Ask the average American what the most popular sort of auto racing is worldwide and most of them will respond it has to be the NASCAR Cup Series. The trick word in the question is “worldwide,” though, and on the global stage, Formula One crushes NASCAR in terms of viewership.
Some will already be rolling their eyes here, swearing the only good things imported from Europe are French fries and English muffins. Others might call all of Europe (and a surprising number of Americans think “Europe” is a country) a Third World wasteland. That’s simply because there’s no Wal-Marts over there, although Americans undergoing cultural shock while visiting the Olde World will be relieved to find there’s McDonald’s damn near everywhere.
But Formula One interest in Europe, Asia, Australia, and even Africa dwarves our interest in stock car competition. Around the world, only soccer draws more fans than F1 with GP Superbike also right near the top of the list.
On the other hand, I’ve talked to many foreigners about the peculiar game of American football and they simply don’t get it. It’s a different type of “stoppage time” they don’t understand. The two teams line up against one another and, after an indeterminate amount of time, the game is actually played for about five to ten seconds. After that, everyone lines up again or takes a break while the referees figure out and explain the latest transgression and its consequences. (Unless, of course, one of the coaches asks for a review of the decision at which time… you get the picture.)
Formula One faces similar challenges here in the United States. For one thing, given the American notion that the sun rises and sets on the U.S., F1 races tend to be on at awkward overnight hours or shortly before dawn. There are some teams or engine makers in the series that also don’t have much standing in the U.S. Ask an American what a Renault is and those of us old enough to remember will blurt out “LeCar,” “Alliance” or some other bit of automotive foo-foo-raw or excrement. Sure, we get it with Mercedes and Ferrari. But the notion of Honda building an ultra-exotic racing engine defies belief. (And given how the Honda-powered F1 teams are running, it also exceeds their engineering capability.)
Yes, there’s a lot about Formula One that makes it cuddly as a cactus to U.S. fans. But there’s also some stuff they do right, ideas that could possibly be used to help stock car racing get through its 12-step program towards rehabilitation. Perhaps most notably this year, the F1 points race for the championship is a barnburner. Just three points separated the top two drivers after the Italian Grand Prix. Sunday, championship contender Sebastian Vettel wrecked out on the first lap.
Given the F1 points system, it’s still a wide open battle now entering the home stretch. But a close title race is not all that unusual. Most seasons, while one team dominates, there’s still likely to be a battle between that team’s two drivers. (Reference 2016.)
Now, the F1 points system is very different than the Cup championship system. So, I thought it would be interesting, especially considering so little happened at Chicagoland to go off the beaten path a bit. Let’s see what the Cup standings would look like using the F1 season and the actual Cup race results to date.
Note, as always disclaimers must be admitted in any such hypothetical conjecture. First off, the results are all Monkey Math. Had there been a change this year, doubtless some drivers and teams would have changed up their strategy to maximize the points they accumulated under the new formula. Secondly, the Monkey Math is being done by Matt McLaughlin. Math was never my strong suit even when allowed to use a calculator. There are doubtless errors in some of the totals but give me my due for attacking a mountain of data even while my eyes glazed over and I had flashbacks to being “mathematically challenged” in middle school.
Then, of course, there’s Schrodinger’s Cat. By peeping in the windo… OK, we’ll save Schrodinger’s Cat for another week. Be assured no actual cats were hurt in preparing this article.
The F1 points system is a lot less generous as far as number of points awarded than Cup. The winner of an F1 race gets 25 points. The second-place finisher gets 18 which is, I believe (here, kitty, kitty) 28 percent less than the winner. Third place is good for 15 points, fourth for 12, and fifth for 10. Sixth through ninth positions receive 8,6,4, and 2 points, respectively. The tenth-place finisher in a F1 race gets a single point.
As for 11th on back? Anyone who finishes outside the top 10 gets zero points. Yep, zero. There’s no “participant trophy” just for showing up and no reason for cars hopelessly off the pace to remain out there getting in the way of the leaders. There’s no way they inadvertently cause a caution with a handful of laps left to run accidentally changing the whole complexion of the race.
In F1, there are no points awarded for stages and the sport is the better for it, not to mention dramatically less confusing for fans trying to keep up. There is also no such thing as an encumbered finish, which I think we can all agree is far saner than the NASCAR system. One year, though, the F1 brass took exception to Michael Schumacher’s storm trooper tactics trying to prevent Jacques Villeneuve from taking the title. As a result, they went ahead and wiped Schumacher’s point totals for the season back to zero. And you think Brian France wants to play hardball?
Please note that all the figures I am using below are from the points as they stood after the Richmond race. I needed something to do on a chilly afternoon as autumn’s chilly tentacles began to strangle the area. (To my amusement, some horror movie fan tied red balloons to all the sewer grates in my neighborhood. There’s no explaining It.)
So in the NASCAR point standings (regular season, not playoff) Martin Truex Jr. was top dog. Kyle Larson was second with Kyle Busch trailing Larson by just four points. But under the F1 points system, it would be Larson with a sizable gap over Truex: 268 points for the former and 213 for the latter.
So how is that better, you might ask? We’re looking for a tighter title fight. Yes, but we’re also looking for one that takes the entire season’s results into account. It’s much better than reducing the first 26 races to mere qualifiers for the final 10-race title run. Recall while both Truex and Larson have four Cup points wins this season, prior to Sunday Larson has finished second a mind-numbing eight times. That means Larson has finished first or second in almost half of this season’s races. It’s a remarkable achievement that deserves the top slot as we head into the final 10 races of 2017.
How long might it take Truex to wrest the title lead from Larson? It’s an entirely doable feat. Recall that the winner gets 25 points per victory and anyone who finished below tenth gets zero points. So if Truex were to win at New Hampshire and Larson had one slow pit stop, one tire left loose, or one penalty for speeding on pit road, we’d see the full 25-point swing wipe out almost half the points deficit in one race.
Now keep in mind that under the NASCAR points system, if Truex were to win and Larson finish eleventh, the points swing would only be 11 points. That’s a much smaller percentage of the total available points compared to the F1 system. (Of course, that’s presuming neither driver scored stage points or both men scored the same amount of stage points).
Where would some of the other Cup drivers have ended up under the F1 points system?
F1 NASCAR Standings (Based on Regular Season Points)
Brad Keselowski: 193
Kevin Harvick: 188
Kyle Busch: 183
Denny Hamlin: 174
Joey Logano: 134
Chase Elliott: 127
Ryan Newman: 115
Clint Bowyer: 112
Kurt Busch: 107
Matt Kenseth: 106
Jimmie Johnson: 87
Jamie McMurray: 75
Ryan Blaney: 71
Austin Dillon: 53
Kasey Kahne: 53
Some notes on the above are warranted. First, Clint Bowyer is much higher up the totem pole. While he hasn’t won a race to date this year, he did finish second three times. Most notably, he’d still be in contention for the title with an average season finish to date of 14.8 compared to 19.6 for Austin Dillon or 20th for Kasey Kahne. Neither Kahne nor Dillon have had stellar seasons. They both performed admirably in a single race, in Dillon’s case simply by not running out of gas. That’s not comparable to what wins you a season-long title.
Jimmie Johnson is much further down the points standings than he is after NASCAR tallied up the points heading into the playoffs. Johnson has, after all, won three races this year and that ought to count for something. It does: 75 of his 87 points under the F1 system. Keep in mind Johnson’s only three top-five finishes are those wins and he’s only managed a total of eight top 10s as well.
Johnson’s 16.7 average finish looks rather weak compared to Larson’s 11.0 or Truex’s 11.4. Hell, Chase Elliott is averaging a 13.5 and he hasn’t even won a race to date. But again, recall this is all Monkey Math. One of the prime reasons Johnson has seven titles to date is that he and his team figured out how a new points system works. They study each new format and how to maximize their strategies to take advantage of it.
Some of you who see your driver ranked higher in this system than under the NASCAR one are doubtless delighted. Some others whose fave dropped down the list think I ought to shut up right about now. But again, look at the points system. Right now, the maximum swing in the next 10 races is 250 points. (One driver wins all ten races and the fellow he’s competing with, or all 16 of them score no top-10 finishes.)
While that’s not likely mathematically, it means the title is still wide open. Anyone from Ryan Blaney on up could be leading the points within eight races. Unlikely? Sure. But under the current system, it’s entirely possible that a driver could win the first nine races of the playoffs and finish second in Miami only to lose the championship.
The F1 schedule for 2017 also contains a far more manageable number of events, 20, than the current Cup schedule with 36 points events and two non-points races. Yes, there was a time tracks were clamoring for more dates. But the laws of supply and demand indicate those days are through, at least in the short-term.
No track wants to lose a race date but the current schedule is simply unmanageable. That’s especially when you take into account the first 26 races do nothing but decide the lineup for the final 10. Simply put, there’s no reason for any one track to have two dates any longer. NASCAR really needs to have its bags packed and be headed toward the exit when the NFL season starts and the World Series makes baseball a thing again.
Likewise, the F1 folks have a very civilized rule that races won’t stretch longer than two hours. If they do, they end on time, not distance. Now, two hours might be a bit short for some (but certainly not all) Cup events. But two and a half hours seems reasonable for all the races other than the Daytona 500, the World 600, and the Southern 500 all of which, conveniently enough, fall on three-day weekends. With a two-and-a-half hour race, 10 minutes of pre-race coverage, and 20 minutes of post-race interviews, you have a nice neat little three-hour package for the TV folks.
Perhaps the most important F1 rule NASCAR needs to adopt involves tires. F1 teams have three types of tires at their disposal: the standard tire, the red or soft tires, and rain tires. We can throw out the rain tire option because they simply won’t work on oval courses. But the reds are an intriguing choice. Basically, the softer compound tires offer far more grip and thus dramatically faster lap times but they also wear out far more quickly.
Teams are required to run at least one set of standard and one set of red tires during the course of each event which makes for some decidedly different strategies and late-race surprises. To be worth doing, the soft compound tires need to be somewhere between two and three seconds a lap faster on an intermediate-sized track. Both F1 and INDYCAR have used optional tires to the series’ great benefit.
Curiously enough, the two compound change came just about the same time Goodyear abandoned those series. Goodyear, it should be noted, prefers to play where they are the only tire allowed. Faced with genuine competition, they tend to take their ball, mitt, and go home. But even if Goodyear remains the exclusive tire supplier of NASCAR, there’s no reason they can’t come up with alternate compound tires. Or is Goodyear willing to admit the European and Japanese tire companies are that much more technically advanced than the home team?
For those of you who mess with old cars or motorcycles, you know eventually even if they are running OK, occasionally you’ve got to mess with the carb settings and timing to keep them going in tip-top shape. A little tweaking can make a big difference. On the other hand, sometimes they’ll start running like hell, stalling, and burning oil. At that point, your only option is to tear the thing apart and completely rebuild it.
NASCAR racing has gone well beyond the “tweaking” stage and needs a complete overhaul, not an annual infusion of stupid gimmicks that annoy longtime fans and confuse the hell out of casual ones. Until someone in charge realizes that, Cup racing is running on empty.
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