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Fastest Lap Point Will Be Irrelevant And Confusing

12th March 2019

The positives of awarding a point for fastest lap in Formula 1 grands prix are limited – the new rule is going to be at best irrelevant, and at worst confusing and give rise to new conspiracies

While awarding a point for fastest lap in each F1 race superficially appeals as a means to add an extra dimension to grands prix, it creates problems. The fact that this new point must be caveated by a rule awarding it only to drivers if they finish in the top 10 is proof that it is fundamentally flawed from the off.

It’s not an unprecedented move. For the first 10 seasons of the world championship, there was a point for fastest lap, which was transferred to reward sixth place from 1960 onwards.

But this was a very different time, one in which the achievement was at least a little more relevant – even if the lack of precision timing created the odd situation of seven different drivers splitting the point, 0.14 apiece, at the 1954 British Grand Prix.

The measure allowing only those in the top 10 to score this point is understandable given what we’ve seen in other categories in the past, where late in a race those with no hope of a good result have compromised their overall finish for a tilt at fastest lap. So the top 10 rule has been added to prevent such farces. But it also means someone on a legitimate strategy that might net a close 11th place will miss out.

In short, the top-10-only rule is a messy attempt to tackle the big limitation of the fastest lap: namely that it’s so dependent on the race situation. Even though it will create an extra talking point, it will have to be so heavily caveated that it will just seem like another of F1’s overly complicated rules. If you want a point for fastest lap, fine, award it. But if you don’t like the negatives, then that’s proof the idea is a tiresome halfway house.

Of the 997 points that would have been awarded were there one available for every fastest lap, there are a total of 159 drivers (including Alberto Ascari, one of the seven from Silverstone ’54) who did not finish inside the top 10 and therefore, using the proposed rule, would not have held onto their point (or fragment of one). So history tells us the fastest lap will go unrewarded on a regular basis.

Applying the law retrospectively to test its impact is always of limited value because the existence of the rule will likely have changed who took each fastest lap. But there are three occasions when awarding a single point for fastest lap, provided the driver finished in the top 10, would have changed the title outcome. By a quirk of history, all three involve Alain Prost.

Prost would have won the 1984 and ’88 crowns instead of Niki Lauda and Ayrton Senna respectively, while Nelson Piquet would have taken the ’86 crown from him.

As a footnote, it’s also worth noting that, were the point awarded regardless of where the driver finished, it would give Felipe Massa the 2008 world title over Lewis Hamilton. Needless to say, the circumstance of the races in each of those seasons would have changed had the rule been in place, but this does prove that the fastest lap point could be significant.

The positive impact is that it would persuade drivers in leading positions to set aside the race management for a moment and have a dash at fastest lap in search of that point. The hope is presumably that it would impact race strategy, but it would surely only push a leading driver into making an extra stop were the balance between, say, one or two stops to be a 50/50 call. And such situations will be very rare, given how important track position is even in the DRS era.

There are more complicated scenarios that could arise. Let’s say Hamilton leads from Valtteri Bottas by a few seconds, with a handy advantage over third place. In such a situation it would be logical to let Hamilton stop for fresh rubber, set fastest lap and then get waved back past Bottas. Now, were Bottas in enough clear air also to make a stop, he could do it too and make it look more natural, but what if he were not a pitstop clear and couldn’t do that?

There is also potential for collusion. A backmarker with a connection to a rival big team being uncooperative, an ill-timed yellow flag – these things are possible. And if it’s at the end of a very tight championship battle, it would be naive to think that such trickery won’t at least cross the minds of some.

The reality is that the chase for fastest lap will more often than not be won by one of the big teams and only be of passing interest. If anything, the addition of the point will make the fastest lap ‘winner’ more predictable. The downside is that there will be times when it gets messy, which could outweigh what is at best the gentle positive impact the point for fastest lap would have the rest of the time.

One extreme possibility would be if a title could be swung by getting a driver with fastest lap into the top 10 late on. Imagine the conspiracy theories that would arise were a Haas to conveniently retire and create a situation that would give a Ferrari driver the title. It’s desperately unlikely, but strange things do happen.

But the most compelling argument is that fastest lap is largely irrelevant. Qualifying is the test of one-lap pace, the race comprises a sequence of laps. And fastest lap is too sensitive to race situations. It could be decided by one driver getting DRS at a convenient moment, either by chance or with a little help from an ally, and another not.

It’s just too situation specific. The rule change is rooted in a desire to see drivers push more, which is laudable, but this isn’t the way to achieve it, especially in a season that’s likely to feature plenty of one-stop races and the potential addition of more serious graining problems to manage on top of the rest of the challenges.

It’s also often going to be an extra bonus for someone in a dominant car. Given that the best way to draw yourself away from specific situations is to be way out front, it will let any driver in that position pick off fastest lap almost at their leisure should the situation allow it.

Fastest lap should be, at best, an interesting footnote. Fastest laps have created some oddities over the years, perhaps the most unusual of which was in the 1982 British Grand Prix. Brian Henton never scored a point in his 19-start F1 career, but during his season at Tyrrell – very much as Michele Alboreto’s number two – he banged in fastest lap at Brands Hatch.

The circumstances were unusual in that he crunched his nosecone on Roberto Guerrero’s Ensign at the start of the race, in the confusion after Riccardo Patrese stalled his Brabham and was collected by Alain Prost. Henton pitted for replacement bodywork and fresh rubber at the end of lap 40, which allowed him to pip Williams driver Derek Daly to fastest lap by 0.151s on the 63rd time round.

Henton is the only driver to have set a fastest lap but never scored a point, and is one of a group of only 10 to have achieved the feat without ever having stood on the podium. Predictably, Nico Hulkenberg is the only one of that group to have more than one fastest lap, having notched them up in Singapore 2012 and China ’16.

Given the high-degradation tyres of recent years, you’d guess there would be many more from the Pirelli era, but the only other names on the list from that period are Bruno Senna (Spa 2012 for Williams) and Esteban Gutierrez (Barcelona ’13 for Sauber).

Such anomalies as Bertrand Gachot, who abandoned a plan to no-stop at the Hungaroring in 1991 and banged in fastest lap for Jordan, Jonathan Palmer, thanks to conditions worsening in the 1989 Canadian GP after strong early pace, and Satoru Nakajima, in the wet in Australia (pictured below) later that year, also crop up on the list.

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