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Sebastian Vettel's Canadian GP Qualifying Disaster Highlights Flaw of F1 Engines

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2015

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 04:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari speaks to the guests at the Shell V-Power Nitro+ Fan Fest on Crescent Street ahead of the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix on June 4, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
Getty Images/Getty Images

The qualifying session for this weekend's Canadian Grand Prix was always going to be one of the most important for some time for Sebastian Vettel.

The German's Ferrari team had managed to match and even better Mercedes, the reigning world champions, in racing conditions in the 2015 Formula One season, but in the opening six races, they had struggled to match the Silver Arrows' in terms of one-lap pace, with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg sharing pole position.

Only twice, in the wet in Malaysia and under the lights in Bahrain, had Vettel managed to split the Mercedes pair in qualifying as Hamilton and Rosberg have consistently put Ferrari in their place: third place, better than the rest yet not quite fast enough to challenge, or be, the best.

This has been a familiar sight in 2015.
This has been a familiar sight in 2015.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Yet it felt as though that was going to change at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, a venue where straight-line speed is imperative, as the Prancing Horse became one of two manufacturers to spend the mysterious currency that is engine tokens in a bid to further improve their power unit.

As reported by F1 journalist Adam Cooper's personal blog, the Italian team spent three of their seven remaining tokens ahead of the Montreal event in what Vettel told the official Formula One website was an "aggressive" bid to close the gap to Mercedes and, with the German 28 points behind Hamilton in the championship, inject renewed energy into a title assault that was just beginning to lose its momentum.

It was with much anticipation, therefore, that one watched Ferrari make progress with their revised engine in Canada.

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 05:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari drives during practice for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 5, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
Charles Coates/Getty Images

Vettel, for his part, appeared pleased with the plug-in-and-play updates to the internal combustion engine following Friday practice, telling Sky Sports' William Esler how "there was no easing in, we went flat out straight away" and "everything seemed to be working as expected."

As he ventured out for his first run of Q1, pole position, for the first time since the last of his four title-winning campaigns with Red Bull Racing in 2013, was a realistic possibility, but his session was ruined before the Prancing Horse had the chance to gallop.

According to Motorsport.com's Pablo Elizalde, an MGU-H issue left him trapped within the confines of the garage as his rivals hurled around the track.

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 06:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari drives during qualifying for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 6, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Vettel returned to the circuit in the dying minutes of the session but, down on power and crippled by the very engine upon which his hopes were pinned, he was unable to set a competitive lap time and was duly eliminated at the first hurdle as his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, inherited Seb's usual third spot.

A missed opportunity? Perhaps, although the fact that the best lap produced by Raikkonen, even with a fully functioning car, was still 0.6 seconds slower than Hamilton's latest pole-setting time, as per the official F1 website, would suggest that Ferrari, on pure pace, remain firmly in Mercedes' shadow.

Instead, Vettel's qualifying failure illustrates the sad truth that the V6 turbo power units, first introduced at the beginning of last season, are more trouble than they're worth.

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 06:  A dejected Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari walks back to the pits during qualifying for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 6, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty I
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Ferrari's reliability record up until this weekend had been impeccable and it was telling, predictable even, that the team suffered their first notable problem on the race weekend immediately after they upgraded their power unit.

Such are the complexities and sensitivities of the hybrid engines, with their accompanying energy recovery systems, that the modern powertrains are extremely vulnerable, to the point where actions taken with the intention to improve them can, in fact, have the reverse effect.

The everlasting frustrations endured by Renault and Honda, who continue to lack both pace and reliability, are evidence of this, while Ferrari, in attempting to take a couple of steps forward, may have actually taken a slight step back.

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 05:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari prepares to drive during practice for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 5, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
Charles Coates/Getty Images

It is one of the biggest flaws of the current engine formula and makes a mockery of the in-season development loophole discovered in 2015.

The move to let engine manufacturers develop their power units during the campaign was widely welcomed at the beginning of the year, giving the chasing pack a greater opportunity to reel in Mercedes and produce more competitive racing.

It is a plan that works in theory, but given the nature of the power units, with no guarantee that those developments will be immediately (if at all) successful, it risks disrupting, not aiding, a team's progress across a campaign.

The hazards linked to in-season development perhaps explains why Mercedes, according to a Sky Sports graphic, have refrained from spending any tokens thus far, resisting the temptation to meddle with their machinery, to fix something that simply isn't broken.

Although the team cannot be criticised for using the tools at their disposal, had Ferrari, with comfortably the second-best power unit in the 2015 field, taken a similar route, continuing to apply constant pressure on Mercedes rather than trying to go toe-to-toe with the world champions, there would have been little doubt that Vettel would have lined up third on the grid in Canada.

In their efforts to close the gap to Mercedes, Ferrari may do themselves more harm than good.
In their efforts to close the gap to Mercedes, Ferrari may do themselves more harm than good.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Once again, he would have been breathing down the necks of Rosberg and Hamilton and waiting to pounce on any mistakes up the road.

Instead, a mere points finish, as he told the team's official website, will suffice as Ferrari have landed in a ditch just as they reached for the sky.

Talk about make or break...


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