Formula 1 Insight

Chris Amon and Winning

Over at Vee8, Doctor Vee has written a post about the proposed medal system for deciding the drivers championship - he is coming round to the idea. I still think that medals would put too much emphasis on winning races, rewarding the few who are in good cars that can win anywhere and obscuring the real heroes, the ones who drag uncompetitive cars into the points.

Chris Amon
Chris Amon in the 1967 Ferrari 312

Naturally, I have had my say on the matter in the Doctor's comments system but F1 Wolf replied to me in a way that had me thinking. He said, "ultimately the championship is about winning, isn’t it?" Being as contrary as I am, I refuse to accept such a quick and easy definition of the F1 championship.

Obviously, every driver goes into each race hoping to win - as far as that goes, the Wolf is correct. But is that all that matters over the course of a whole season? I submit that there is far more to the sport than just coming first. History tells us that, in those years where a driver has more wins than anyone else, he has the best car; in such years, he is going to be champion whatever system is used.

But in the hard-fought, closely-run seasons, where there might be two or three good cars, it is often a driver with fewer race wins who becomes champion. The classic example is 1982, in which Keke Rosberg won his championship in a car that was nowhere near as competitive as others in the field. He won one GP that year, others won two - he earned his title by dogged determination and refusing ever to give up.

Do we really want to see the Kekes of the F1 world excluded from any chance of the championship merely because they do not have the best car? That is what the medal system will do, in effect; it is the major difference between medals and points that drivers of lesser machinery do not stand a snowball's chance in hell of becoming champion. As another instance, this year Robert Kubica would not have been anywhere near a shot at being champion under the medal system. Is that really just reward for his efforts? I think not.

As things are, Robert finished on the same number of points as Kimi Raikkonen, a man in one of the best cars of the year, and, until the last two races, it was mathematically possible for Robert to steal the title. His reputation has soared as a result and even Keith Collantine has him down as the best driver of the year. Yet is not the championship supposed to go to the best driver? At least the points system gave Robert an outside chance of being champion.

No, it is not just about winning - it is about being the best too. And I find my thoughts wandering through history to fasten upon one of my favorites of yesteryear: Chris Amon. Famous as being probably the best driver never to win a championship GP (he won non-championship ones), Chris stands as the perfect example of how winning is not everything.

It is generally forgotten that Chris Amon was the youngest driver to enter F1 when he started - he was a mere 19, the same age as Sebastian Vettel on his debut. His early years were blighted by uncompetitive cars and mechanical problems but the talent was obvious and he was taken on by Ferrari in 1967. Those were his best years, always competitive but stymied by unreliable cars whenever he was about to win. After the inevitable argument with the team, he left Ferrari and began a series of moves from one team to another, always at the wrong moment so that elusive GP win never came within reach.

It is his last year in F1 that I want to concentrate on in this discussion, however. Chris found himself in the tiny Ensign team driving a car that no one else had been able to lift beyond the midfield. It was a car built to the most basic formula of the time - aluminum monocogue chassis with Cosworth engine and Hewland gearbox, the standard approach for most new teams coming into F1. Midfield was all that the team could realistically hope for but that was reckoning without Chris. In his second race with it, the USGP West of 1976, Amon brought it home in 8th - good enough for a point today.

The next race was in Spain and Chris defied logic by claiming 5th place at the flag - two points even in those days. In the following races he suffered a series of mechanical retirements but his talent is obvious in his qualifying positions: 3rd in Sweden and 6th in Britain. Then came the Nurburgring and Niki Lauda's fiery accident. Chris did not take the restart, finally disillusioned with a sport that had claimed the lives of so many of his friends.

That last year in F1 had shown just how good Chris was, however. To take as primitive a design as the Ensign and compete with the advanced cars of Ferrari, Lotus, Brabham and McLaren was a feat worthy of a champion - yet this was done by a man who never won a GP. He is long retired but his name is still remembered - even now we wonder if a clearly talented driver who has missed out on winning is another Chris Amon.

Would he be remembered if winning were everything? No - the truth is that F1 belongs to all the competitors, from tail end Charlie to the man on pole, it is the struggle from year to year to get to the front, it is as much perseverance as it is cruising home in a superior car. Usually it will be the best car that brings in a new champion; but, just occasionally under the points system, someone will steal the spoils through sheer ability, talent and grit. Let us not take away that chance by bringing in a system that crudely counts up the wins in a season; we can do better than that.


Keith Collantine
"Yet is not the championship supposed to go to the best driver?"
No - otherwise they'd put them all in the same car.
Date Added: 24/11/2008

well, the same car is what we may soon have if Mosley gets his way :-)

yes, it would be nice to see Kubica to win the championship as an underdog. but rememeber that while he still was there with a shot at the title in the final races, he pretty much needed to win them to have any chance ...

I am not saying that the medal system is perfect, but I do like the fact that it rewards the winners. Consistency is nice, but I would very much prefer to see drivers fighting out for the win every single race knowing that settling for fifth in Brazil or for 3rd in Singapore would not do ...
Date Added: 24/11/2008

Keith: Exactly. They don't put them all in the same car because F1 is about more than finding the best driver - it's about designers and teams too. But ideally we want the best driver to win through in the WDC - otherwise, what is the point?

And that's my point, really. The points system gives the chance to drivers in lesser machinery whereas medals cuts them out completely.
Date Added: 24/11/2008

Hezla, The Dane in Estonia
This is why I keep reading your posts. You clearly followed F1 more years than me. You remember all those details about drivers and yesteryears GPs.

The point system should stand, I like the idea of more points for winning and I could also accept that even more drivers gets points.

Maybe something like 25,18,15,12,10,8,6,5,4,3,2,1
It will give points to the first 12 drivers, but also a greater advantage for a win than today.

I havent done any calculations to see if it actually change something but I like the idea of involving drivers in slowers cars to the points.

I also find it sad that the grid is not full and hate the idea of standard cars.

In football there is more than the goal scorer, in F1 there is more than the GP winner.

Date Added: 24/11/2008

Wolf: I don't agree with the idea that drivers do not fight for the win under the present system. Sometimes it's true that a driver might settle for second, rather than risk not finishing at all through mechanical failure or a collision - but it is rare, you must admit. Generally, any F1 driver will try for the win.

Why is everyone ignoring the fact that the medal system is likely to put an end to the season earlier than points? Once a driver has enough wins to ensure that he will be champion, where is his incentive to fight hard for the last few races? And why should the others even try once the title has been won?

Of course, you and I know that they will still fight for each race - it's in their blood. But that applies to both systems and the reason for medals (counting up wins) falls away as a result. If I were a driver, I would find it slightly offensive to suggest that I were not trying to win every race and I would tell Bernie where he could stick his medals. :D
Date Added: 24/11/2008

Hezla: I have always admitted that there should be more of a points difference between the winner of a race and the second man. About two more points (to take it to 12) would be about sufficient, I'd guess.

The trouble with extending the points down below eighth place is that differentials have to be maintained and we end up giving huge numbers of points for the higher places. This results in astronomical figures, as seen in NASCAR, and actually makes points less valuable, since everyone has some.

The system is not far off being as good a compromise as can be expected, I think, and would be even closer to the ideal if just a couple more points were awarded for a win.
Date Added: 24/11/2008

Steven Roy
I think the fact that Kubica was in contention till the last race proves the current points system is wrong. He was never competitive at any point in the season. The only race he won was because Hamilton took himself and Raikkonen out. There is a big difference between Kubica this season and Rosberg in 1982. Keke may only have won one race as well but 11 different drivers won races that season and the true champion (Villeneuve) was killed and his team mate Pironi was so badly injured that he never raced again. So to say the least it was an unusual championship.

Can you imagine explaining to the casual fan how someone who at no point in the season was even a match let alone superior to the Hamilton and Massa won the championship?

When the 9, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1 was changed to 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1 I was delighted because it meant that winning was rewarded more. I am totally against the medals system. Medals are fine for one off events but for a series of events constituting a championship it makes no sense.

Medals would also allow fiddling to be more easily accomplished. According to the official record of the 2008 season Massa has one more gold medal than Hamilton and is therefore champion. One of his gold medals came in Spa which was a race he never lead and a race which Hamilton won. Another gold medal came in Valencia when Massa was not penalised properly for an unsafe pit lane release. So while the official record shows 6 golds for Massa and 5 for Hamilton the honest count would have been 7 for Hamilton and 4 for Massa. Fortunately even the current flawed system did not allow the FIA to donate yet another championship to Maranello.

I am amazed at how many people think Kubica was the driver of the year. His team mate who few on the planet think is anything special finished only 15 points behind him despite struggling badly at the start of the season. Had there been no controversial stewards decisions and Hamilton had finished the season with 7 wins given all the pressure on the team and the legal impediments to their performance coupled with the way he destroyed his team mate would the same people have made him their driver of the year?
Date Added: 24/11/2008

If some drivers have a chance for a win then they will go for it, points or medals. But I believe sometimes you see a DNF because the car is not perfect, maybe because of a collision, and there is no points in sight. If you watch Le Mans races then you will see everybody try to finish no matter how much behind they are, sometimes I think the F1 drivers could some if this spirit. Thats why I like the idea of points to more drivers, but I understand the argument about devaluating the value of getting points.
Date Added: 24/11/2008

Steven: i think what people are saying with the idea that Kubica was the best driver of the year is that he did the best with the machinery available to him. In assessing a driver's ability, it is necessary to take into account the car he is driving too - and Kubica kept the BMW in contention, often ahead of one or other of the McLarens and Ferraris. He made fewer mistakes than the two who emerged in the lead at the end and that must mean something.

Kubica fans are saying that he was a match for both Hamilton and Massa and the only thing that kept him from the championship was his lesser machinery. As it happens, I agree with you that Hamilton was the driver of the year - without the dubious decisions of the stewards, he would have been champion well before the end of the season. But he did have one of the two best cars...

Yes, 1982 was an unusual year - it is always unusual when a driver wins the championship without winning more races than others. If some put themselves out of contention, that is hardly Keke's fault and, in the circumstances, he was the right champion. Regardless of the reasons for others failing to put the necessary points on the board, Rosberg did it in a car that should not have won any races, let alone one.
Date Added: 24/11/2008

Hezla: Actually, I fail to see why there should be any change to the method of awarding the championship at all. Is Bernie saying the wrong drivers are becoming champions under the existing system? And, if so, which ones are they?

The only possible candidates are those who won in a clearly superior car - and they would have been champions whatever system was in place.
Date Added: 24/11/2008

In all deference to you, Clive, the best driver never to win a championship was Sir Stirling.
Date Added: 24/11/2008

Steven Roy

I understand the points being made by those who think Kubica was the driver of the year but I can't make a case for giving him that. You may as well use the same justification for giving it to Webber or Vettel or anyone else who beat his team mate in an uncompetitive car.

Kubica scored 25% more points than his team mate with the same equipment. Hamilton even with the mistakes and the FIA donating quite a few of his points to Massa scored more than 50% more than his team mate.

You also have to consider all the factors at play and not just the results. Kubica had no external pressure whatever on him. Hamilton had last year's 'failure' hanging over him. He had the FIA penalising him and not penalising his rival. His team was not allowed to use technology that was available to every other team on the grid hile everyone else had access to the J-damper; details of which the FIA chose to make public. Oh and the kid is in only his second season of F1 and his first as team leader and championship favourite.

To me Kubica's claim to driver of the year is not remotely close to Hamilton's.

Massa has a far better claim. He started the season as number 2 to a driver who won the championship in his first season in a Ferrari. His start to the season was nothing short of disastrous but he turned it round to the extent that people are still prepared to believe that Kimi Raikkonen who was widely believed to be the fastest drive on the grid at the start of the season will retire.

You could even make a better case for Alonso than Kubica. Nelsinho Piquet almost beat Lewis Hamilton to the GP2 title so he must be a decent driver at worst. Either that or there are other reasons for his competitiveness in a spec series. But while Alonso was lucky to finish the championship level on points with Hamilton in 2007 he utterly destroyed Piquet scoring more than 3 times as many points and blowing him away to the extent that few people expected Piquet's grand prix career to run to a second season.

I just however hard I look find any reason to make Kubica driver of the season.
Date Added: 24/11/2008

Steven Roy
The best driver never to win a world championship was Gilles Villeneuve.
Date Added: 24/11/2008

Don: Misunderstanding - Chris Amon was the best driver never to win a championship GP. He won quite a few that did not count towards the championship, however (they had such things in those days). Moss won many championship GPs but never the championship itself (same goes for Villeneuve).
Date Added: 24/11/2008

Steven: I agree with you as regards Kubica - apart from anything else, he was beaten by his team mate towards the end of the year and, as has been said, no one (except me) rates Heidfeld as anything special.
Date Added: 24/11/2008

I disagree Clive. I've always believed in "Quick Nick". With Webber, potentially (and arguably) another Chris Amon. Let's hope not.
Date Added: 25/11/2008

There are so few of us believers in Heidfeld left, Toby. ;)
Date Added: 25/11/2008

My memory is not what it was, but many years ago I read Jackie Stewart's book: "Faster, a racer's diary". At one GP I believe he says at the start he settled in behind Amon in second, not worried because he knew Chris would make a mistake and let him by. Jackie has a healthy respect for his own ability and not too much for anyone else's, excepting Clark and Rindt. Still that's a pretty devestating comment on Amon. And I agree with Don, the best driver to never win the WDC was Moss. And I have a great respect for Gilles. Going to Long Beach one year we were told it was impossible to drift a ground effects car, yet I watched Gilles do lap after lap of perfect drifts around the old turn 3 after the original pits. Just up to the concrete every time. As for the points I say 10,6,4,3,2,1 is about right. Medals suck, though I think the plan is to give silver and bronze as well and they will count somehow. Or not?
Date Added: 25/11/2008

I think Jackie was joking when he said that about Amon - very few of Amon's retirements were through his own fault, most being the result of mechanical failure.

Gilles was able to drift a ground effect car because the Ferrari was one of the worst at using ground effect! To see what happens when you take a ground effect car to the limit, watch video of Piquet in the Brabham BT49 - he was constantly on the limit, the car twitching through the corners as it tried to let go, only to be caught each time by Nelson. True ground effect cars would not drift - they just suddenly let go completely!
Date Added: 25/11/2008

Steven Roy
The reason Gilles has a reputation for being an agressive sideways driver is because a lot of the cars he drove were garbage. Enzo Ferrari was the most backward looking man in the history of motor racing. He was slow to adapt to the engine moving behind the driver at the end of the 50s and 20 years later he was still convinced that all you needed to win was a good engine. It is hard to believe now but Ferrari's chassis design was years behind anyone else's. I am certain Ferrari thought aerodynamics was just a fad and in a couple of years it would be gone and so long as he could produce a powerful V12 they would be competitive.

As an example of how bad some of those cars were only once in the history of the world championship has a reigning world champion failed to qualify for a race. That was Jody Scheckter in Canada in 1980. Gilles not only qualified but somehow finished 5th but he was playing by different rules to anyone else.
Date Added: 26/11/2008

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