until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Could a NASCAR-style F1 playoff stop Mercedes?

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
7 min read

If this idea sparked a low-budget Netflix documentary, the description would write itself: “Formula 1 seasons lacked pay-off. So, they made a play-off.”

NASCAR has never held my attention beyond a passing interest in who wins the Daytona 500, so the adoption of an artificial showdown at the end of the year obviously had little effect in the first year of the ‘Chase’ in 2004. And the contrived run-in, now known as the Playoffs, doesn’t hook me to this day.

However, for devoted fans, at least there’s an end-of-year reward of sorts even if the season is lacking narrative through the year.

NASCAR Phoenix 2020

As recently explored in another piece, that’s something F1’s longer (and less captivating) seasons are sorely missing. Especially in the Lewis Hamilton/Mercedes era.

After another season of Hamilton domination with the title wrapped up long before the season finale, and that finale turning out to be an utterly boring race, the thought occurred: would F1 benefit from its own Chase/Playoffs/Grand Final?

Even if it was staged, would the ends justify the means?

Well, here we are, partly regretting the decision to pick up this thought and run with it by fleshing out how it might work and what the pros and cons might be.

We’ve rejected the idea of having an out-and-out winner-takes-all finale, or final double-header, because that’s too cheap even for a hypothetical scenario.

And we also still want there to be a narrative across the last few races, and do not rate the chances of an Abu Dhabi season finale delivering on a proper showdown. The prospect of qualifying at Yas Marina regularly deciding the championship is too depressing!

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Abu Dhabi, F1

But here is the basic premise. And before you write it off completely, keep in mind F1 did commit to a double points finale in 2014: so this kind of ‘creative’ thinking isn’t without precedent.

  • The F1 Playoffs takes place across the final rounds of the year. The cut-off point for qualification is roughly the three-quarter stage of a normal season. If there are 22 races, for example, the top eight drivers after 16 grands prix would be eligible for the Playoffs.
  • Each driver will start with a qualifying points bonus that reflects their position after the races so far. So, first place starts the F1 Playoffs on 25 points, second on 20 points, third on 15, fourth on 10, fifth on eight, sixth on six, seventh on four and eight on two. This is so the first part of the season isn’t completely irrelevant points-wise for the final championship showdown.
  • After three Playoff races, the eight contenders will be cut to six. Positions will be determined by combining the base points total with the points scored in the next three races.
  • For the final showdown (let’s call it the Grand Final even though it’s held over three races!) the final six drivers carry their base points + the points across the three Playoff races into the conclusion of the season. The champion will therefore be determined by who has the highest tally from their qualifying points bonus and the last six events combined.

We’ve applied this idea to every year of the V6 turbo-hybrid era to get a feel for how it might work in practice. At this point we only need to keep in mind this is solely for the purpose of illustrating how this might work, rather than suggesting the season would still have played out the same way

Let’s take the 2020 season as the most recent example. Here we work on the basis that the Playoffs kick in after round 11 of 17. A three-race run (across Portugal, Imola and Turkey) sets up the Grand Final, which takes place over the last three grands prix (Bahrain, Sakhir and Abu Dhabi).

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Portuguese Grand Prix Race Day Portimao, Portugal


Qualifying driver Points after 12 GPs Qualifying points bonus
Hamilton 230 25
Bottas 161 20
Verstappen 147 15
Ricciardo 78 10
Perez 68 8
Norris 65 6
Albon 64 4
Leclerc 63 2

Hamilton then wins the next three grands prix, meaning he ends the first round of the Playoffs with a healthy, almost unassailable advantage.

Points heading into Grand Final

Hamilton 102
Bottas 56
Perez 40
Verstappen 38
Leclerc 36
Ricciardo 28

Even in this format, the odds are on Hamilton’s side. But it’s at least mathematically possible that Valtteri Bottas can take it to the wire. Max Verstappen’s Imola DNF, however, has all but ruled him out of contention. Hamilton’s victory in Bahrain then seals the deal, making his no-show for the second Sakhir race as irrelevant in this reality as in our own.

Obviously 2020 is an unusual example, not because of the shorter season but because Mercedes was more dominant than ever. So what happened when we ‘simulated’ the other V6 turbo-hybrid years? Well…

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

Nothing. At least in terms of changing the eventual champion. If we assumed that every single moment of every grand prix happened exactly as it did in reality, Hamilton still sweeps to six of seven titles and Nico Rosberg still edges the 2016 crown.

However, it’s fair to say this system made for much more interesting run-ins – which is the point.

This is what it means for every season since 2014:

Year Lead before last GP In reality Contenders in last GP In reality
2020 40 127 1 1
2019 13 73 2 1
2018 21 81 3 1
2017 11 43 4 1
2016 9 12 2 2
2015 23 66 2 1
2014 19 17 2 2

In this reality, Bottas had a realistic shot at a first title in the 2019 finale. In 2018, Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen (!) both had mathematical chances to dethrone Hamilton but were extreme long shots.

Hamilton’s real-world dip in form in late-2017 skews that year’s picture and sets up a fictitious four-way shootout with Bottas, Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel. In each of the Hamilton vs Rosberg years, the title is only sealed in Abu Dhabi.

That’s the obvious upside. Now for the caveats.

The events of the final few races of each season are probably rather different with the change in circumstances. For example, the 2017 showdown looks incredible in a Playoff universe but it’s highly unlikely Hamilton would be so underwhelming over the final three races because the title wouldn’t be all wrapped up.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Brazilian Grand Prix 2017

Also, in each season the pressure would be on Mercedes constantly developing to the end. So the likelihood is that in years Mercedes came under pressure at the end (the last two seasons in particular) because of a relaxed development state, this would be replaced by an enhanced car.

But side-effect of that would be that Mercedes probably couldn’t switch off early, and likely wouldn’t – and therefore wouldn’t get its usual headstart on the following season.

Teams have more reason or need to keep developing, which means you don’t get into a cycle of one team dominating a season, turning attention to next year early, dominating that season, and so on. An end-of-year playoff-style system would therefore have probably impacted Mercedes every year from 2015 onwards.

So, there are benefits to this. We’ve rigged the system to keep some interest going until the very last race in all but one season. And we’ve probably stopped titles being stockpiled because each fight would be intense and go the distance.

Having created this monstrosity though, we must now destroy it. It is a more acceptable middle-ground than a winner-takes-all finale but it’s still utterly contrived and not befitting a full championship. F1 is a season-long contest, fought out across multiple countries, tracks and conditions. All of which should give equal weight.

Red Bull and Ferrari should not be given a free shot at the title at the very end if they were out of touch for 75% of the season. It’s a nonsense solution to create an artificial fight. Mercedes’ rivals should do better. If they don’t, they keep losing.

Red Bull Ferrari F1

So, what was the motivation for this exercise?

Partly curiosity, to see if it really made much difference. Partly to test the theory Red Bull, for example, has title-challenging form too late in the year (this checks out: Verstappen finished runner-up in 2018 and 2020 in the Playoff system, and third in 2017).

But it was mainly to emphasise the sort of surgery that’s required for modern F1 to have any kind of title challenge in the Mercedes/Hamilton era.

We’ve torn up the rulebook, given in to ‘easy’ fixes, not accounted for any Mercedes/Hamilton slow-down that may have occurred in the real world – and still couldn’t deny that juggernaut a series of titles.

Dec 21 : Your F1 season verdict

F1 will undoubtedly hope that new technical rules, a budget cap and aerodynamic testing handicap, and maybe some other yet-to-be-concocted proposals, will combine to end the Mercedes era and send the championship full-speed into a period of authentic title showdowns.

Our alternate reality underlines how far behind the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari have fallen in recent years, and the size of the upset required for this period of domination to end.

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