Before the World Championship decider kicks off in Abu Dhabi, it is worth considering the question of double points which may or may not help decide who wins the title. The first thing that must be said is that there is no such thing as a perfect system. You can take any close season in the history of the sport and say this would have happened and that would have happened if the points system had been different. There is not much point in examining all of them, because they are all OK and they are all flawed. However, the goal of a points system should always be to reward the man (or woman) who wins most events. Titles that are won more with reliability than with speed are never popular. And thus this year we have the odd situation of Lewis Hamilton having won 10 races, having to fight for the title with Nico Rosberg, who has won five. It does not seem right. Rosberg is still in the game because he has been second 10 times, to Hamilton’s three. Nico goes to Abu Dhabi 17 points behind, which would normally mean that he would need to win and Hamilton would have to be sixth to win the title. If his car broke down, Hamilton would still lose if Rosberg was first or second. Double points means that Rosberg has more chance, although he has no chance at all if Hamilton leads from the front and wins. If Nico wins Lewis needs to be second to guarantee his second title. Fans have railed against the double points idea, but one must look at why this came to pass. Last year the World Championship was done and dusted in India, with three races still to go. TV viewing figures plunged. Once the title is done, who wants to watch? The key point, one has to remember, is that F1 survives (or not) as a commercial entity. It is still a sport, but money comes from TV and so it is in the interest of everybody that the World Championship finale is a high-rating, prime-time, humdinger, along the lines of the great Sao Paulo showdown of 2008. It doesn’t get better than that.
Runaway success is all well and good, but it means that numbers are down. And numbers matter.
Look around the world at different sports and see that many of them have changed fundamentally because of TV. Cricket is barely recognisable to how it used to be, rugby games take place at all kinds of hours and so on and so forth. In order to keep the excitement up to the end, lots of sports have adopted the concept of play-offs, which are either a single game, a series of games or a tournament, with various formats to knock teams out of the running, rather than using simple point scores.
It is a concept that dates back almost 100 years to the days when American football had different geographical divisions, the winners of which would get together to decide who was the best team of the year. That developed into the Superbowl in the 1960s. Baseball has its World Series, the NBA has its post-season games and so on. They even exist in football these days in England with play-offs to decide who is promoted into the Premier League.
The problem with play-offs is that they can be manipulated as was seen last year in NASCAR when all kinds of shenanigans went on in the final pre-play-off race as team-mates assisted one another to get through.
This year NASCAR decided to go for a completely new system, designed to favour those who won races. Well, that was the theory. It was anything but simple and involved 16 drivers being selected for “The Chase” after 26 races, based on races that they had won and then the points that they had scored. Once that was decided, there was a system in which four drivers were eliminated in each of three different phases of three races. Race winners automatically went through to the next phase, the other positions being decided by points. The result of all of this was very bizarre because the four drivers remaining in the hunt after the ninth (and penultimate) race in The Chase were Kevin Harvick (Stewart Haas Racing), Joey Logano (Penske Racing), Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing). Of these, the most successful was Logano, who had won five races in the course of the season. Harvick had won four, Hamlin just one and Newman none at all. Those who had been eliminated included Logano’s Penske team-mate Brad Keselowski, who ended the year with six wins, and Hendrick Motorsports team-mates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr all of whom won four victories.
So was the system really about rewarding those who won races?
The finale yesterday in Florida ended up with the scoring system just about getting away with it. Harvick won and so added a fifth victory to his tally and so the title does not entirely ludicrous. However, Newman was just half a second behind Harvick at the finish and could so easily have become the champion with one win (or perhaps with no wins if the two had been beaten by Keselowski, who was just a second behind in third place). It could so easily have been Keselowski winning the race with Newman second, which would have given one seven victories and the other the title without a single race win. And that would have been an absurd travesty of justice.
The key point, however, is that the fans watched the race all the way to the flag and the TV viewing figures will reflect the success of the system.
F1 cannot live in a vacuum, pretending that viewing figures do not matter. Despite the best efforts of Bernie Ecclestone to market the sport to retirees only, the numbers and the demographics are important, although perhaps given Bernie’s strategy it would be best to keep the excitement to a minimum lest fans drop dead with the excitement of it all…