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F1’s Human Touch

October 8, 2014

Car unreliability in Formula One can be caused by a number of different things.
Poor, or fragile initial design can obviously lead to a higher risk of component failure on the cars during their often extreme duty cycles in racing conditions.
Manufacturing faults, or the use of imperfect materials can equally be at the heart of mechanical breakdowns on the race track, where parts simply can’t cope with the stresses and strains thrust upon them on a Sunday afternoon.
Operational misuse is another common area for failure. Pushing parts of the car too far, pushing the people operating the car too far, or trying to do too much with the technology to hand is more common than many might realise and stems largely from the highly competitive nature of those people involved in our sport.

Of course with all of the sophistication, technology and analytical tools in Formula One, failures are far rarer than we’ve seen in years gone by, but one thing that can be very difficult to mitigate against, is the inevitable human element of the process and the occasional costly ‘mistakes’ that that can bring with it. No matter how professional a team is, no one’s immune to a very occasional slip-up.
Often these kind of errors, whether they’re bad strategic decisions, driver mistakes, detrimental setup choices, or ‘finger trouble’ from mechanics or system engineers, will often be explained away as technical failures by the team, but the reality is often that, while many would love to engineer F1 into an exact science, there are humans involved in all procedures…and humans make mistakes.

The 2014 season began with many predicting a disastrous race of attrition at the season opener in Australia. The vastly new technology was incredibly complex and difficult to package effectively, let alone to learn how to best use it for a performance advantage.
Pre-season testing had seen huge numbers of cars either stopping on circuit or being confined to the garages while solutions were sought for the technical issues being encountered. Some even openly questioned race director Charlie Whiting on exactly what he would do, should so many cars fail to finish in Australia that there weren’t enough competitors left to fill all of the points scoring positions.
The doomsayers were proved to be far from accurate with their pessimistic predictions and the first season of Formula One’s hybrid era has provided some wonderful entertainment. More than that though, the teams in F1’s pitlane should be highly commended for their adaptation and integration of the new technology under some pretty intense timescales and unimaginable pressure to succeed. Some difficult decisions had to be taken ahead of that first race in order to balance risk against reward, both for the individual teams themselves and for the good of the overall sport and its public perception.
Over half of the field breaking down in Australia would’ve done little to impress the watching millions, it would’ve done nothing to highlight the advantages of motor manufacturers being involved in our sport and showcasing their products and it would’ve done nothing but harm the championship ambitions of those taking part. Consequently, a number of teams had to reign back their performance in order to ensure adequate cooling, drivability, or longevity of their preciously fragile power units throughout the early races.

It’s perhaps a little surprising then, that the one team with such a dominant performance advantage over everyone else also has one of the most catastrophic reliability records.
Mercedes have come up with a car and power unit package that stands head and shoulders above all others, even up to 2 seconds a lap at some circuits. That’s meant they haven’t had to develop to the same level as some of their rivals and they’ve even been able to hold back on a number of upgrades throughout the season, simply because they haven’t needed them.
One might naturally think, that if a huge team with the resources of Mercedes was in the fortunate position of having a car that didn’t need to go much faster, they’d be diverting considerable chunks of time and budget into making it virtually ‘bullet proof’ in terms of reliability.

The truth is that they are. The team have stressed repeatedly that giving their two championship contenders tools to do their jobs is at the very top of their priority list right now and has been all year. There’s a ‘Reliability Team’ at Brackley, who’s sole purpose is to ensure quality control, designers will undoubtedly have a risk averse approach to new parts and updates and those working with the car in the field must be bordering on paranoia, wondering if the next failure will be down to them.
Surely getting through each race untroubled is on everyone’s minds right now and despite all of that, Nico Rosberg’s car failed disastrously in Singapore, because someone in the wider team at Mercedes didn’t do their job properly.
It wasn’t that a part broke, that its design was flawed or that it was being pushed beyond its normal limits. It wasn’t the result of Nico mistreating his car or that it had been in service for too long, it was simply that someone, most likely either in the electronics department or beyond that, the inspection department, had slipped up.
The official line is that “the steering column electronic circuits were contaminated with a foreign substance”, but what that almost certainly means is that whoever last took the column apart to inspect and service it, failed to clean it properly, or re-assemble it carefully enough afterwards. The substance could’ve been any number of cleaning sprays or substances, perhaps they were using one that, when left in contact for prolonged periods (ie. not cleaned off) eroded wiring or electronic components. Perhaps there had been some work done to the column itself and carbon fibre dust or particles were present, forming a conductive build up around components?
We don’t know exactly, but what’s certain is that, with the minuscule size of the circuit terminals and wiring in those areas of the car, it wouldn’t take very much at all to cause an intermittent short circuit like the one we saw in Singapore.
What’s almost unbelievable, but in truth just incredibly bad luck, is that by the time the problem manifested itself, it was too late to be able to do anything at all about it.

Whilst the team have been refreshingly open about the issue, providing at least some reasonable explanation of why Nico suffered the excruciating trauma we all watched him go through last week, they naturally haven’t gone as far as to apportion blame.

The reality is that there’ll be someone inside the factory at Brackley who’s feeling pretty low, knowing that they simply slipped up, but that that slip up proved very costly indeed.
Given that the perceived unreliability issues have somewhat evened themselves out between Hamilton and Rosberg and points are almost all square with five races to go, the pressure’s not only on the two guys in the driving seats. The entire team will be increasingly nervous that the forthcoming ‘five race Formula One World Championship’ could just as easily be decided by a simple oversight from any one of them, as it could by the outstanding talents of Lewis or Nico. Let’s hope not.

Marc Priestley

Originally published at


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