Why did Michael's engine fail in Japan?

While everyone has been reporting about the effect of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari engine failure in Japan, there has been very little discussion about the cause. What is odd is that there was a failure when Ferrari's reliability has been astonishing in recent years. The last time we saw Michael suffer an engine failure in a race was in France in 2000. One cannot judge much from this fact although it does show that Ferrari has impressive quality control - which would suggest that any failure is unlikely to have been down to finger-trouble or human error. And yet an engine failed and indeed, if one looks back, another engine failed in China where Felipe Massa had to take a 10-slot drop on the grid after his V8 had to be changed in practice.

This year there were new V8 engines for everyone in F1 and many teams had problems early on, including Ferrari, which had to change two engines after the Bahrain Grand Prix after problems were discovered with the pistons. Modifications were made and there was no further problem until May when Massa suffered an engine failure at Paul Ricard after just three time laps in a test. That may have been due to the engine having a lot of mileage. After that we have no record of any problems until China. In the same period, however, power outputs were pushing quietly upwards with engines revving faster and faster.

When that happens the chances of failure increase exponentially as the engines are achieving more than they were designed to do. As a result of this, there are sometimes problems which do not seem to have obvious causes - because the fault lies in the design and cannot easily be traced to one components nor identified from dyno testing because they may only occur when there are a particular set of circumstances and there are many variables that need to be assessed to pinpoint the problem. That may mean that further infrequent failures can occur if the engines run in the danger rev zone.

The knock-on effect of this is that teams must be cautious when running the engine into the rev ranges where problems can occur although with the current rules teams can turn the engines up and down to ensure that the chance of failure is minimised. Thus an engine may run up to (and perhaps over) 20,000rpm in qualifying but will not use the same kind of revs in the race, unless it is absolutely necessary.

Ferrari has said very little about the failure in Suzuka. It was a top-end failure of the engine and there was no warning at all. Only the team knows whether Michael was running in a danger zone when the engine blew. Rival Fernando Alonso was going very quickly at the time and Ferrari might have been taking a calculated risk. The laps before the failure occurred were very important as the two frontrunners were both doing their final pit stops and although Michael had a decent advantage before the stops, it was rather better afterwards. Perhaps in achieving that little extra gap the engine was pushed too hard.

The good news for Ferrari is that this problem - if indeed it is this problem - will disappear next year as the FIA has decided on a 19000rpm limit which means that teams that are finding themselves in danger zones will be able to drop back to a level at which they know that their engines will not fail them.

The bad news is that teams which have a reliable power advantage may lose it, while those who are taking risks at the same revs will be safe.

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