Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Engines Have Cut Down On Smoking

Ambrose Bierce in his satirical, The Devil's Dictionary, defined an inventor as "A person who makes an ingenious arrangement of wheels, levers and springs, and believes it civilization." At the dawn of the century we hoped for scenes redolent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A technological marvel. At least in Formula 1. But...

Sebesatian Vettel had the word “Engine” affixed next to his retirement status in the race results for the European GP at Valencia. This was the third such “Engine” retirement of the year in eleven races so far. Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil were the other two with the same inscriptions against their name (at Malaysia and Hungary respectively).

Since 2001, retirements due to engine failures per season have dropped by almost seventy five per cent. An attribute to restrictions placed on engine developments and regulations for the number of engines per race or the season. Retirements in general have halved over the same period. Single engines for the full race weekend came into force in 2005 and a single engine for successive races thereafter.

Number of engine failures per year
Reliability has skyrocketed. Ferrari’s engine invulnerability is phenomenal (the factory team), especially Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, with barely any retirements. In the six years from 2001 to 2006 he had twelve retirements, half of which were in the dreadful year of 2005. He had one solitary engine failure in that period; during his final year (in 2006) when engrossed in the championship fight against Fernando Alonso in Suzuka, Japan. That took away any realistic possibility of him being a contender for the driver’s title in the following final race at Brazil.

Electrical failures, gearbox issues and suspension damages have all come down over the last few years.

Average retirements per race per year

Of course all retirements do not taken into account problems during practice or qualifying. The grid penalties for instance for an engine change during those sessions. The troubled McLaren’s Mercedes engine choked and sputtered every now and then in 2004, not necessarily in the race though.

Another indicator of reliability is the ratio of retirements per track in the same period. Turkey, Bahrain and China have had the least retirements per race on average. On the other hand, tracks which have been around for decades have a higher ratio. This is because the newer Hermann Tilke tracks have a wider run off area for cars to commit a mistake and rejoin the track. In a word: Forgiving! Austria last hosted a race in 2003 hence it has the ignobility of being labeled a circuit breaker. Engine regulations then were not so strict then and the track was decommissioned before the engine ordinances came in .

Retirements per track per year
It is imperative that reliability increases in the sport so that the million dollar hoardings can have greater television exposure and fans get to see more cars on track. The quantum of cars running on track has increased as cars eke out longer before any impending destined retirement. The result of less parked cars has seen an influx of accidents, resultant damages and collisions. And accidents and bump ins usually make things more exciting. Rewind: the animated discussion between Alonso and Felipe Massa after the 2007 GP at Nurburgring, just before the podium.

The graph below shows a massive dip in accidents in 2009, but then the season is only half done. It still averages less than preceding years though. That is because the FIA stewards pull the leash whenever two pilots dog-fight a bit. Reprimands, fines, suspensions, drive through penalties, stop-go penalties and disqualifications are a few tools to neuter the dogs. Hopefully a new FIA president will let the racing be in years to come.

Accidents, damages and collisions per year
Some of the drivers have run through most of their engines this season. Robert Kubica went through six of his allocated eight in his first eight races. Vettel has also consumed seven of his eight Renault engines. Two were changed over the Valencia GP weekend, which means he has one left for the next six races. A ten-place penalty on the grid would follow for the ninth engine and for every change after that. The season may still spring in a few mix ups towards the end. Unless that spring detaches and hits Massa's face again.

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