Is Reliability Really Improving in F1?

Felipe Massa crashed his Williams machine during the 2014 German GP.
Felipe Massa crashed his Williams machine during the 2014 German GP. — Photo: Reuters

Mechanical reliability in Formula One is always a struggle for teams each year.  FIA, the governing body of the sport, reworks and changes the rules for the teams to follow each year.

Just going from the 2013 to 2014 season alone, there were huge changes to the rule books concerning the cars. The switch from V8 to V6 engines, decrease in fuel allotment down to 100kg, and fixed ratio gearboxes were just a few of the aspects of the sport that the FIA decided to change.  Whether these changes are good or bad, that depends on who you’re asking.

Nevertheless, the teams have to conform to them and update next year’s car based on them. With that, you get uncertainty in the performance of the car due to the limited testing sessions in the Formula One off-season.  There are only a few opportunities for teams to test out the changes they have made before they have to get the cars to the grid at Melbourne for the season to start.

But are teams getting any more reliable than they were in the early 90’s?  Are they able to adapt better, quicker, and use the testing sessions early on in the season more efficiently to eliminate mechanical failures?

A look at mechanical failures by year shows that, in short, reliability is improving overall as time goes by.  The numbers shown are percentages of mechanical failures by year, starting with 1992.  They were calculated by taking the total number of mechanical failures of a given year and dividing it by the total number of possible finishes if every car finished every race, (the total).  

Crashes, racing incidents, and disqualifications were not included because they do not have anything to do with the mechanical reliability of the car.  If a crash was caused by a brake failure or other mechanical issue, then it was included. 

Number of mechanical failures, by year.

  
As a whole, the percentage of mechanical failures is decreasing.  In 1992, there were 130 mechanical failures which is about 27% of all the finishes, an enormous amount by today’s standards.  Last year the sport saw just 27 failures, or about 6.4%.  That means that in 2014, there were 20.6% less failures than there were 23 years ago.  

By looking at the data, you can also see the spikes where unreliability drastically improved or decreased.

 2002 to 2004 specifically saw a large drop in mechanical failures.  It went from 29% to 17%, a drop of 12 points, in those years.  The reason?

Parc Ferme.

This rule was introduced at the start of the 2003 season and limited the work teams could do on the cars after qualifying started.  Prior to the rule being implemented, teams could have a qualifying and a race setup ready to go on the car.  Once qualifying was over (where setups built for speed would be used), race setups would go on (built for longer stints, better tire wear, ect.).  

Parc Ferme stopped this practice and limited the teams to performing very minor adjustments such as changing the tires and small setup tweaks.  With teams having to focus all weekend on one setup for qualifying and the race, reliability improved. 

They had all their attention working on one car for the race, not diverted to multiple setups, and reliability benefited greatly the next two years as teams came to grip with the new rule. The percentage of mechanical failures has never come close to the 29% it was at pre-Parc Ferme rule, an attribution to its success in that department.

Kimi Raikkonen pulls into Parc Ferme after qualifying.
Kimi Raikkonen pulls into Parc Ferme after qualifying. — Photo: Mirror UK

Another time that we saw a big change was 2005-2006.  This was when the FIA and Formula One decided to switch from V10 to V8 engines to limit the increasing engine power levels.  With the new engine in place, teams had to do some major re-modifications to their cars.  

Along with those changes came changes in reliability.  Failures rose from 11% to 18.2% for the 2006 season, a 7.2 point increase.  This was a significant rule change and teams were not as successful at implementing them as they had been previously with the V10’s.

2014 saw a plethora of new changes to the rule books.  Just like 05′-06′, these adaptations saw an effect on the performance of the cars.  High up on the laundry list of adaptations was the engine switch, this time from V8’s down to V6’s.  

There was a 6.6 point increase in the number of mechanical failures from the prior year, climbing up to 13%.  The engine wasn’t the only contributing factor, though, new aero regulations, tire weight, and the switch from KERS to ERS all no doubt had an impact.

2015, however, doesn’t have many changes from 2014 in terms of rules and car specifications that need to be met.  This should mean that reliability rates increase (lower in percentage) for the 2015 season. 

Valtteri Bottas’ 2014 Season Improvement is Underrated

William’s driver Valtteri Bottas.  Source: Gallery Hip

Williams Martini Racing driver Valtteri Bottas finished the 2013 Formula One season in 17th place in the driver’s championship, just one spot above his teammate Pastor Maldonado. Certainly not a terrible outing for a rookie in the series. But 2014 was a different story for the Finn, paired with ex-Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, Bottas finished in the top five of the points standings and came close to clinching a race win for Williams on several occasions. 

In the first five races of the 2014 season, Bottas had consecutive top ten finishes with the highest being fifth place in both Australia and Spain.  His 13 year-F1 veteran teammate had finishes of 20, 7, 7, 15, and 13 in those same five races, with Australia being a DNF due to a first lap crash.  Bottas has his lone DNF of the year in the next race, Monte Carlo, due to an engine failure on lap 56.  


After the disappointing setback in Monaco, Bottas really set himself apart from the “rest of the pack” and established himself as a firm competitor with the Mercedes duo of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.  The remaining 13 races on the calendar saw top ten finishes in all but Singapore (13th place finish) for Bottas, eight of those being top five performances. In 2013,  Valtteri Bottas had one top ten finish all year which came in the form of a P8 performance in Austin, Texas.  

The end of the year tally saw Bottas put up some impressive stats:  

  • Average start of 6.2
  • Average finish of 6.1
  • 6 podium finishes
  • 98% of the total laps run completed
Along with natural improvement, much of his success can be attributed to Williams’ 2014 chassis design and overall performance.  In 2014, the only mechanical failure came in Monte Carlo with an engine failure, making Williams one of the most reliable teams in the sport.  Only Force India and McLaren had just as impressive reliability, with one mechanical failure for each.   

Even with such an incredible second year in the sport, Bottas isn’t satisfied with his performance just yet, telling reporters he is “expecting a lot from next year.”  Williams have already announced prior to the 2014 season ending that both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas will drive for them in 2015.  Bottas shared that the team has “made some very impressive gains this season”, and that he’s confident the team is “moving in the right direction and can continue to be competitive.”

Bottas is just 25 years old, making him one of the younger drivers on the grid, and has all the signs of a long, successful career in front of him.  The large improvement from last year is a good sign of things to come for Bottas.  With Williams Racing regaining some of their historical success in recent years, the team is a good fit for a championship contending Bottas.  2014 was an inspiring year for the young Finn, and he’ll be looking to build on that and take another shot at the title next year.  

Is Williams Finally Regaining Their Old Success?

Williams drivers Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa in front of the 2014 Williams F1 car.  Source: motorsportchannel.com

Back in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, Williams Formula 1 team was a powerhouse of the sport. Their drivers included Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, Michael Schumacher and Aryton Senna.  They had tremendous success with these drivers, bringing home multiple driver’s and constructor’s World Championships.   But in the last couple of years, Williams has been at an all time low, finishing 9th, 8th and 9th again the last three years in the Constructor’s Championship.  


But this year has been different.  Williams seems to be regaining their game after the addition of Felipe Massa to their team and keeping Valtteri Bottas.  Ten races into the season, Williams is third in the Constructor’s Championship (just ahead of Ferrari) and Bottas is fifth in the driver’s side of things, with no sign of slowing down (Figure 1).  At the German Grand Prix this year Bottas started second and Massa third, a tremendous qualifying result for the team.

So what’s making them so strong?  To start, they have a strong and experienced Massa paired with 24 year old Bottas, and they are both performing at a very high level.  

Bottas has been on the podium three times and has an average finish so far of 6.3.  This is far better than last years stats of no podiums and a 14.4 finish.  If Valtteri Bottas continues his form through the rest of the season, he could definitely see a new contract offer from another team.  Bottas is all set to keep improving in the coming seasons, with his points going from 4 in 2013 thorough all 19 races to 91 this season through just 10.  Bottas’ success this season is a huge part of the Williams team great success so far.  

The other half of the team is governed bye ex-Ferrari driver and 11 time winner Felipe Massa.  He is the veteran of the team with 12 years of F1 experience under his belt. Although he was never a world champion, Massa has been crazy consistent in a Formula 1 car.  His average start and average finish are 8.4 and 12.8, respectively.  It is very valuable for Williams and in particular Bottas to have an experienced driver to help with getting the car set up.  

Figure 1


Williams as a team has had it’s fair share of retirements, (4) but only on three other occasions have one of their drivers finished outside of the top ten.  This is a testament to the drivers and teams consistency.  They haven’t been good on just one track but have performed well on all of the circuits.  These types of results are what put Williams in the Constructor’s Championship running.  I don’t think they have the car or driver (yet) to win a Driver’s World Championship, but they certainly are moving in the right direction.  

If Williams can continue to improve the reliability and speed of the car, as well as continue to get young talent like Bottas on the team, they are looking as if they can regain their success of the past in the coming years.  As for the rest of the season, we’ll have to see if either Bottas or Massa can get a win and truly put Williams back on top.  

          – Drew Bennison