Saturday, January 9, 2010

What can race reliability tell us?

With the implementation of the in-season testing ban, standardization of parts such as the electronic control unit, engine design freezes and improved manufacturing standards and procedures, Formula One cars are more reliable then ever before. In 2009, in looking the race mechanical reliability (RMR), that is the finishing rate in relation to non-finishes due to mechanical issues, teams finished grand prix 91% of the time; a staggering rate given these are essential one off prototypes. What else can it tell us? If we look at RMR we can make some interesting connections and conclusions in addition to finding some validation in why certain decisions could have been made. Let's take Ferrari for example and their decision of hiring Fernando Alonso.

We have read all the reports and quotes from Ferrari about needing a driver that can communicate with the engineers and help develop the car in a Schumacher-like way. We can have our opinion on whether Santander had influence or Alonso will implode the team, etc. but what they say can be seen in the numbers. Since Schumacher retired, Ferrari have seen a stead decline in their RMR from 2007-2009. 91%, 89%, 85%. From 1999 to 2006, the average RMR was 92%. Average RMR in 2007, 2008 and 2009 for the grid was 85%, 90% and 91% respectively. Ferrari have been below average for the past two season in regards to reliability. How much of that is related to driver leadership, motivation, attention to detail and car development? Skills that Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa do not have in abundance. However conversely we saw the results with Schumacher and these factors.

Nevertheless one can say, we are talking only a few percentage points here. What's the difference? Well, in a sports were success and failure is measured in the tenths of seconds and one failure can cost you 10 points it could mean a lot. Not to mention if you add driver errors to the equation that is more opportunity for lost points. Since 2005, on average, the title has been decided by 9 points. The math can be as convincing as the old adage: to finish first, first you must finish.

There are several things one can glean by looking at reliability. Is the team having a quality control issue, is the driver a car breaker, does that designer design fragile cars, what's a team focus? For example, McLaren had an average RMR of 78% from 1999-2006; when Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton joined it went to 100% in 2007 and has remained comfortably above the average for the F1 grid since. What led to that? Alonso, Hamilton, the rev-limit, the standard ECU that came from McLaren, a combination of all factors?

Of course, this is only a number but it helps to point you in different directions, particularly if you see any anomalies. With new teams coming on board it will be interesting to see how RMR is effected.

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