What difference would today’s points system make to the World Championships of the past?Mike Lawrence investigates
World Championships are not won by winning races, they’re won by scoring points, and the system has been changed many times. When the World Championship began it was a selection of six races from the 22 races run to Formula One in 1950. You counted the four best results and the scoring was 8-6-4-3-2 with nothing for sixth. Drivers could share both a car and the points and there was one point for fastest lap.
Today you count every result from 16 or 17 races with the winner scoring 10 points and second still on six. We have to assume that the current system is perceived to be the best that has been devised to date so, applying it retrospectively, who would have been World Champion on today’s rules?
Would Stirling Moss have beaten Mike Hawthorn in 1958, or Jack Brabham in 1959? Would James Hunt have beaten Niki Lauda by a single point in 1976? Keke Rosberg was World Champion in 1982, despite winning only one race — but under the current system, would he still be on the list of world champions? Who would go up, who would go down? At this point you may want to grab a pen and paper and write down the main changes you think would occur.
From 1950 to 1960 the Indianapolis 500 was included in the championship, but it had no effect on the series. It is great for club quiz nights, if you happen to know that Troy Ruttmann, winner of the 1952 Indy 500 is still the youngest driver to win a race counting for the championship. (Bruce McLaren was 24 days older when he won the 1959 United States Grand Prix at Sebring.)
The scoring system changed in 1960 when the point for fastest lap was dropped and given to the sixth-placed finisher. Winning was boosted from eight points to nine in 1961, but there was still the matter of dropping results and the number varied from year to year. There was even a system when you counted your best scores from the first half of the season and then you added these to the best results from the second part of the season. It was as clear as mud.
One other thing: from 1950 to 1960 drivers could share cars and points. Luigi Fagioli is in the history books as the oldest winner, but he was lying fourth in the 1951 French GP when he handed over his car to Fangio. For the purpose of this exercise, Fangio gets zero points, because his car broke down, while Fagioli gets points for fourth. That’s where he was placed when he handed his car over and nobody then ahead of him retired.
So, who is in and who is out? Under modem rules, the first time a championship might have been a cliffhanger was 1951 when Fangio would have gone into the final round on 22 points to the 26 of championship leader, Alberto Ascari. Ferrari ruined Ascari’s chances by fitting smaller wheels and wrecking their tyres, but if they had a four-point advantage, would they have experimented with their wheels? Might they not have played safe?
They didn’t and Fangio won the race with Ascari in fourth. Under modern rules, Fangio takes the title by three points, 32 to Ascari’s 29. The actual final score, from the best four results, was 31 to 25, while the gross scores were Fangio 37, Ascari 28.
There are a lot of figures here and not everyone likes sums. Under modem rules, however, Fangio still takes the title. He has to drop points because of a shared drive and points for fastest laps, but he remains the 1951 World Champion.
Do you want to change your predictions at this point? The modem system closes the gap between Ascari and Fangio, but does not change the result. Does Hunt still beat Lauda in 1976? Does Lauda still beat Prost in 1984?
Ascari dominated the next two seasons, then Fangio did the same in 1954 and 1955, so there is no problem until 1956 when the ‘split drive’ rule really comes into its own. Fangio and Moss, first and second in the series, both exercised their droit de seigneur but, under modern rules, the World Champion is Peter Collins from Moss with Fangio third.
Collins thus becomes the first British World Champion. In fact, he might have done under 1956 rules had he not volunteered to hand over his car to Fangio in the final race. It was a sporting gesture without parallel in motor racing. Collins took the view that he was young enough to take the world title another time, ignoring the cruelty of the sport that would claim his life within two years.
Fangio thus retires with four, not five, titles. Four in eight years is hardly inconsequential but, for the time being, it sets a different target for drivers such as Prost and all the triple champions Brabham, Stewart, Lauda, Piquet and Senna although do these drivers all stay where they are?
Stirling Moss becomes World Champion in 1958 and this is probably the one which most people will have predicted. After all, Moss won four races to Mike Hawthorn’s one. The title chase went down to the wire and, to win the title, Moss had to win the final race and take fastest lap which he did. Hawthorn had only to finish second which he also did. Both drivers fulfilled every last requirement and Hawthorn won by a single point. But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Hawthorn won by a single point because only the best six results (from ten) counted ; Hawthorn actually grossed 49 points to Moss’s 41. In other words, under 1958 rules it was a contrived ending to the series. If he hadn’t had to drop points, Hawthorn would have walked it.
Take away the points for fastest lap, count 10 points rather than eight for a win, and count every result and the final score would have been… 46 points each, a dead heat. Moss takes the title on the number of first places. In this scenario, Hawthorn becomes an also-ran, a man who won only three Grands Prix in his life and never quite made it to the top as his great friend Peter Collins, the 1956 champion, had done. Moss gets his title, but he loses an important distinction, ‘the greatest driver never to be World Champion’. Moss himself says he has been able to gain more capital from the fact that he never won the title than if he had won it only once or twice.
Using the modem scoring system Jim Clark does not go into the final race of 1962 with a chance of the championship; Graham Hill has it sewn up long before. Hill also wins the 1964 drivers’ title by a single point from John Surtees, although it’s worth pointing out that Clark won more races that year than either of them. This makes Hill (14 wins) a triple champion ahead of Jim Clark, despite the fact that Clark scored 25 wins from 72 starts against Hill’s 176 starts. In 1967 Clark won four races to the two of Denny Hulme, but again the championship remains unchanged.
This raises questions about the World Championship itself. Does it mean anything when Stirling Moss, Gilles Villeneuve, Ronnie Peterson and Tony Brooks did not win it? Not only does Hill become champion ahead of Surtees but, using the modem system of scoring, BRM wipes Ferrari from the Constructors’ Cup. It is not just the value for a win which has changed, but there is the matter of the number of finishers a constructor can count.
In 1965, constructors could count just the best finish of one of its cars so, if Cooper finished first, third and fourth and BRM grabbed second, then Cooper scored nine points to the six of BRM. Today Cooper would take 17 and BRM only six, which more accurately reflects the difference in superiority but does not take account of the fact that, these days, constructors are allowed to enter only two cars per race.
There were seven Brabhams in the 1964 British Grand Prix, two works cars and five privateers, but Maserati and Ferrari often had five or more works cars in a race in the 1950s. Translating the Drivers’ Championship to modem rules is a doddle when compared with the Constructors’ Cup.
After the excitement of the 1964 season, when the drivers’ title was decided between Clark, Hill and Surtees on the last lap of the last race, the Championship then settled down until 1976 when James Hunt took the title by a single point from Niki Lauda, with the score Hunt 69, Lauda 68. Hunt won by a point at the end of a season marked by disqualifications, mixed fortunes and Lauda’s terrible crash at the Nurburgring. Am I the only person who feels that Lauda should have been World Champion in 1976 something which would give him the distinction of winning three titles on the trot yet cannot bring myself deny Hunt his triumph?
Okay, let’s apply modem rules to 1976. The score is Hunt 74, Lauda 73 Hunt still wins by a single point. Many people have said that Keke Rosberg was lucky to become World Champion in 1982 since he won only a single race, but 11 drivers won races that year and nobody scored more than two victories. Eleven winners in one year? It happened, and you don’t have to be a greybeard to remember it. Under modem rules, Rosberg’s title is safe. John Watson and Didier Pironi, who were tied on points just behind Rosberg, move one point closer but Rosberg stays out in front.
The closest title fight in history came two years later when Niki Lauda beat his McLaren-TAG team-mate Alain Prost by half a point. But in this exercise the revised final score is Prost 78.5, Lauda 77. It is still a cliffhanger, but Prost takes an extra title and does so again in 1988 when he wins easily from Ayrton Senna (105 to 94) where as the history books have the score Senna 90, Prost 87.
The remarkable thing is how little change there actually is when you apply modem rules. There are only two new Champions, Collins and Moss, and only two drivers stripped of their sole title, Hawthorn and Surtees, and then by no more than a single point.
For the rest, it is a slight redistribution of titles among the multiple winners. Lauda and Senna become ‘merely’ double Champions, while Graham Hill joins Brabham, Piquet and Stewart as a triple champion. Fangio has to be content with four titles while Main Prost reigns supreme as six-times World Champion.
That is what happens when you apply modem rules. In fact, not a lot happens but, I bet, that is not what you wrote down. And it’s not what I thought I’d find when I started.