Is the FIA’s take on medals irrelevant? Clive thinks not – here’s why

Posted on | Author Clive Allen

Does the driver with the most wins deserve the championship most?
Does the driver with the most wins deserve the championship most?

Guest writer Clive of F1 Insight takes another look at the FIA’s take on Bernie Ecclestone’s contentious ‘medals’ plan.

To be fair to the FIA, their list of what would have happened in the past if a medals system had been in place is relevant because it is, at least, an attempt to test the system before implementing it.

We have seen enough of rule changes made without considering consequences (KERS is a good example) and there is no other way to see what might happen with an alteration to the existing scoring system than to apply it to previous years. Yes, the FIA list is an obvious political ploy intended to annoy Bernie but that does not make it entirely useless.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the publication of the list is that it gives me a rare opportunity to be on the FIA’s side. Generally speaking, Bernie has made a good deal more sense in his throwaway comments over the years than the FIA has managed in its rule-making. He is, for instance, against the standardisation being so aggressively pursued by Mosley and would rather see the rules freed up to allow innovation back into the sport. I cannot argue with that.

The medals idea is an example of Bernie at his worst, however. Ask him to give reasons for his suggestion and he will tell you that there is insufficient difference between the points awarded for first and second places, which puts too much emphasis on consistency and not enough on actually winning races. Why we should introduce medals rather than adjusting the points gap is never explained; he fobs us off by claiming that drivers should go for the win rather than play the percentages.

There are several things wrong with that assertion. For a start and as I pointed out in my comment to Keith’s post, it is an insult to F1 drivers to suggest that they do not strive to finish as high as they possibly can. Everyone wants to win and will do so if they can. The fact that a driver may occasionally decide not to risk an overtaking attempt late in the season when the competition is very close is a product of having a championship – it would be so, whatever system is used.

In Brazil last year we saw Hamilton drive for fifth place, acutely aware of how his attempt to win the race the year before had been a complete disaster in terms of the championship. No doubt this incensed Bernie, who would have preferred to see him go for victory and risk throwing everything away for the sake of one race. Yet, had the medals system been in place, Massa could have settled for second, allowing Hamilton to win – since they would have had an equal number of victories, second places would be taken into account and Massa’s Brazilian second would have been sufficient to give him the crown.

Clearly, the medals system would do nothing towards increasing the pressure on drivers to go for the win, even if they weren’t already doing everything in their power to take it. But there is more that Bernie is missing. He is thinking in terms of how to spice up “the show” and forgetting that the drivers have to balance the desire to win a race against the ambition to be champion.

There have been drivers who have driven for the win in every race – Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna were examples. They are great value for money, sometimes winning the championship as a by product of their aggression but often losing it through inability to see the wider perspective. Alain Prost was the supreme example of a driver who drove for the championship every time, content to grab points whenever they were offered and never risking guaranteed scores for a possible but risky overtaking maneuver. Most drivers are a combination of the two, going for wins in the early part of the season and then being a little more circumspect in the last few races.

And that is the glory of F1. It is much more than a straight fight to win a race; it is also a matter of putting a year’s campaign together. The sport requires both speed and intelligence from the drivers and that is why we love it so much – the champion has always demonstrated both his skill in driving quickly and his strategic thinking in balancing the demands of both championship and race.

To decide on the champion by counting up race wins is to destroy the strategic aspect of F1. The championship could easily be decided little more than halfway through the season, there being no chance that a driver who had finished second any number of times could overtake the leader in the later stages. The system would effectively negate any up-and-coming team’s efforts to improve their car throughout the season; once the magic number of wins has been achieved by a driver, the rest might as well pack up and dream of the next season.

Not so with points. A team that has stayed hot on the heels of the leader is spurred on to compete until the championship becomes a mathematical impossibility. In both 2007 and 2008 we have seen how this can lead to a nail-biting contest right up until the last race of the season. And this is what Bernie wants to get rid of? The man is losing his marbles.

For everyone involved, including the fans, F1 is a passionate sport. It is more than just seeing who has the fastest car; it is about character, skill and grit in adversity too. There is something in us that sees through the bare statistics of race wins to a much more complex rating of the drivers – and this is where we can get passionate in our support of a driver who may not even be winning any races at all.

Way back in October 2007, F1 Fanatic ran a series of posts considering which driver at that time “deserves” the championship most. I wrote a piece on the matter of “deserving” that can be found here. It seems to make little sense to talk of a driver “deserving” a championship and yet we still mention it, somehow admitting unconsciously that there is more to F1 than just winning.

Let me give you an example from yesteryear. Back in the sixties when Jim Clark was everyone’s hero and he was winning everything in sight, John Surtees stole the championship from him in a last gasp race in 1964. The medals system would have made Clark champion and, in fact, just about any other system than the rather odd one in use that year would have dropped Surtees to second. But John made it in terms of that system and the funny thing is that he deserved it!

He deserved it because he could beat the maestro, Clark, and had proved it at the supreme test of the Nurburgring in 1963. That was done in a car much inferior to Jim’s Lotus; Surtees’ Ferrari of 1964 was closer but still less effective a car and so his championship was one of those rare occasions when skill overcame mechanical inferiority. If anyone deserved his championship, it was Surtees.

Now, you can say to me (and I know that Steven Roy will!) that Clark deserved to be champion that year too and I do not deny that he was the dominant driver in F1 in those years. But Surtees’ championship is a reminder that Clark was not the only one capable of winning races, that he could be beaten in spite of having the quickest car. Speak to me of the notorious fragility of Lotus cars and I will point out that all the cars were unreliable then, Surtees suffering his share of retirements too.

Keith will tell me that this is all irrelevant since drivers take into account the scoring system in force and drive accordingly – and no retrospective adjustment of the past is on the table. That is true but not the whole truth. The reality is that drivers are only able to take the scoring system into account when circumstances warrant it. If you’re not in the hunt for the championship, the scores become somewhat irrelevant and you race for the best position you can get. In 1964, the circumstances required for an ultimate victory for Surtees were so unlikely that all he could do was get as high up the order as possible and hope that others made the right mistakes. They did him the favour of complying.

Will medals allow for such apparent exceptions to the script to occur? Judging by the FIA’s analysis (and this is the only way of testing the system to see how it would work), they would not. Instead, we might have the injustice of a Didier Pironi being champion. Drivers like Surtees, Rosberg and Piquet, who had to fight every inch of the way for their championships, might as well pack up and go home – medals would kill off the last remaining chances of a driver in less than the best car on the circuit. Kubica would have been out of the hunt by the time he won in Canada last year.

Counting up victories is an oversimplification that ignores the delicious complexities of F1. If the difference between points for winning and coming second is too small, fine, increase it. But, for the sake of the outsider and the nuances of the title fight, let us not abandon all that has gone before by accepting such an untried and dubious a system as suggested by Bernie. The points system has done a surprisingly good job over the years and has never crowned an undeserving champion; adjust it and tweak it if you must but please, let’s have no more talk of its replacement by the passing fancy of an old man in his dotage.

Read the original article: The FIA ??analysis? of Ecclestone?s medals proposal is flawed and irrelevant