Are the cars or drivers getting more reliable?

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Today all but one of the 22 starters were classified finishers in the Turkish Grand Prix.

The retirement rate from races has been steadily decreasing for some time – so what’s causing it?

Are the cars getting more reliable? Are the drivers crashing less? Let’s see what the stats have to say…

Are the cars getting more reliable?

In a word: yes. This is a large part of why more drivers are finishing races. Only one driver suffered a race-ending mechanical failure today.

That was Mark Webber, a driver who seems cursed with peculiar mechanical misfortune – he suffered more race-ending car failures than any other driver last year, and is on course to claim the same dubious honour this year.

So far in 2007, 12.88% of all starts have ended in retirement due to car failure. That figure was 18.18% last year. Go back to 1997 and it was 24.6% – a quarter of the grid could expect their car to give up before the race was over. Today it’s closer to one in eight.

Here’s a graph that shows how the car failure rate held at around 25% or so in the late ’90s before falling through the 2000s:

What’s caused the reliability of the cars to improve?

The simple process of year-on-year improvement, growing budgets and increased professionalism are a large part of the explanation.

But also the value of having a supremely reliable car was well demonstrated by Ferrari in their massively successful campaigns of 2001-2004. It forced other teams to copy their approach – which Renault have done with notable success. Even though the team has slipped down the grid this year, their cars remain among the most reliable.

The revised points system introduced in 2003 also incentivised better reliability. The points accumulate more quickly if you’re picking them up in bundles of eight and six for second and third places with a reliable car, than taking sporadic wins with a fast but fragile machine, as Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren learned the hard way in 2005.

The 1961 Dutch Grand Prix was the first event at which no cars retired. That feat was matched twice in 2005 – once at the farcical United States Grand Prix where only six cars started – but also at the Italian Grand Prix at flat-out Monza where engines are under enormous stress.

This brings us to the final reason why cars are more reliable: the rules. Teams are now penalised ten grid places for every engine change they make, forcing them to concentrate on better reliability. The rev limiters introduced this year may be unpopular because they make overtaking more difficult, but along with the design freeze they have further improved reliability.

Are the drivers crashing less?

The other major cause of drivers failing to finish races is themselves, when they have crashes and spins. Are drivers of today crashing less than they used to?

Let’s take a look at the same graph again, but with the average race finishing rate and driver DNFs also plotted.

The rate of driver DNFs has decreased very slightly over the past decade. A possible reason for this could be that many circuit have moved barriers back and replaced gravel traps with tarmac run-off areas, meaning that drivers are less likely to retire if they have a spin.

Just how low can the retirement rate get?

In 2002 Michael Schumacher finished every single race. If a driver can do that and win the championship there’s no reason why we can’t see reliability continue to improve.

In a few years time perhaps seeing a retirement of any car during a race may be the exception rather than the norm?

Having said that, the future radical changes to the rules that are planned are likely to impact upon this trend, on a short-term basis at least. It’s clear to see from the graphs above how the introduction of V8 engines in 2006 caused a spike of unreliability that seems to have been corrected this year.

Photo: GEPA / Matthias Kniepeiss

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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3 comments on “Are the cars or drivers getting more reliable?”

  1. I’d just like to add the parce ferme conditions as part of reason for the increased reliability too.

    But this brings up a difficult question. Do we want the cars to be absolutely bulletproof? Obviously we don’t want to see drivers losing championships based on one engine failure or whatever, something out of their control. But as you say, the revised rules incentivise reliability. So any mechanical DNF these days is actually magnified, because it’s so much harder to come back from. The points structure doesnt help either. They used to say the perfect Formula 1 car is one which falls apart literally as it crosses the line. That was because the emphasis was on absolute performance. I don’t know how you can claim absolute performance if you have to make things last for longer than it should have to. Maybe it’s neccessary for “cost-cutting”, or whatever, but I think it loses some of the drama. A decade ago you’d be on the edge of your seat if your driver was in the lead, because you’d always think something (normally the engine) could fail any minute. These days engine failure is a rarity.

    And the driver-related DNF stats are interesting too. I’m sure the drivers are a little better, I’m sure the cars are also a little easier to drive than 20 or even 10 years ago. But again I agree that increased run-off tarmac areas rather than gravel are the biggest factor. The drivers are no longer properly penalised for making mistakes. Before, you missed a braking point and maybe your race was over. Now, you lose 5 or 6 seconds. Again, the emphasis used to be “to finish first, first you have to finish”. But now everyone finishes anyway. Look at Monaco, they moved back the barriers in places and lessened the challenge a bit.

    Obviously F1 is never going to stand still on any area, any technology, any philosophy. But I think the wrong direction has been taken in both these areas.

  2. Funny I was just thinking about this on my way to office this morning …

    a) The cars are more relaible – and that I think is not a good direction. That only means that the cars no longer race on the limit. The 2 race enginbe rule is as stupid as the 1 weekend engine rule was. And the fact that Fridays now do not count as a race weekend does not change anything. There is no cost saving, nobody will ever make the teams to save money. They save on engine, they blow it on aero etc. They will spend millions on adding extra winglet here and there and create more turbulence. Better have them spend the money on engine development, go back to unlimited revs …

    b) Drivers are not more reliable, they are more cautious … If the chance of actually overtaking the car in front is 0.001% unless the car ahead is much inferior or driver makes a mistake, why trying at all, why take risks … How many times did Alonso actually tried yesterday to overtake Heidfeld… Look at who takes risks – midfield cars that have nothing to loose, or McLaren or Ferrari if starting way down the grid and again, having nothing to loose … And this leads to the other post here with heated up discussion on aero …

  3. The cars are probably easier to drive. Hopefully next year when they lose traction control, we’ll see more errors that penalise mistakes. This may result in more non-finishes or race order changes, which may encourage more aggressive overtaking to reclaim lost positions.

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