x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Will double points in Formula One finale make a difference?

New format with double points in season finale labeled a ‘gimmick’ and criticized by drivers but Abu Dhabi fans could benefit, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Red Bull pit-crew members celebrate as driver Sebastian Vettel secures last year’s F1 title in India. Prakash Singh / AFP
Red Bull pit-crew members celebrate as driver Sebastian Vettel secures last year’s F1 title in India. Prakash Singh / AFP

Every school had one: The exhibitionist who was forever trying to be the centre of attention, always wanting to be thought of as fun and cool and, ultimately, worthy of being friends with.

Yet they rarely were. Why? Because that is how life works: popularity can rarely be manufactured. It must be earned to be genuine.

This is the crucial rule that Formula One has failed to acknowledge as it fights for popularity in the petrol-head playground.

The sport’s decision-makers are keen to increase entertainment value this season after a dull year in which Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing won the drivers’ and constructors’ championships for a fourth successive year.

The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the world motorsports governing body, last December confirmed a proposal by F1 chief executive officer Bernie Ecclestone to award double points for the final grand prix of the year, which will take place in Abu Dhabi on November 23.

Such a radical idea is no surprise. Ecclestone, the iron-fisted F1 chief, has pitched several weird and wonderful ways to spice up his race series.

The introduction of medals instead of points was suggested a few years back, followed soon after by the suggestion to use water sprinklers to create artificially wet races.

Such ideas were preceded by proposals to reverse the qualifying grids and to race on circuits with optional shortcuts that would be available to drivers five times per race.

The intention of the double-points system is clear: to ensure the world championship remains alive for as long as possible and, ideally, until the chequered flag falls on the last afternoon of the season.

One man’s dominance – Vettel finished last season with a run of nine straight wins – does not make for happy television executives, who know their audience is unlikely to stick with the sport until the season’s end if there is little left to contest.

In 2011, Red Bull’s German driver built such an unassailable lead that he secured the title with more than 20 per cent of the calendar remaining. Two years later, he comfortably claimed the drivers’ championship again with three races from 20 yet to take place.

This year, he will need to arrive in the UAE capital with a lead of more than 50 points if he is to arrive a champion.

Yet, historically, the implementation of double points at the final race would have altered the outcomes of only three title races in the past 20 years.

Last year’s championship would still have been won in India with Abu Dhabi, the United States and Brazil yet to be contested, while in 2011, the championship would have been prolonged by one week but still decided with three grands prix to go rather than four.

The outcomes of 2008 and 2012 would have been affected – as well as Michael Schumacher’s win in 2003 – but all three seasons went to the final race of the year without the need for additional points being made available.

The new system has not been introduced to improve such title fights; it has been implemented in a bid to emulate them and it fails to do so.

Providing double rewards for the race at Yas Marina Circuit has been questioned and criticised by drivers, analysts and the fans who the sport are so keen to please.

Vettel called the new system “absurd”, Martin Brundle, a driver-turned-commentator, described the format as “an answer to a question nobody was asking” and race fans on social media labelled the new format “a circus-act”, “a gimmick” and “a joke”.

All parties were ignored by the sport’s decision-makers.

Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, recently played down the issue, calling it “a little fog in a big picture”. He said that “we are not changing the world of Formula One” by introducing a double points system.

He said he is open to dropping the rule if it proves an erroneous idea – although not until next season.

Ecclestone’s initial proposal was to award double points at each of the last three grands prix. During a strategy group meeting attended by the F1 chief, Todt and six F1 teams last month, a unanimous agreement could not be reached, so Abu Dhabi will remain the sole exception, which, in itself, has raised eyebrows.

Why should one race reward drivers more than any other? Does the driver who wins at the expansive Yas Marina deserve double the number of points rewarded to a driver who wins on the narrow streets of Monte Carlo?

And if the rule change cannot guarantee adding drama to the last few races of the season, then why even bother?

Did organisers of the UAE capital’s race push for double points to ensure the event here remains of relevance when the F1 fraternity descend on Abu Dhabi?

Is Yas Marina paying a premium for the privilege of hosting the final race? Do local organisers see it as potentially making the race more exciting than other rounds?

Officials at Yas Marina Circuit insist they never requested the rule change and that it was solely a matter between the FIA and Ecclestone. They do, however, welcome the decision.

“The last race could have been anywhere, so we’re lucky in that it’s in Abu Dhabi this season and it’s double points because it will have a massive impact on the outcome of the championship,” said Richard Cregan, the former chief executive at Yas, who now splits his time between the UAE and the new Sochi International Street Circuit in Russia.

“It’s an unusual one. It won’t make a great deal of difference in a runaway season, but in a year with so many regulation changes and when cars will be developing and getting quicker throughout the year, you would expect double points to affect the race for the title.

“That said, whether they keep it for more seasons, we’ll have to wait and see.”

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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