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

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

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

  1. Arnet said on 4th February 2009, 7:34

    Well I can’t post at your blog anymore, Clive, but I can here, and I will whole-heartedly agree with you!

  2. [F1] 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.

    Hear hear!

    Excellent article, Clive. You make exactly my point(s) and I couldn’t have written it better.

    Go points! ;)

  3. rahrah said on 4th February 2009, 8:37

    having medals does not mean drivers should risk everything, a second place is still useful, just less.

    “it is an insult to F1 drivers to suggest that they do not strive to finish as high as they possibly can”

    but yet you you said Massa will only drive to 2nd in Brazil if there was a medal system …. =\

    are you really sure there have been no cases of a 2nd place driver settling for 2nd place with 10 laps to go, are you really sure?

    at the end of the day it’s very simple: driver A has 2 wins and DNF the rest, driver B has 1 win but 2nd place the rest. who is the best.

  4. Keith, cudos for posting an alternative opinion on your site! This is fair journalism.

    I actually very much agree with most of Clive’s comments. Medals are a form of points, just different to the current ones. All point-based systems have pitfalls and best strategies. Changing the system will only change the strategy and not the game so here for me medals are on par with points.
    Add to that the argument of how many teams can have the chance to win – medals reduce the number while points increase it (i.e. the BMW 2008 example) so Medals vs Points 1:2 :-)

  5. I have read both sides of this discussion with interest – but it hasn’t shaken my conviction that Ecclestone’s reasons are entirely pragmatic and nothing to do with improving the season outcome.

    The Olympics have medals. The Olympics get public money. Therefore if Formula One has medals it (and therefore Bernie) will have a better chance of getting public money.

    That’s the beginning and end of his argument, as far as I can tell.

  6. Robert McKay said on 4th February 2009, 9:09

    If Bernie just wants races of do-or-die then just scrap the WDC and have 17 completely individual events with a medal and massive cash prize for the winner of each.

    If you want a championship, then you have to accept that drivers will naturally look at the bigger picture. To do that they will exploit the points system mercilessly, whatever it is that is applied. As said, medals are just a different form of points. I think it would definitely alter the top 4 drivers’ approach to races, but even then at times they would still sometimes rather settle for second than push for a win depending on what their rivals were doing, which is the key thing in any championship.

    But like Clive says it removes the subtleties and nuances to be so blunt as to only go for wins. The Kubica example is excellent – a big factor of the championship as a whole was his ability to consistently rack up podiums and have a lot less screw-ups than Hamilton and Massa did.

    What it really comes down to is how much you value consistency in a championship. The more you value it, the more even the points has to be to reflect it. I refuse to accept the medal argument that 9 wins and 8 DNF’s is better than 8 wins and 9 second positions.

    I am still of the belief that consistency is slightly overly-rewarded in the current system, though, and thus a 12-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 system would be perfect. Certainly a medal system almost destroys the idea of consistency.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 6th February 2009, 0:02

      Certainly a medal system almost destroys the idea of consistency.

      I don’t think that’s the case at all. It’s not at all unlikely that two drivers could end the season with the same number of wins, in which case the number of second places they’ve scored comes into play. I think the ‘medals system doesn’t reward consistency’ argument is bogus.

  7. HounslowBusGarage said on 4th February 2009, 9:11

    Excellent article and well argued.
    However, I’m not sure I’d bring the idea of ‘deserving’ a championship or even a win into the equation. When things happen, they happen. When someone makes a mistake or something breaks, it happens. And someone else profits from it.
    Whether Surtees, Rosberg, or even Villeneuve ‘deserved’ their Championships is a bit irrelevant. I think you are making value judgements on concrete events.
    But I agree wholeheartedly with you that Bernie seems to have lost the plot on this one. He’s seeking to improve the spectacle in almost gladiatorial terms on an event by event basis. Next he will suggest throwing the last place driver to the lions.
    Rather, I would have though that B’s interests would be better served by prolonging the Championship fight as late as possible into the season and thus building the televison viewing tension – and acheiving this by *narrowing* the points difference between the top three places. Heretical thoughts.

  8. Scott Joslin said on 4th February 2009, 9:53

    Hoorah!!!

    Clive Allen for FIA president!

    I whole heartedly agree with your perspective Clive, the medals system has more flaws than the current tried and tested points system and forgets the key point, if the cars don’t allow for overtaking, then the drivers cannot do much about it unless the crash in to each other which this model promote as there is less to lose in an accident.

    • Correct me if Im wrong but wasnt the current points system brought in by Bernie when Schumacher was running away with titles by winning 10 races a year. Where would his medal system be if that started happening again. It seems like changing the scoring system to reflect the closeness of the driving on offer

  9. Eddie Irvine said on 4th February 2009, 10:57

    Let’s say that we have 17 races(like 2009) and the medal system is the way to go. If we want to transfer the medal system into point scoring and still the person with more gold, more sivers, more bronze etc win the championship it would be like this
    1st–>307points
    2nd–>18points
    3rd–>1point
    4th…8th–>0points

    So someone with one win is higher than someone with 17 silver medals and someone with one silver is higher than someone with 17 bronze medals.
    You can understand that such a high difference between the 1st and the 2nd is not justified and it is unfair for the man who comes second.
    In conclusion the medal system is a really really bad idea and don’t apply with the spirit of formula 1.
    My suggestion is 10-6-4-3-2-1 point system, It is ideal, I think, especially with only 9 teams in the grid.

    • I am seriously questioning my ability to make decisions or have my own opinion.

      I thought medals were a bad idea until I read Keith’s article in support of them. After reading it I was absolutely convinced that nothing else could be better for the F1 show. Now I’ve read Clive’s article against medals, and I cannot see how anyone could fail to see how medals would detract from the show…

      Eddie, your analysis is the most obvious and fair comparison of the two systems (a points system that replicates medals). I cannot understand how I didn’t think of it….

      So medals are a bad idea (I think…). At least that’s what I’m told.

  10. Damon said on 4th February 2009, 12:16

    AGREED! Go Clive! :)

    So someone with one win is higher than someone with 17 silver medals

    Yup, so stupid. This got me thinking of how I always consider the medal table during the Olympics. If it were points, then it’d be: “They’ve got more points, they’re higher in the table. Enough said.”
    But with the Olympic medals table, it’s always like “Okey, so Canada are one place ahead of Poland… but wait – it’s only because of that one gold medal here they got lately, we’ve [Poland] got four times more silvers, so we should be ahead of them.” etc.
    You always consider the medal table as not really valid means of comparison, you always naturally gainsay it and make an alternative calucation that seems so more fair and right.
    _________________________________
    And as for ‘what would have happened in the past if a medals system had been in place’, I was interested in seeing one stat. I wanted to find out in which race of the season would the past championships have been decided had the medal system been implemented.

    I checked a couple of championships that I remember had a last race showdown:

    1986 – championship was decided in the last (16th) race, with the medal system it would’ve been decided in the 15th race – with a different champion.

    1994 – decided in the last (16th) race, would’ve been decided in the 14th race.

    1997 – decided in the last (17th) race, would’ve been decided in the 15th race.

    2003 – decided in the last (16th) race, would’ve been decided in the 14th race.
    ————
    I’ve also tried it the other way: to find a season where there wasn’t a final race showdown, but where there would’ve been one with the medal system. I’ve found none.

  11. chaostheory said on 4th February 2009, 13:20

    Great article! I agree with every thing you said.
    Besides, with medal system, i cannot think of any reason why racing in midfield would be exciting. I mean – it would not. And we would see even more of what is happening at the front than in previous years (in TV I mean). There would be 3, max 5 guys fighting for medals, and a whole train behind them fighting for … nothing? Well, they could fight for constructors points, but fighting for constructors AND drivers points gives more motivation for drivers and is more exciting for fans of those guys who aren’t front runners.
    So, in my opinion Bernie, FIA, teams should think about giving more points for the first place, make bigger difference between first and second place (or maybe make 1st and 2nd closer and bigger gap between 2nd and 3rd – if they want it more exciting at the front), give points for first 10 places, or even to whole field… I mean there’s so much room for improvements with the points system, we/they don’t need medals.

  12. Thanks for the comments, people! If I may answer a few points that have been raised:

    Arnet: Mad and I have tried everything we know to let you back into the Comments system and we have to confess ourselves beaten. I must admit that I have come to the conclusion that the problem lies with your computer or IP address – some setting somewhere must have decided I am persona non grata!

    Rahrah: Of course there have been occasions when drivers have settled for a place rather than risk an overtaking manoeuver – but that is a part of deciding what is possible. When cars are as evenly matched as they tend to be these days, overtaking becomes extremely risky and sometimes it is better to think of the championship first. And that is what I mean by striving for the best possible result – it’s a matter of sizing up the situation and minimising the risk.

    LJH: You are probably right as regards Bernie’s real motive for introducing the medals idea. And thinking that the British government is going to be swayed by such a cosmetic change is surely yet more evidence that Bernie is suffering from the senility that he accuses Sir Jackie of!

    Hounslow: I agree that the matter of “deserving” a championship is very much a subjective judgement. But that is why I point out the passion essential to our perception of F1 – when the heart is involved, it is unrealistic to attempt a dispassionate view of the sport. I have said that the points system has never crowned an undeserving champion and that is my opinion; others might claim that there were some who were not worthy. But can you name any? I can’t.

    • rahrah said on 5th February 2009, 12:29

      hey clive, thanks for replying!

      a bernie’s medal system = a points system with:
      win = X points (X can by anything)
      2nd = X/(no.races +1)
      3rd = x (no.races+1)^2
      even if one finishes second for all races, one would still loose to a driver who has won a race.
      e.g. if no. races in season = 20
      1st place = 100 (random number)
      2nd = 4.76
      3rd = 0.22 etc.

      btw I have a valid argument against medals (which I have yet to hear from anyone): “abnormal” results due to SC or weather during final laps, could promote driver who tends to finish 10-15th to finish 2nd or third (for example). He will then jump up the championship to 3rd or 4th (depending how many different drivers can finished 1st or 2nd into the season). This would be quite unfair to drivers who usually finish 5th to 9th, who have (and probably will) never finish 2nd, but is definitely faster than this lucky driver…

  13. Bernie simply wants ferrari to win the title.Why would he try to change the points system after such an exciting season and then the best finish to a season ever. I any racing series.

    Had massa won the championship Bernie would have never open his mouth.

  14. patrickl said on 4th February 2009, 14:46

    Great aricle Clive. I wholeheartedly agree.

    Apart from all your points, I also think medals will be bad for the freedom of team members. I think medals would force teams to appoint a no 1 driver. Or at the very least it would force them to do so much earlier in the season.

    Since wins are so important, you can’t stand to have the first driver lose wins.

  15. Damon said on 4th February 2009, 16:40

    I think medals would force teams to appoint a no 1 driver

    WOAH!! Nobody pointed that out so far!!!
    So true.
    Indeed, would Ferrari let both Massa and Raikonnen win races and take aways wins from each other? We know Hamilton has all his wins secure from being taken by Kovalainen, simply because he’s the faster driver.
    The medal system would kill team internal rivalries in the top teams who win races.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 6th February 2009, 0:06

      As long as the rule prohibiting team orders remain, I doubt it would make any difference at all.

      Teams can get away with manipulating their drivers’ running order in a situation where one driver is not mathematically able to win the world championship (Ferrari at Shanghai last year, for example). But the introduction of a ‘medals’ system wouldn’t make it any more likely that they could get away with doing it earlier in a season.

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