Scoring in hang gliding competition has been through many different iterations over the years and has varied greatly. A lot of these changes were driven by improved performance - Johnny Carr will tell you all about the good old days when competitions were won on a simple matter of how far you could glide in a straight line from the top of the hill.
This article does not seek to look back at the plethora of ancient means of separating the sky gods from the stuffed turkeys. Instead it will attempt to shed some light on the very complicated system of scoring we have now, and the rationale that dictates the underlying principles. It should also, perhaps, allow the more gifted pilots some insights to help them make sound tactical decisions on task. For the rest of us it should provide an informative overview of this ‘black art’.
Before we consider how the scoring system awards the points, we must ﬁrst understand what the aim of the scoring system is. My view is that the aim of the scoring system should be to allow the best pilot to outscore his or her competitors over the course of an event by demonstrating their superior skill.
This may seem straightforward, but enacting it is no easy matter. There is the small task of deﬁning what is going to be measured and how this is going to be rewarded. But the ﬁrst point that must be considered is that almost all forms of competition, sport or games contain elements of skill and also elements of chance, blended together in certain proportions.
Games of chance are characterised by uncertainty and adventure. For example, roulette is a very deterministic game of chance, with no skill involved at all (let’s not debate this point please?). As a result the house can actually calculate the proﬁt with a high degree of accuracy. The Grand National is a horse race in which being the fastest jockey and horse plays only a small part in determining the outcome of the race. These are both contests in which a winner requires a good dollop of luck to supplement their skill and
technique (if the game allows technique to play a part in the ﬁrst place).
Games of skill are characterised by certainty and predictability in which the most skilful player very regularly comes out on top. Examples include golf and in particular chess, where the best player can go years unbeaten. There is therefore a spectrum of skill vs chance, and all forms of competition will sit somewhere on this sliding scale.
The question is, where would we like hang gliding to reside, and how can the scoring system allow us to get the right mix of skill and chance to determine the best pilot?
Elements of chance that affect hang gliding competitions include:
• Unpredictable weather . Often the weather, against the forecast, dramatically improves to give later pilots an advantage. Who has ever been on a long glide to nowhere, only to see a competitor climb out directly over your landing ﬁeld ten minutes later?
• Other pilots and birds. How often have you been saved because a buzzard just happened to be close by, marking the low thermal for you?
• Equipment. Not strictly an element of chance, but the pilot who can afford the best kit will gain an advantage over a poorer competitor .
Elements of skill that affect hang gliding include:
• Core ﬂying ability. The best pilot can out-thermal everyone else (somehow!) and all too often will be top of the stack on exiting the start. The scoring system does not seek to measure this directly, but by dint of the fact that a pilot completes a course (or gets further round that anyone else), ﬂying ability is indirectly measured.
• Decision making. In many ways this is the key attribute in a pilot’s make-up that separates him or her from everyone else. It’s the main reason why we don’t often determine a winner over a speed gliding course with a spot landing at the end. Modern
scoring systems place great weight on this element, and will only award signiﬁcant points when there is evidence that a series of sound decisions have been
made by the pilot.
• Equipment. The best pilots will test, adjust and tune whatever glider they have to get performance that they are happy with.
Therefore, since hang gliding is a mix of both skill and luck, in order to achieve the aim stated at the beginning, the scoring system should attempt to reward elements of skill and mitigate against the effects of chance.
Before moving on to determine how that is done in practice, an extra element needs to be taken into account - safety. In a similar way to the spectrum of skill and chance, there is a balance of risk against safety that adds an extra dimension to hang gliding
that is not present in most sports.
I watched a video of the 1985 World Hang Gliding Championships in Kossen, in which John Pendry became World Champion. I was horriﬁed to see the ﬁnal task set into a storm, which pilots were queuing to take off into. The publicly-voiced attitude
of the day was that the top pilots are prepared to take any risk to win! A similar attitude was prevalent in motor sport in years gone by, and I’m pleased to
see that drivers are no longer expected to be willing to kill themselves in order to be competitive. This is also now the attitude in hang gliding.
There is no doubt that in sports that contain elements of risk, unless controlled, it is inevitable that a tactical advantage can be gained by taking more risks than the rest of the ﬁeld are prepared to stomach. Since it is generally believed that we
want our competition winners to be the ones with the most skill and not the biggest balls, the scoring system (and the organisation of the competitions) should, and do, mitigate against taking risks. The goal is to try and reduce the advantage gained by taking unnecessary or excessive risks so that there is little to be gained by doing so. However risk can never be eliminated and competition pilots must be comfortable with
some level of danger .
There are other dimensions to reducing the incentive to take risks, in addition to scoring
system and the organisation of a competition (e.g.the use of a safety committee, etc). The measuring of sprog settings at major competitions to eliminate the pressure on pilots to have unstable glider conﬁgurations is a further example of steps that can be taken to make competitions a measure of skill.
How many points can be scored?
Lets how the GAP scoring system works in practice.
It attempts to balance the need to reward the skill of the pilots against the results being skewed by good or bad luck. Before we examine hang gliding tasks in any depth, we ﬁrst need to deﬁne a few terms:
A task normally consist of a launch, some number of turn-points and a goal. Part of the course will be timed and marked by the start of the speed section and the end of the speed section.
The place that the pilots take off from.
The total distance travelled in a task is measured from this point.
Start of Speed Section.
A turn-point which starts the
clock running. It is almost always the ﬁrst turn-point, but it does not have to be.
End of Speed Section.
A turn-point that stops the clock running. It is often the goal, but does not have to be.
Marks the end of the course. Total task distance is measured from launch to the goal. The pilots do not necessarily have to land here.
Normally set periods of time (15 or 20minutes apart). A pilot’s start time will be measured from the start gate immediately prior to the last time they left the start of the speed section. For example, if the ﬁrst start gate is at 1300, the second will be at 1320, the third at 1340, etc. Normally a pilot may not start before the ﬁrst start gate.
The GAP scoring system requires a competition set using the following structure: a launch, a start of speed section and end of speed section (to get a measured time to compare), and a goal. (Open distance tasks are not common and will not be discussed here.)
The way in which a competition is scored is very complex, so put on some strong black coffee and get your thinking caps on.What is about to follow requires your complete attention!
Firstly, a number of settings must be made which “tweak” the performance of the scoring
programme. These should be set according to the strength of the ﬁeld competing and the conditions in which the competition is taking place (i.e. the settings for an international meet should not be the same as for a club competition, and should be
set differently in Spain than in the UK when there is an expectation of better weather).Whatever the settings used, the golden rule is that they must not be changed once the competition has started. If they are, the goalposts will be moved and the
philosophy behind the scoring programme will not be applied correctly.
This is the setting that determines the minimum distance for which a task should be worth 1000 points. This should reﬂect what the ﬁeld should be capable of achieving on a
reasonable weather day at the chosen venue. If a task is less than this distance Pilots may not have had sufﬁcient time to demonstrate superior skill. Luck may well have played a signiﬁcant part and the task is devalued to reﬂect this. A typical value
for an international overseas hang gliding competition is 50km.
This is the distance which is credited to every pilot who takes off (without crashing!) if they don’t exceed that distance. The distance should be at least 10%of the nominal
distance and a common setting is 10km. This is very much a safety setting, designed to remove the temptation to ﬂy to the next ﬁeld to beat other pilots when the individual has clearly been beaten by the day or the conditions.
This setting should reﬂect the number of pilots the meet director would wish to see into goal on a well chosen task. 20 - 30% is a common setting for international competition.
This setting is the fastest time to complete a task below which the task should not be devalued. If the fastest pilot into goal has done so in less than the nominal time, it is presumed that the task was under-set. The best pilot will not have had time to make a series of sound judgements to demonstrate his or her skill. Luck may well have played a large part, so the task is reduced in value to account for this. Typically, 1 hour 30 minutes is chosen.