Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Does An IndyCar Winner Earn Enough Points?

Two drivers have won three races in 2013 and neither lead the championship standings. When it comes to racing, the ever changing points system series to series favor consistency over checkers or wreckers. That isn't necessarily a bad thing but regardless of the points system, winning should gardner the most points.

Across the pond, most series only reward a handful of drivers in points. Formula One only gave points to the top six from 1960 to 2002 with a win only worth nine points until it was increased to ten in 1991.  The system was simple: 9 (since 1991, 10), 6, 4, 3, 2, 1. Nothing over the top, any person who can calculate simple addition could figure out how many points a driver had in their head. In the last decade, points have become easier to come by in Formula One. In 2003, seventh and eighth were given points with the difference between a win and second only two points. In 2010, ninth and tenth were rewarded points with winning more than doubling to twenty-five points and the rest of the top four receiving more than a win had ever been worth.

In North America, points have been awarded much differently. NASCAR has always given points to every driver to take the green flag. At one point just starting a race got you somewhere around 37 points. A win was 190 with five point intervals and then four point intervals and then three but no one could remember what you received for twelfth place. Now they reward all forty-three drivers with a minimum of 47 for a win, 42 for second, 41 for third, all the way to 1 point for forty-third position. Bonus points have always been favored. NASCAR once gave five bonus points for leading a lap with another five for leading the most. Now it's a bonus point for leading a lap and another bonus point if you lead the most.

American open-wheel racing is the same with bonus point, if not more giving. ChampCar rewarded a bonus point to the fastest driver on each qualifying day, fastest lap and even awarded a point for the driver who improved the most positions from their starting position. When USAC was in charge the points you received depended on the length of the race. You win the Indianapolis 500, 1000 points. You win the following week at Milwaukee, 200 points. CART used a similar system until the mid-1980s. From 1984 to 2001, CART had the same system, similar to Formula One today, the top twelve earned points, 20 for a win, 16 for second, 14 for third with 12, 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 for the remainder of the top twelve, with a point for fastest qualifier and point for most laps led. IRL always gave points to everyone. From 1996 and 1997, a win paid 35 points and in 1998, a win was increased to 50, what a win still pays today.

Each series has their own system. My question though is does a win in IndyCar pay enough? No one can deny Helio Castroneves has had a wonderful season completing every lap through Toronto but he has only one win. Meanwhile, Scott Dixon has been on a roll the past two weeks with three wins and has five other top-fives this season. James Hinchcliffe has three wins but has been checkers or wreckers with more finishes of twentieth or worse (four) than wins. You look fourth and fifth of the points standings and you see Marco Andretti and Simon Pagenaud. Pagenaud has a win but trails Andretti in the points standings. Pagenaud's win at Belle Isle however has been his only top-five finish to date, while Andretti has five top-fives though he has come short of getting an elusive third career win. Meanwhile, Tony Kanaan is sixth in the standings and has just as many wins as Pagenaud and just as many top-fives as Andretti. Go figure. If you are to expand the simple size to top-tens, you will find Andretti has eleven, Pagenaud has eight and Kanaan has six.

There is no perfect points system but the more positions you pay, the more consistency will be rewarded. The fewer positions you pay, the more you reward winning. Points are a political tool if you think about. Imagine if IndyCar only paid points to the top six. This season only three full-time teams have failed to reach the top six (#55 Schmidt Peterson, #98 Bryan Herta Autosport and #6 Dragon Racing). If you are a team and have failed to score a single point, a sponsor will think twice about spending their money on your car. Who would want to sponsor a car whose scored zero points? To make matters worse, if only the top six were paid points, part-time drivers Mike Conway, Oriol Serivà, JR Hildebrand and Carlos Muñoz would all be ahead of Tristan Vautier, Alex Tagliani and Sebastián Saavedra in the standings. The points system today rewards drivers who show up to every race, guaranteeing them they will never be last place in the standings and also gives us an easy way for everyone to see who is ahead of one another in the points standings. Granted if drivers were tied with zero points, we would just use the tiebreaker who has more finishes at each position to determine who is ahead of who.

Personally, I always liked the 9, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1 format Formula One once used. If you wanted to be champion, you had to be up in the top quarter of the field. And to be honest, I've never been a fan of bonus points (though I did suggest awarding a driver a half point for each position improved during a race. So yes I am contradicting myself). I don't think a driver necessarily should be awarded a consolation point or two for winning pole or leading a lap (seriously, leading a lap. Every driver could do that in a race. Who benefits from that then?) or the most laps. Points to determine the champion in a sense should be determined by what is done on track between the green flag and the checkered flag (which I guess you could say leading laps do occur between the green and checkered flags so you can argue a driver should be rewarded for leading). Anyway, does winning pay enough points in IndyCar? Everyone has their own opinion. I understand why the points are they way they are and if they were different, we'd be looking a driver's season much differently then we do today.

For example, here are the standings using the 9, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1 format with their position in the actual 2013 IndyCar Championship standings in parenthesis:

1. Dixon- 43 (2)
2. Hunter-Reay- 40 (3)
3. Castroneves- 35 (1)
4. Hinchcliffe- 29 (8)
5. Kanaan- 22 (6)
6. Franchitti- 18 (7)
7. Andretti- 17 (4)
8. Sato- 15 (13)
9. Conway- 13 (24)
10. Pagenaud- 12 (5)
11. Bourdais- 10 (16) Wins tiebreaker over Kimball with more third place finishes.
12. Kimball- 10 (11) Wins tiebreaker over Wilson with more second place finishes.
13. Wilson- 10 (9)
14. Power- 9 (10)
15. Rahal- 8 (17)
16. Jakes- 6 (18) Wins tiebreaker over Muñoz with more tenth place finishes.
17. Muñoz- 6 (28) Wins tiebreaker over Carpenter with more second place finishes.
18. Carpenter- 6 (14) Wins tiebreaker over Viso with more fourth place finishes.
19. Viso- 6 (12)
20- Servià- 4 (23) Wins tiebreaker over Newgarden with more fourth place finishes.
21- Newgarden- 4 (15)
22- Hildebrand- 2 (26)
23- de Silvestro- 1 (19)

This points standings tells a pretty familiar story at the top but as you go down, there are some changes that would have us all singing a different tune about a drivers season. You think anyone is praising Viso for being nineteenth in points? Heck, Bourdais would have gone from no points to just outside the top ten in one race weekend but is he having just as good of a season as Kimball and Wilson? Look at de Silvestro. How would people perceive her if she was twenty-third in points with only one to her name? So a points system can completely change our view of a driver not to forget mentioning change the sponsors' view of a driver. Context is everything.

In conclusion: There is no perfect system and as a system changes, a drivers performance can be skewed favorably or not.