Just three races into his title defense, Max Verstappen already has his back against the wall. After two DNFs, in Bahrain and Australia (with a win in Saudi Arabia sandwiched in between), the reigning world champion is in sixth place in the standings, 46 points adrift of leader Charles Leclerc. No driver has ever overcome such a deficit to win the title.
Now, that punchy factoid makes things sound a bit more dire than they are. Formula One’s current points system has only been around since 2010, and given the length of the 2022 season, Verstappen still has plenty of chances to make up points. But a nuanced look at the situation isn’t especially sunny either; The Race adjusted the historical standings to the modern points system and found that only six drivers have overcome larger deficits in the 72-season history of the sport.
It’s not that Verstappen has a championship hangover, or that he’s lost a step, or even that Red Bull was bamboozled by the new regulations for this season and handed him a 1991 Cadillac Sedan De Ville to float around in. The Red Bull is fast enough that Verstappen’s teammate, Sergio Perez, took his first pole position in 12 F1 seasons in Saudi Arabia. Verstappen won the lone race he finished, and was running a strong second in the two he didn’t. If he’d finished second both times, his gap to Leclerc would be a manageable 10 points.
The problem is that the Red Bull keeps breaking down. In addition to Verstappen’s two DNFs, Perez retired in Bahrain. So did Pierre Gasly, whose AlphaTauri shares crucial mechanical components—most notably the power unit—with the Red Bull. In Saudi Arabia, Gasly’s teammate, Yuki Tsunoda, suffered an engine issue and did not race the grand prix.
Most troubling: Red Bull’s reliability problems aren’t specific to one component. A fuel pump issue took both cars out in Bahrain, though Verstappen had been battling a host of minor equipment problems for several laps by the time his car died. Gasly suffered a battery failure in the same race. And Verstappen’s Australia DNF was due to a fuel leak.
Red Bull is not the only top team that’s suffering from technical problems. McLaren, expected to contend for race wins this year, has been toddling around near the back of the grid because of brake cooling issues. Other championship contenders like Mercedes are struggling with porpoising, the odd bouncing aerodynamic effect that this year’s cars are subject to. Even Ferrari, with its reliable and championship-leading F1-75, has suffered porpoising problems, just not enough to affect car performance.
Porpoising might be the cause of Red Bull’s issues; the organization’s supreme motorsport potentate, Dr. Helmut Marko, told Austrian TV this week that at least one of Verstappen’s retirements was due to the car porpoising so badly it was shaking itself to bits. And a look back through F1 history reveals that even top teams need time to master new technology and regulations. In other words, somebody was always going to have a championship bid derailed by reliability issues. But where do Red Bull’s problems stack up against those from previous seasons? How quickly can the team sort out its issues? And is it already too late to stop Leclerc from stealing the no. 1 off the nose of Verstappen’s car?
Formula One is unusual in the sports world in that the governing body actively and intentionally influences the evolution of the competition. While leagues like MLB sit back and let the game evolve with relatively little interference, every few years, F1 rewrites the rules. No two rule sets have the same goals; sometimes it’s about safety, sometimes fuel efficiency, or cost, or purposely making the cars faster or slower. Regardless, teams have to start from scratch every few seasons and refine those concepts gradually over time. The cars get faster, obviously, but they also get more reliable as the designers, mechanics, drivers, and engineers learn how to build and operate their machinery.
Since the first Formula One grand prix in 1950, there have been more than 1,000 races featuring more than 25,000 individual entries, each of which has been cataloged at the Ergast API. Each individual entry gets marked with one of 137 status codes, denoting if the car started and finished the race, and if not, why not. The utility of this data set is obvious to anyone who’s interested in, say, putting Red Bull’s plight into context and seeing how teams of the past dealt with new regulations.
To streamline things, I sorted these 138 codes into four groups: Finishers, DNS, DNF-Mechanical, and DNF-Damage. It’s admittedly not a perfect coding system. A car can suffer a mechanical failure and still finish—or even win, as Daniel Ricciardo learned at the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix. A mechanical failure can cause a crash, and vice versa. But it’s enough to give broad strokes and spot trends.
Here’s the data since 2000. Generally speaking, reliability increases over time; the five bolded seasons are the exceptions—and they all coincide with years when new regulations were introduced.
Formula 1 Reliability in the 21st Century
|Year||Entrants||Finishers||DNF-Mechanical||Finish Rate||Breakdown Rate||Finishes per Breakdown|
|Year||Entrants||Finishers||DNF-Mechanical||Finish Rate||Breakdown Rate||Finishes per Breakdown|
Over the years, Formula One cars have evolved much the same way road cars have. They’re bigger, more expensive, and more complex than they used to be—but they’re also safer, faster, and more reliable. As recently as the late 1980s, teams were getting 1,400 horsepower out of a 1.5 liter turbocharged engine that ran on toluene fuel. (If the word “toluene” sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s what the second “T” in “TNT” stands for.) Back then, it was roughly a 50/50 proposition whether a car would finish the race or break down before the checkered flag. By contrast, last year’s cars were the most reliable in F1 history, with a finish-to-breakdown ratio of almost 16-to-1.
When it comes to new regulations, though, that ratio decreases significantly. In the first season after a change, there’s often a spree of mechanical retirements. In the early 2000s, the finish rate hovered in the high 50s and crept up gradually before peaking at 73 percent in 2005. The next year, Formula 1 changed the engine rules, swapping V10s for V8s, and the breakdown rate increased by 41 percent.
Reliability crept up again until 2010, when F1 banned mid-race refueling; teams responded by making the cars bigger and heavier. The breakdown rate nearly doubled, from 8.5 percent in 2009 to 15.6 percent in 2010. Teams bounced back and built progressively more reliable cars until 2014, when the engine formula changed again to the current V6 turbo-hybrid power unit. Breakdowns increased from 8.1 percent of entries in 2013 to 12.5 percent in 2014. The next big rule change came in 2017, when F1 introduced the ultra-high downforce cars that lasted until 2021. The sport went from 9.5 percent breakdowns in 2016 up to 15 percent in 2017—but that number dropped to an all-time low of 5.5 percent in 2021, an average of about one mechanical failure per grand prix.
This year’s Formula One cars are reliable by historical standards, but the equipment is still new. The most noticeable difference is the change in aerodynamic philosophy, which Red Bull chief technical officer Adrian Newey called the biggest in 40 years, but there are a host of other shifts too. For instance, each team’s engines had to be retuned to run on fuel that’s 10 percent ethanol. It’s no wonder every team is struggling to some degree, even if it is a little bracing that last year’s most reliable package, the Red Bull, is now often as not being craned off the track.
The extreme reliability of modern F1 cars poses a particular challenge to Verstappen and Red Bull. After banking two mechanical DNFs in the first three races, the reigning world champion is in a huge hole—he basically needs to win twice in races that Leclerc doesn’t finish to make up the gap, and that’s unlikely given that the Ferrari looks bulletproof and should only become more so as the season progresses.
When Verstappen does finish races, though, he usually finishes high. It’s been 28 races—almost two years—since Verstappen got through a grand prix without a crash or a mechanical failure and finished lower than second. But there’s plenty of precedent for an extremely fast car losing a championship because of reliability issues, particularly in times of rapid technological development.
In 1989, Ferrari debuted the sequential paddle-shifted gearbox that’s now ubiquitous on F1 cars and common on road cars. Not once that season did both Ferraris finish the race, and across 16 grands prix, they combined to retire 19 times. But every time Nigel Mansell and Gerhard Berger did bring the car home, they finished on the podium.
Two years later, Mansell was at Williams, driving an early version of the Newey-designed FW14, a car loaded with all sorts of computerized driver aids now banned by the FIA. His second-place finish that year isn’t viewed as a lost title largely because he lost by 24 points (back when a win was worth 10) to Ayrton Senna. But that margin had a lot to do with reliability; Senna retired once in 16 races, while Mansell retired five times and was disqualified once. Had the Williams been more reliable, Mansell could’ve won the title a year earlier.
None of this will come as a comfort to the outrageously competitive Verstappen. And even though the length of this season—20 remaining grands prix and three sprint races—offers some hope for a comeback, that will still be a tall order unless Leclerc gets crash-happy or the Ferrari goes to bits. Let’s say Verstappen and Leclerc pull away from the field (so to speak) the way Verstappen and Hamilton did last year and finish first and second in some order in most races. If Verstappen wins and Leclerc finishes second, the Red Bull driver would make up seven points per race. He’d have to do that seven times in a row (or six times in a row while recording the fastest lap four times more than Leclerc) to erase his current deficit.
And they’re not the only two drivers in this fight. Perez looks more at home in this year’s Red Bull than any of Verstappen’s teammates have in years. He’s taken a pole and a podium finish so far, and will probably win a race this year. Leclerc’s teammate, Carlos Sainz, is also desperately trying to prove that he can be a championship contender and has been fast enough to challenge for wins all year. Not to mention Mercedes will get a handle on its porpoising problem eventually; keen-eyed observers will note that the man in second place in the drivers’ championship standings right now is not Sainz or Verstappen, but George Russell, who for all his car’s faults has managed to bring it home on or near the podium every time.
Given how good Verstappen and Red Bull were last year, it’d be foolish to count them out this early. But hauling in Leclerc, who has a two-win head start and the more reliable car, would be Verstappen’s greatest achievement yet.