Will Gray

Technical Talk – F1′s reliability age

Will Gray

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The reliability of current F1 cars is so good that Lewis Hamilton had never suffered a mechanical failure on his McLaren until his brakes failed in Abu Dhabi - and much of that is down to NDT.

That Hamilton had completed 51 races without being let down (his four previous retirements being two spins and two collisions) is incredible considering the speed, forces and pace of development seen in Formula One (particularly the latter with regards to McLaren this season).

Twenty years ago, in 1989, the most reliable car on the grid was a Williams with their two machines completing 81 per cent of the total possible laps and McLaren not far behind. The fifth best team on the grid completed 64 per cent and the 10th best just 51 per cent.

Ten years later, in 1999, just before the start of the era of Ferrari-Schumacher domination, Ferrari topped the reliability tables having completed 92 per cent of the year's racing laps, with the fifth best team on 71 per cent and the 10th on 61 per cent.

It was an impressive improvement, and the true relevance of that came clear in a reliability record that began two seasons later, when Michael Schumacher went an unprecedented 58 races without a mechanical failure, between 2001 and 2005.

By the end of the 2009 season, Brawn had completed 94 per cent of all racing laps - not much improvement on Ferrari's record 10 years earlier - but more significantly the fifth most reliable team, BMW, was on 91 per cent and even bottom-of-the-table Toro Rosso completed 77 per cent.

Now obviously those statistics include driver error (a significant factor in Toro Rosso's record this year given their seven driver-induced failures) but it is clear that Formula One cars have become significantly more reliable.

The pressure to fit development parts for a race remains, but despite the reduction in testing this season, the teams managed to progress their car designs through the year without suffering failures from either design, manufacture or assembly.

There are many different reasons for this, with improved manufacturing methods - particularly in computer-controlled machines that create more precise parts - and bigger budgets (thanks to the manufacturers) that afford resources and man power to allow better attention to detail.

But arguably the most vital part of F1 reliability is NDT (Non-Destructive Testing) which involves testing both newly manufactured and already raced components to ensure they are still in working order without damaging or destroying the part.

After each race the cars are stripped down and hundreds of individual parts undergo NDT to identify cracks, hairline fractures or problems in carbon fibre bonds that appear and could cause the part to break - allowing teams to stop failures before they happen.

Different techniques are used for different components.

Dye penetration uses dye to show up surface cracks in metal composites, magnetic particle inspection does a similar job on magnetisable metals, while eddy current testing uses a probe and screen to display visual defects to allow metal components with bearings to be quickly tested.

Ultrasonic testing is used on carbon fibre, with high-frequency sound waves that reflect if they hit a defect - and as this material usually has defects the parts are scanned regularly to monitor defect history (a new suspension wishbone will have three checks before being run).

Perhaps the most impressive type of testing, though, is X-ray and computer tomography, used on both metal and carbon composites, in which thousands of scans combine to form a 3D computer model of the part and its internal structure and can then be 'sliced' to check for defects.

With such detailed tests able to be carried out both in the factory and at the track, it's no wonder reliability has come such a long way.

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