Does F1 need a playoff?

The NASCAR ‘Chase for the Cup’ playoff system has been heavily criticised and blamed for a significant drop in spectator numbers. But it could be the perfect solution for F1’s perennial ‘two horse race’.

Lewis Hamilton’s fifth World title and his elevation to a position among the absolute greats of F1 has temporarily distracted the sport from its thorniest of issues: improving the show.

In recent months myriad ideas have been released like champagne corks from an F1 podium. Liberty unveiled their 2021 vision  for the next generation of F1 cars, aimed at improving overtaking and allowing close racing in September. Since then we have heard talk of shorter races, sprint races, longer qualifying, shorter qualifying and no Friday practice. All offered up as potential fixes to the processional, limited overtaking version of the current F1 era.

F1 2021 concept cars
F1’s vision of the cars in 2021. (Image: F1)

F1 as entertainment first, sport second

We should not be surprised that installing a media company as commercial rights holder would reframe discussions about the future of the sport in these terms. Liberty is intent on getting as many people watching – on whichever platform they prefer – or attending F1 races. Whether the sport remains the pinnacle of engineering, innovation or performance are likely to be considered of secondary importance.

Undoubtedly work is urgently needed in three areas: allowing cars to race in closer proximity, helping the few remaining small teams to survive and making track time exciting for fans. But any general apathy towards the sport – reflected in yo-yoing attendances and viewing figures – is the result of a bigger problem: the lack of competition for the drivers’ championship.

Vettel Raikkonen Hamilton F1 2018 British Grand Prix Formula 1
Predictable: it’s going to be him or him. The nature of modern F1. (Image: MotorSportNotes).

Often the lack of competition is viewed purely in terms of the championship being decided in advance of the season finale. Those that suffered through the Schumacher era got used to the final races of the season effectively becoming meaningless.  But that is not really the problem.

The F1 title fight goes down to the wire (more often than you’d think)

Between 1950 and 2014 the F1 drivers world title went down to the wire on 28 out of 66 occasions, roughly 42% of the time. The real issue in the modern era has been the limited pool of potential championship candidates.

In the hybrid era we have got used to Hamilton v Rosberg and Hamilton v Vettel as the only two realistic championship candidates. F1 is entertainment now and certainly that is how Liberty view it. Therefore it is not enough for the title battle to go down to the final race. Everything involved in improving the show is just window dressing until the championship is regularly more than a one-on-one fight.

A playoff system similar to NASCAR’s much maligned ‘Chase for the Cup’ could be an answer.

Playoffs: wrong for NASCAR, right for F1?

Assuming you have not rolled your eyes and headed off to read something else, stick with me for a few more lines.

It is fairly accurate to say that NASCAR’s playoff system – introduce in 2004 – has taken a long time to become anything close to accepted. And it is safe to say it has played a part – how significant is unknown – in dwindling spectator numbers at races and stagnating viewing figures. Therefore you are well within your rights to consider this a crackpot idea.

NASCAR Brickyard 400 Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Is that seat taken? In the ‘Chase for the Cup’ era, seats at NASCAR races are now plentiful. (Image: NASCAR).

However, consider the context of NASCAR’s play-off introduction.

The concept was designed to give the season run-in more ‘juice’ when competing against the start of the American football season. A reasonable idea to deal with what, at the time, was a hindrance to continued growth. Subsequently NASCAR compromised the appeal of the playoff system by constant tinkering with the format, introducing knock-out rounds and ‘stage racing’ – creating races within races – which cumulatively have turned fans off in their thousands.

Turning a predictable F1 championship on its head

By contrast, a play-off system for F1 could solve one of the biggest criticisms of the championship in its current form. Chiefly that by mid-season it is clear who will fight for the title and the other 18 drivers try to get out (or in) their way for the rest of the year. Great news if you are a fan of the likely title protagonists but a huge turn off for the rest. A playoff system could turn that on its head.

As a hypothetical example, the top 6 drivers after the 15th race of the season qualify for the playoff across the final 6 races of the year. Their points are reset to a value unattainable for the rest of the grid and everything is up for grabs once more. Winner takes all across the final races of the year and more importantly, multiple drivers are back in the title fight.

Using this season as an example, post-Singapore Grand Prix Lewis Hamilton was ahead of his challengers by some margin:

  • 40 points to Vettel
  • 107 points to Raikkonen
  • 110 points to Bottas
  • 133 points to Verstappen
  • 155 points to Ricciardo

Barring multiple DNFs for both Hamilton and Vettel, the rest of the top 5 had no role to play in the outcome of the championship other than helping or hindering the duo.  For the neutral fan its been a dull affair waiting to see whether Hamilton could see out the season or Vettel might stage an unlikely comeback.

Reseting the scoring to an arbitrary 250 points each and using the results since, the standings heading to the penultimate race in Brazil would be:

  1. Bottas 386
  2. Hamilton 377
  3. Verstappen 368
  4. Raikkonen 362
  5. Vettel 354
  6. Ricciardo 320

With 50 points up for grabs in the final two races every driver barring the luckless Daniel Ricciardo would be in contention for the championship. Lewis Hamilton’s adoring fans would no doubt be aghast at the state of play but their driver would still be in primary contention for a fifth world title.

Who would an F1 playoff favour?

NASCAR’s play-off system has been criticised for being gimmicky and favouring drivers/teams that are strong on the circuits making up the final races of the season. Admittedly there is the risk that a similar introduction to F1 might devalue the sport and its heritage. In terms of favouring particular teams or drivers, that argument sags like a punctured tyre.

With the exception of the occasional stand out performance or wet-weather induced back-to-front grid, the drivers and cars quick in the opening races of the season tend to still be the quickest come the season finale. In F1 the drivers who qualified top for the playoffs would have nothing to fear from reseting the playing field for the championship run in.

As the hypothetical example earlier proves, the fastest drivers and teams would still be the ones in contention for the championship even with the introduction of a playoff system.

A change too far? Probably

We will never know what a NASCAR-style play-off in F1 would be like for fans, teams and drivers. F1 has a lofty opinion of itself – mostly justified – and this is just too gimmicky. But then again, when the sport seems prepared to rip up traditions that have existed since its inception like Friday practice or introducing sprint races, it might just happen.

For now we will just have to imagine what it would be like to have more than two drivers battling it out for the F1 championship.

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