The FIA has agreed to implement a new points system for Formula 1 in 2010. The new scheme will award points to the top 10 finishers, respectively, in the following increments: 25-20-15-10-8-6-5-3-2-1.
This replaces a system that was put in place in 2003, largely as a countermeasure to prevent the kind of drama-deflating dominance that Michael Schumacher had enjoyed the previous year. In 2002, Schumacher scored 144 out of the possible 170 points available to a single driver over the course of the season’s 17 races (i.e. 17 wins = 170 points). He secured the title in record time.
It was decided that Schumacher had wrapped up the title so early in the year that the balance of the schedule was mere anti-climax. Thus, the FIA decided that a new points system, which awarded the top 8 finishers (10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1, respectively), instead of the top 6 (9-6-4-3-2-1, respectivley) with smaller margins between points increments, would be an effective way to prolong the suspense of the championship.
Like so many rule changes initiated during the Max Mosely era, this one seemed ill-considered, and had unintended consequences. Because of a narrower spread between points, if a driver suffered a DNF as a result of an equipment failure, or a collision, it might take several races for him to repair the damage in the points standings. Clearly the new system was designed to favor reliability over wins. With only 2 points separating a win from a 2nd place, a conservative driver who consistently finished second could quite conceivably win the title over a risk-taker who racked up more wins, but suffered the occasional DNF.
Lewis Hamilton won his title in 2008 having scored fewer wins than Felipe Massa, and while fans were treated to a season-ending cliffhanger which decided the title, many observers pointed out that under the old system which gave more weight to wins, Massa would have been champion. (There’s also an implicit counter-argument that had a win-weighted system still been in use, Hamilton would have altered his driving strategy accordingly, and still would have become champion.)
Michael Schumacher was occasionally criticzed for adopting a more conservative style later in his career, but personally I would put this down to the change in the points system. From 2003 onward, he became more of a points racer – and he won 2 more titles, so he was doing something right.
Another unintended consequence of the consistency-weighted system was that once a driver developed a lead, it could easily become unassailable. With such a small spread between points, it became more difficult for drivers to chip away at a leading driver’s winning margin. Jenson Button this year was a prime example of that. He stopped winning even before the mid-point in the season, after the 7th race in a 17 race season. While he continued to earn points, his leading margin eroded over the final 10 races of the season.
This was, in part, a calculation on Ross Brawn’s part. Brawn admitted that, since Button’s points lead was virtually bullet proof, he decided to phase out developments on the 2009 car in favor of getting a head start on the 2010 package. It’s not without reason that he’s known throughout the paddock as “the Maestro.”
Nevertheless, the points system helped create the problem it was designed to prevent. Button’s rivals, notably Sebastian Vettel, who suffered from inconsistent finished (5 DNF’s) found it difficult to gain ground on Button during the final 10 races of the season, even though Button’s performances were entirely lackluster.
The new system gives a five point spread between the top 4 finishers. The new scheme runs 25-20-15-10-8-6-5-3-2-1. This is even more win-weighted than the system in place prior to 2003. Early reactions from the F1 community seem to be entirely positive. I suspect it’s also an early sign of Jean Todt’s new leadership style. Max Mosley was dictatorial and mercurial. He did much to improve safety during his tenure, but he was also responsible for introducing many changes that were designed to enhance competition, but had the exact opposite effect. Unfortunately, when new regulations proved to be a failure, his general attitude was one of: If you don’t like it, go race somewhere else.
Where Mosely often behaved like the sovreign ruler of a small kingdom, Todt seems likely to be more of a natural diplomat, a man skilled at negotiation, and gaining results rather than obedience.
Image by Craig Scott.