THIS F1 LIFE
FAILURE IN F1 IS COSTLY – BUT SADLY INEVITABLE
Pat Symonds on learning to accept failure
It is a well-worn aphorism that in order to finish first, first you must finish. As with most words of wisdom, this is a remarkably apt truth wrapped up in a concise manner. F1 is a team sport and one that relies heavily on technical excellence. It is a test of man and machine and, from time to time, machines, like men, will fail.
For some reason in sport, the occasional failure of man while performing at the limit is deemed acceptable and even inevitable. Logic suggests that the very act of failure is proof of the extreme limits to which the sportsman pushes himself. Conversely it seems that anything other than zero defects is inadequate when it comes to the machinery a sportsman is using as an inevitable and important part of his quest for success.
Ferrari have had a torrid time since the F1 circus left Europe. Vettel moved from championelect to champion underdog within the space of three races at which the man-and-machine combo failed to live up to the exacting standards required in top-level international competition. While in Singapore the blame cannot be put on the machinery, in Malaysia and Japan the equipment was certainly found wanting.
Those not involved in engineering may ask how, with a team of around 1,000 people and a budget said to approach £264million, such things can happen. They may further ask how the fault could lie with such a simple component as a £45 spark plug.
Reliability is, however, an integral part of high-performance engineering. Indeed, the elegance of a design often lies in a lack of complexity, since simplicity can only enhance reliability. For any complex system where failure may have a profound outcome, engineers employ a technique known as Failure Mode Effect Analysis. The technique involves a systematic review to identify all possible failure situations, evaluate their effect and the likelihood of such a failure occurring and hence rate explicitly the need for action based on these aspects. Each factor is weighted and rated from one to ten. The three factors are then multiplied to give a risk priority number.
F1 engines use sophisticated sensors to measure the pressure in the engine cylinders during combustion. The sensors let the engine control run the engine right up to the point of ‘knock’, thereby gaining maximum performance while maintaining reliability. The sensors operate in a harsh environment and have a high propensity to failure. If they do fail, the event is easily detected and the corrective action is to move to a safer area of the engine maps, thereby giving a small degradation of performance but precluding any risk of damaging the engine. The seriousness of the outcome is therefore low and the problem is easy to detect. Consequently, the sensor can be assigned a relatively low-risk priority number based on these facts.
If we now consider a tyre valve, the chances of failure are low, but detection in time to take preventative action can be difficult and, of course, the risk to the driver and the car of a deflated tyre is extremely high. Hence a high-risk priority number would be assigned and every precaution would be taken to ensure good quality in design, manufacturing and usage
It is inevitable that, without being reckless, reliability problems will occur from time to time in exactly the same way that every driver will have an ‘off’ from time to
RELIABILITY PROBLEMS WILL OCCUR FROM TIME TO TIME IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY THAT EVERY DRIVER WILL HAVE AN ‘OFF’ FROM TIME TO TIME. WHEN PROBLEMS DO OCCUR, THE PROCESS THAT SWINGS INTO ACTION IS CRUCIAL
time. When problems do occur, the process that swings into action is crucial. I train my engineers to think of a failure as they might think of a crime. They should apply the same principles of forensic investigation to the analysis of the problem as would be applied to a crime scene. The aviation industry is well practised in this so called ‘black-box thinking’, with the result that air travel is now very safe.
When interviewing race engineers for employment, I always ask: “One of your cars has an unexplained accident in practice. What are your first actions?” The correct answer is to ensure that the other car does not run again until the situation is assessed and a riskanalysis undertaken. If preventative action is required, this should then be applied to all affected components. The aspect of Ferrari’s recent reliability problems that surprises me is that the problem with the broken inlet tract that ruined Vettel’s qualifying in Malaysia was reported as being the same problem that afflicted Räikkönen on the grid the next day. If these reports are true, then it is surprising. I would have thought a simple carbon wrap around the components on Saturday night may have prevented recurrence.
Reliability is now more generally discussed in the light of the repeated and onerous penalties applied for excessive use of power units, and, to some extent, transmissions. While I agree that applying a 35-place penalty to a grid of 20 cars can look ridiculous, we must understand that, without a penalty that directly affects the ability to obtain a good finishing position, the idea of limiting engine supply to reduce expenditure would disappear. Although the process has attracted negative press, a recent survey of fans showed overwhelmingly that they both understood the reason for, and agreed with the implementation of, the procedure. They were not in favour of replacing the penalty with any other form of handicap.
We must never forget the perversity of unintended consequences, but in this case, the climb through the field of front-running drivers who have been displaced has generally added excitement to races. Remember also, as you vent your frustration on the designers of that £45 spark plug, that they, too, are pushing the boundaries of engineering in the search for performance and therefore will, like drivers, fail from time to time.
Vettel started from P3 in Japan, but slipped back and was forced to retire as his Ferrari lost power
A £45 spark plug cost Ferrari the race in Japan
Ferrari paid the price for turbo failures in Malaysia, with Vettel unable to complete Q1 and Räikkönen unable to start the race