Sunday 26 January 2014

Double Trouble - why I think double points is a bad idea

And so it survives. And does so in the teeth of about as united an opposition as can be reasonably expected in this most disputatious of sports. The world champion is against it, and has said so. As has Ferrari's President. The silence of most other drivers and teams probably is indicative. The vast majority of fans, if the content of internet forums and the like is a guide, are also vehemently opposed. So are many race hosts - feeling somewhat diminished by the move. Finding enthusiasts for it is a challenge akin to pacing a beach with a metal detector in the hope of finding valuables. But the last chance of stopping it in last Thursday's meeting of the F1 Strategy Group was passed up by all concerned. Indeed, apparently it wasn't even discussed. Joy.

This year the Abu Dhabi race will be worth
 twice as much as the other rounds
Credit: JiteshJagadish / CC
Yes, you've probably worked out by now what I'm talking about. Double points, and the fact that in the 2014 F1 season one race will be more equal than the others. In a Bernie Ecclestone-penned scheme the points on offer in the campaign's concluding round at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina track will be multiplied by two. 

Bernie's had rather madcap wheezes before of course, an Olympic-style medals system replacing points being one, shortcuts and sprinklers being two more. But, helped by the fact that none of these came to pass, most of us gave Bernie the benefit of the doubt on these. It's just Bernie being Bernie, we thought. Yanking our chain. And while he's at it getting the sport some coverage on the back pages that it wouldn't have got ordinarily. They were never actually going to happen. But Thursday's events mean that the double points one is for real. It makes you worry that he might even after all have believed in those other ones too.

Bernie couldn't have got the thing through by himself: the way that the votes in the Strategy Group are he would have needed the support at least of the FIA or of four of the represented teams. Quite why and how he got this support isn't clear; certainly neither the FIA nor any team has spontaneously spoke of double points positively in public. The truth in F1 politics is rarely pure and never simple of course, and there is a lot of quid pro quo in such things, i.e. acquiescing to one thing in return for getting something else that you want. But judging by the rest of the Group's outputs (permanent numbers, tweaks to driver penalties, and a slightly wishy-washy expression of intent to introduce a cost cap) it's not immediately apparent what that something could be.

And at the latest Strategy Group get-together it also seems probable that realpolitik took over. As mentioned, despite the lack of obvious enthusiasm for double points among the teams none at last week's meeting raised the possibility of overturning the previous decision, and the BBC's Andrew Benson speculated that this was because, despite everything, none wanted to be the one to fall out with Bernie over this. Clearly responding to the will of the fans, without whom they would not amount to very much, or indeed acting in the good of the sport, is too much to ask.

Bernie Ecclestone is the main driver of double points
Photo: Octane Photography
Even by playing devil's advocate and seeking to construct a hypothesis of why this might have been thought to be a good idea (by Bernie if by no one else) isn't straightforward. Bernie may have been spooked by last season's rather long lingering goodbye - wherein Sebastian Vettel won the final nine rounds and the title's destination his way was in no doubt for weeks - and the resultant negative impact on TV viewing figures. But if this is indeed the motivation then double points seems an extreme and hasty overreaction. For one thing, single competitor dominance happens from time to time inevitably and not just in F1. For another, the sport's not been short of last race championship showdowns in recent times, having them in five of the last eight seasons. By way of demonstrating that this is a good return by historical standards, compare this to the fact that there were none at all between the classic three-way title finale in 1986 and the notorious crash-concluded Michael Schumacher-Damon Hill shootout in 1994. And, irony of ironies, even if we apply double points in the final round to the 2013 season the destination of the drivers' championship would have been sealed in the Indian race - exactly the same round as it actually was.

Plus, if more competitive fare and a title battle staying open for longer is indeed the motivation, then double points seems to amount to a rather clumsy attempt at masking the symptoms, rather than at dealing with the illness. As many have pointed out doing something about the extent that the prize money is concentrated among the teams at the top (especially Ferrari and Red Bull) would treat the sport's lack of competitiveness malady much closer to its source.

Of course, a major criticism of double points is that is a step too far in the direction of WWE - way too much of a transparently synthetic means of creating excitement. One that makes the sport look rather foolish and cheap. The sport's had plenty of gimmicks before some will argue, yet with F1's previous gimmicks of choice in DRS and degrading Pirelli tyres while they certainly divide opinion surely even their fiercest critics will appreciate that they were introduced in an attempt to provide a solution to a specific and long-term problem, namely the extreme scarcity of overtaking in F1 races that had stretched back for the best part of two decades. Double points by contrast seems a solution (and I use the term advisedly) without a problem. Or as Martin Brundle noted, 'an answer to a question nobody was asking'. And in the gimmick stakes it is a much larger leap than what has gone before. There also is a much clearer consensus in opposition to it.

But I also have an objection to double points that over-rides its gimmick-too-far status: namely that it goes against the principle of sporting equality. A championship in any sport should be a true reflection of achievement over a set period: you take a sporting contests that are decided in a league format - from football, rugby and the like, indeed F1 championships up until now - and all wins count the same. It's fair that way, and the award of the championship is therefore pretty much non-contestable. The importance of this equality was underlined a few years ago when - in a suggestion that Bernie perhaps would have been proud of - the concept of Premiership football clubs playing one additional game as part of their season (the idea being to play it abroad and thus rake in a lot of cash from lucrative hosts) having emerged from the powers-that-be collapsed amid general mirth and incredulity, and did so on the grounds mainly that with it no longer would all teams play all others twice in a campaign. The equality would be lost in other words, the competition contaminated and the league compromised. And yet double points in F1 feels at least as bad - rather like awarding six points (or more, given the proportions involved) for a win on the last day of the football season. Vettel is absolutely right to state that the whole thing is 'absurd and punishes those who have worked hard for a whole season'.

Sebastian Vettel is one of many to have spoken
 out against double points
Photo: Octane Photography
I'm not looking forward to the day that a title is swung thanks to double points - it has the potential to undermine the whole championship (plus it's not just top of the table that we need to think about, remember that prize money is based on constructors' placings which also are vulnerable to being skewed). If it so happens that the driver considered more deserving misses out the outcry will likely be multiplied.

Bernie in advance of the initial F1 Strategy Group meeting that double points first emanated, spoke to Spanish publication Expansion about his willingness to vary the points on offer at each race, in order to 'create suspense' and give more teams a chance to win the championship, and in doing so drew an analogy with tennis wherein the Grand Slam tournaments get more ranking points than the rest (golf is similar too, in that the Order of Merit is based on prize money, which varies from tournament to tournament). But I'd say that these aren't good comparisons, given that in both tennis and golf the focus is much more on winning individual tournaments, particularly the Grand Slams in tennis and majors in golf, while the annual rankings get much less focus. Whereas in F1 the days of winning individual Grandes Epreuves being more prestigious than winning the title has been left long in the past.

Others have drawn an analogy with the NASCAR Chase to the Sprint Cup, wherein the points are equalised (kind of) with ten rounds remaining for the top ten drivers in the table plus two wildcards, and they from there fight it out for honours. But again this doesn't seem an apt comparison. For one thing in the US the concept of the post-season playoff is rather ingrained in sporting contests in a way that it is not in many places elsewhere. And at least The Chase is a series of races wherein there are opportunities to recover from setbacks - so it's more a mini-championship than a shoot-out.

But it may well be even that calling double points a gimmick is giving it credit it doesn't deserve. The motivation behind it may be lower still.

When talking to Expansion in advance of the benefits of varying the points that are available at certain races, Bernie added that it 'would have the advantage for F1 of being able to charge the circuits that distribute the most points at a higher rate'.

And there you may well have it. There's evidence that double points is not even a gimmick. Not primarily anyway. It appears to be more an extension to F1's recent and often notorious financial model of extracting large sums in hosting fees, particularly from 'new' venues; a means of charging more lucre from the double points race host. And it's likely not coincidence that it's Abu Dhabi that's been chosen as the double points round given its status as a cash cow, rather than as previously Interlagos in Brazil where money for hosting fees is tight clearly.

That it was to do with money may also go some way to explaining why double points was apparently unstoppable. And worryingly Bernie's only outward reaction to the resultant fuss at it was to speculate about extending points variation. Whatever is the case, it now appears inevitable that it will have to be stomached for this forthcoming season at least. One only hopes though that sense - and popular will - prevails and it is then quietly shelved, and thus that F1 history views double points as no more than a curious aberration.


  1. Wow. I didn't know that it was tied to money, I thought it was simply stupidity.

    Whatever one thinks of Bernie, he has to go. His ability to think of himself first and foremost is finally getting in the way of his ability to do what's right for F1. Maybe not even finally, I'm sure there have been many instances of behavior throughout the years the benefitted him and not the sport.

    1. One thing that can be said in Bernie's defence is that these days he's an employee of CVC in effect, who care about little other than how much money they take. But then again who was responsible for the CVC deal? Yes, Bernie.

      Bernie of course has done an immeasurable amount in making F1 what it is, but like you I feel that the time for succession must be pretty imminent. I think this for a few reasons, not least that he's 83 years old... But also feel that Bernie's style is getting increasingly out of date, as well as that he's very behind the curve on online interaction with fans etc.