The lazy approach to an article like this would be to tally up major racing series' 2010 seasons under the various point systems of the past and present, pick whichever provided the closest margin across the board and proclaim it the best solution. But this would not take into account the fact that drivers and teams chasing championships tailor their approaches to the demands of the points systems they are racing under. Numbers alone never tell the whole story.
The new points system put into effect in Formula 1 is the most dramatic such makeover in years, but the effect has been more perception than reality: Accustomed to smaller numbers being added (or not) with each race, we tend to over-emphasize the impact of every weekend for the title contenders. The last champ under the old system is convinced things haven't changed all that much.
“It's funny, because every race we go to seems to be called a ‘pivotal' race and, while every result is obviously important, I don't think you'd say that any one race is really pivotal to your title campaign,” cautioned Jenson Button. “It's more about the pace you carry across the balance of the season.
“I've always imagined the points as they would have been under last year's system,” he added. “When you say you're 25 points off the lead, that sounds like a lot – but it's just easier for me to reference it by the old system. It makes it seem easier to understand and compute, too.”
A simple format distributing points to the top-six finishers in grands prix served F1 well enough for its first half-century, with only two minor tweaks (the initial eight points for a win was expanded to nine in 1961, and again to 10 in '91), although a complicating factor was added from 1967-'80 that dropped the lowest finishes from a driver's tally. The intention of that was to discourage “driving for points,” but the PR risk of an “artificial” champion emerging by someone coming out ahead overall was judged to be worse – particularly when it almost happened in 1979. But teams that had little hope of cracking the top six continued to chafe – especially since end-of-season remunerations were heavily points-centric.
Expansion to the top eight finishers in 2003 didn't do enough to satisfy these voices, while Bernie Ecclestone began to press for an Olympics-style medals system to replace points in determining the World Champion. Other series, too, have tried to spice up their title races by running the numbers differently, but the results have been mixed.
Inevitably, given the number of sanctioning bodies that have managed it over the years, Indy car racing has had a wide variety of approaches to points. Under USAC sanction, championship points were awarded under a multiplier of miles completed. While this had the perceived benefit of maximizing the importance of longer events, i.e., the Indianapolis 500, it also served to reward consistency to the extreme. In 1978, for example, Tom Sneva won the championship without winning a race, beating 500-mile “Triple Crown” winner Al Unser, while Danny Ongais, a five-time winner that year, was eighth in the final standings!
CART initially copied USAC's formula, but went on to implement several point systems of its own, as did the Indy Racing League. IndyCar's current system, which awards points to every driver in the starting field, appears to be the most successful in guaranteeing down-to the-wire points battles, having done so for five straight seasons. However, this could just as easily be attributed to the narrow performance margin between the sport's two top teams during this period.
NASCAR's advantage in number of front-running cars and number of races was seen by the sanctioning body as a disadvantage in ensuring a competitive championship race – which is regarded as especially critical due to the sport's need to compete with the NFL for viewers in the fall. Thus was born the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which reset the points for the top 10 drivers (expanded to 12 for 2007, along with a 10-point bonus for winning). Yet NASCAR's “playoff” system hasn't enabled it to match IndyCar's record of competitive championship fights, with each of Jimmie Johnson's four straight Sprint Cups seeming more inevitable than the last.
It hasn't proven a magic bullet for declining TV ratings, either. So, NASCAR is mulling further changes to the Chase format, including expanding the Chase group to improve prospects for including all the big names, and an elimination-style format in which drivers would be knocked out in stages.
“My take is they're just trying to please the fans,” said Denny Hamlin. “I don't know if they're Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans or just fans in general, but I've heard them trying to expand the number of drivers and creating this last race-off type thing. Just in my opinion, the more you hype up one given moment, the less relevant it makes the rest of the season.”
While NASCAR's Chase and the NHRA's Countdown to 1 clearly raise the importance of some events over others, can a points system add or decrease relevance? Some observers have suggested that the number of driving errors by the top contenders in F1 this year is proof that they feel more pressure to reap the greater point rewards of the top places. Yet the racers themselves disagree, crediting the close competition at the front of the field.
“I think when you have a car that is better than all the rest, your approach or the way you do races is very different,” said Fernando Alonso. “In terms of driving style, starts, aggressiveness, the team itself prefers to race much calmer. You don't need to push in terms of performance. When you have tough competition, everything is on the limit and you risk much more – the team, the drivers, the engineers, everyone.”
Sebastian Vettel agreed. “I can give you my example in Spa [where he collided with Jenson Button]. I don't think there was terribly much I did wrong; it just ended up the wrong way. We are all human. We all make mistakes. If we do them on a Friday nobody cares, and if we do them on a Saturday people care a little bit more. If we do them on Sunday then, depending where and when, it is a big thing.”
Since motor racing is among the world's most capitalistic endeavors, perhaps the purest way to settle championship titles would be to reward those who wind up with the most prize money. But since race purses, too, have evolved into more “fair” distributions of the generated wealth in most forms of motorsports nowadays, that idea is no longer viable – if it ever was. So, arbitrary point schemes are likely to remain with us. And to provide lots of things to talk about.
FULL MEDAL JACKET
Would Bernie's Olympian plan help or hurt?
Bernie Ecclestone has tried for some years to get Formula 1 to adopt his medals formula – which would make “gold medals” for wins the first tiebreaker, followed by “silver” and “bronze” tallies for second and third places – to determine World Champions. It actually was adopted, briefly, for this year by the FIA before the teams revolted against the idea and a whole new point system was instituted as a compromise.
The 2010 system extended the point distribution down to 10th place with places rewarded in a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 sequence, while increasing the differential between first and second place from 25 to 39 percent. But that's still far less of a difference than was the case under the pre-2003 system (65 percent).
“It has made absolutely no difference,” Ecclestone said of the new points ahead of the Singapore GP. “If we had the old system, it would be exactly the same positions as now. Maybe they will wake up and think about my gold-medal system now, because Mark [Webber] would have four gold medals and two other guys would have three, so the championship could go all the way to the wire.”
In fact, though, under all three point systems in place since 1991, as well as the medals formula, the top five drivers would have been in the same places in the standings with four races to go. And, had Jenson Button been sitting on a bag of gold medals instead of a dwindling points margin last year, he would have wrapped up the title much earlier.
“Last year I would have said: ‘Yes, it's a fantastic idea,' but this year not so much,” said Button. “[In 2009] I could have just sat out the last few races and gone on a big holiday for three months and still been champion.”