.

This has provoked a series of stunning drives from Raikkonen who, even as early as at the Nurburgring in May, knew that nothing less than wins would do. Alonso not needing to fight Raikkonen and McLaren frequently stretching their cars to destruction has prevented the 2005 title showdown from really developing.

Under the old points system Raikkonen’s wins in Turkey and Belgium would have more greatly reduced his deficit to Alonso. Under the new system Eddie Irvine would have been 1999 world champion (see chart). Would that be just?

As it is, Alonso is basically guaranteed the title with three races to go. In its first season of use (2003) the 10-8-6 system helped take the title down to the wire, with Raikkonen able to keep in the picture by consistent finishing in comparison to Michael Schumacher’s oscillation between wins and no-scores.

In 2005 we have an almost complete reversal of that situation. It was widely acknowledged that Schumacher had been the best driver of 2003, but Raikkonen still stood a great chance of taking the title in Japan by virtue of his consistency. Perhaps the only conclusion one can draw is that whichever way it plays out, Raikkonen is going to be the bridesmaid.

Of course F1, and motor sport in general, has long searched for a suitable points system. The Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost feud of 88-90 was heightened by a points system that seemingly favoured Senna’s win-or-bust strategy versus opposed to Prost’s consistency.

Likewise Jody Scheckter claimed the 1979 title following a bizarre points system whereby the only best four scores from each half of the season counted. Consequently the South African had practically won the title by the halfway stage, and Alan Jones’ winning streak during the second half of the season counted for little.

These earlier systems were in place when car reliability was far inferior to today, thus not overly punishing teams who pushed the envelope with radical designs. Likewise even in the early 1990s it was not uncommon for a driver to miss several races during the year because of injury. In today’s F1 missing only a couple of races through injury (as happened to Juan Pablo Montoya earlier this year) kills any chance of the title.

At least in comparison to NASCAR’s points system the F1 scheme is simple and free of controversy. Introduced a couple of seasons ago the ten-race ‘Chase for the Championship’ for the top 10 drivers (in the year up to that point), effectively renders the season finale meaningless for up to three-quarters of the field. Furthermore under this points scheme those involved start from a blank slate, so a driver who was running 9th after the bulk of the season could end up scooping the title.

Even now Nobel Prize mathematicians are working on the intricacies of the NASCAR points system. It certainly does not have a place in a purist’s vision of motor sport as a truly ‘sporting’ endeavour. It makes the later races ‘must watch’ events for the fans, but for everyone else it is just confusing. This is especially baffling given that the average NASCAR fan’s IQ rarely stretches into double figures.

Ultimately points schemes can be played with ad infinitum with any number of permutations (many British club series allow competitors to play a ‘joker’), but ultimately they should be structured in a way that ensures that the best driver over the course of the season becomes champion. They should neither be geared so that an early season non-finish will take five or more races to recoup, nor should they wipe everything clear prior to the closing rounds.

On that basis, perhaps the current F1 system slightly over-rewards the consistent-finishing points-hoarder, and punishes unreliability and plain misfortune too greatly? I think Kimi Raikkonen would agree.

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