APRIL 9, 2010

Ferrari admits engine problems

Ferrari may lead both F1 championships after the first three races, but alarm bells are at full blast in Maranello, following a series of unexpected engine problems affecting the team's V8 motors. Fernando Alonso lost a certain 9th place two laps from the end of the Malaysian Grand Prix with a spectacular engine failure - the latest of the woes affecting the Ferrari V8 - but Felipe Massa and both Sauber drivers, Kamui Kobayashi and Pedro de la Rosa, experienced problems with the same unit. De la Rosa didn't even get to the grid in Sepang after his engine stopped three corners after he left the pitline, while the young Japanese driver retired after just eight laps with a problem in the pneumatic system of the Ferrari V8.

Ferrari's Team Principal Stefano Domenicali admitted his concerns at the end of the Malaysian Grand Prix: "When we have a problem with reliability, this is always a worry and we have to make sure we can solve it as soon as possible. We don't know what is exactly the nature of Fernando's engine problem at the moment, and we don't know what is the situation on Sauber's engines. But what I can say now, with the information I have, is that these problems are all from different natures. This is, in a way, something that will add another reason to make sure we are on top of the reliability problems on the engine side. More than that at the moment is difficult to say."

It has to be reminded that Ferrari took the unusual step of replacing Alonso and Massa's engines from the cars just hours before the start of the race in Bahrain, after discovering overnight that their V8 had run above the recommended maximum temperature in qualifying. This meant both drivers lost an engine for the rest of the season in terms of qualifying sessions and races, as those units can only be used in Free Practice from then on. Alonso's situation is the worse, because that first engine of the season has already covered 1,141 kilometres and should only be capable of covering three more races in Free Practice - China, Spain and Monaco. The engine used on the race in Bahrain has not been used again, and has covered 319 kilometres, while the unit that blew up in Sepang had covered only 743 kilometres, when all Formula One engines are expected to have a life of 2,000 kilometres.

This means that for the remaining 16 races of the season Alonso has only five new engines to use, with one unit still capable of doing around 1,680 kilometres and another one, available only for Free Practice, with close to 860 kilometres left.

According to Italian sources, it's quite likely Alonso's engine failure in Malaysia was due to the gearbox problems he had during the entire race. The Spanish driver lost the gearbox-clutch connector as soon as he left the pre-grid on Sunday afternoon and struggled with no clutch on downshifts during the entire race. As he explained shortly after retiring, "I had to brake all the time in a weird way. I first had to get the gears down and then push the throttle hard so it would engage in the gear I wanted for each corner."

It's highly likely that while learning how to drive the car in such an unusual way Alonso may have over-revved the engine a couple of times, and it certainly looked like he couldn't get any gear engaged when he overshot his braking points while trying to pass Button just seconds before his retirement. When he finally got a gear in, Alonso's engine started to smoke and blew up in the next couple of seconds, so it's expected that when the engine is analyzed in Maranello the Italians will find out there was nothing wrong with the unit as such, but that it was the clutch problem that caused it to fail.

In any case there's no shortage of work at Ferrari's engine department, as de la Rosa and Kobayashi's engines are also due to be analyzed in the next couple of days, giving very little time for the technicians to sort the problems up before sending a new batch of engines to Shanghai at the start of next week.