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Breaking Down the Causes of Formula 1 Retirements in 2014 as Grid Penalties Loom

Mechanics cover the car of Germany's Nico Rosberg of Mercedes following  the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone circuit, Silverstone, England, Sunday, July 6, 2014. Rosberg failed to complete the race due to mechanical failure. Britain's Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes won the race, Finland's Valtteri Bottas of Williams finished second and Australia's Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull finished third.(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press
Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2014

Remember in the days before this season's Australian Grand Prix, when everyone was asking questions like, "What happens if all 22 cars retire from the race?"

Thankfully, those doomsday scenarios have not come to pass, despite the complexity of the brand-new hybrid power units introduced in Formula One this season. In Canada, though, we were quite close to my preseason prediction that there would be a race where drivers who did not finish still scored points.

And retirements certainly have increased this year. Setting aside accidents, according to the statistics compiled by F1 Fanatic, there were an average of 1.42 retirements per grand prix in 2013. This year, there have been 3.78.

Is this significant increase in retirements attributable solely to the new power units, though, or are there other factors at play? And is reliability increasing as the season progresses?

To help answer that question, here is a breakdown of the number of retirements by cause (using the information provided in the results tables on the official F1 website):

2014 Retirements by Cause
CauseNumber of Retirements
Accident16
Power Unit13
Gearbox4
Exhaust4
Suspension3
Brakes3
Oil Pressure/Leak2
Structural Failure2
Clutch2
Fuel Pump1
Drive Train1
Save Mileage1
Total (Non-Accident)36
Grand Total52
Formula1.com

The power unit row includes all six components of the new engines—internal combustion engine (ICE), motor generator unit-kinetic (MGU-K), motor generator unit-heat (MGU-H), energy store (ES), control electronics (CE) and turbocharger (TC)—and those retirements represent slightly more than a third of the total (again, excluding accidents).

Even if the new power units had 100 percent reliability, there would still be an average of nearly one extra retirement per race this season. But there is no other single culprit that can be pointed to for the increased retirements, as there have been a wide range of causes.

We can say, though, that power unit reliability has been increasing. In fact, aside from the first two races, the power units have been remarkably reliable. In Australia and Malaysia, they accounted for seven retirements. In the seven races since, only six retirements have been engine-related.

Still, with less than half the season gone, several drivers are already approaching the limits on the number of power unit components they can use. Once a driver uses more than five of any one component, he receives a grid penalty for each additional component used.

Before each race, the FIA publishes a report indicating the number of components used by each driver. Therefore, the most recent report we have comes from the Thursday before the British Grand Prix. Here are all the drivers who have used at least four of one component:

Drivers Nearing Grid Penalties
DriverICETCMGU-KMGU-HESCE
Sebastian Vettel443424
Kimi Raikkonen333433
Pastor Maldonado444423
Daniil Kvyat444322
Jules Bianchi443422
Kamui Kobayashi222234
FIA.com

This chart shows that, even if the power unit components are not failing during the races, in several cases the general wear and tear is causing them to be replaced at a rate that is unsustainable for the entire season—at least without incurring grid penalties.

Unsurprisingly, three Renault-powered cars, along with Jules Bianchi's Marussia Ferrari, are the only cars to have used four of their allotment of multiple components. The Renault power units have had problems since the first days of preseason testing, which have continued to dog the French supplier throughout the season.

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

At the same time, it should be noted that the two Caterham Renaults are the only cars still on their second internal combustion engines and the team has used the fewest total components. Of course, this could be a product of spending most of the season at the back of the field and not stressing the power units the way other teams are.

Overall, the situation is very positive for F1.

The hybrid V-6 engines are producing more power than their predecessors, using less fuel and not blowing up at an alarming rate. And even the failures that have happened can be seen as improving the spectacle. After years of 20 cars finishing races, it is refreshing to have a race like Montreal, where only 11 drivers took the chequered flag.

There will certainly be some grid penalties before the end of the year, but the teams and manufacturers have done impressive work and the regulation changes have had their intended effects. It is not a coincidence, then, that this has been one of the most entertaining starts to a season in recent memory.

 

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