Ferrari on Sunday played down rising speculation its championship campaign could be derailed in 2016 by a fundamental reliability flaw.
Amid rumours of a fault with the turbo design, Kimi Raikkonen – who retired with a flaming airbox in Australia – said before the Bahrain grand prix when asked if Ferrari has a problem: “Well, at the last race we did.”
That was before Sebastian Vettel could not even make it to the grid after the warm-up lap on Sunday, as he pulled over his Ferrari car with billowing smoke.
“I think I might have an engine failure,” the German declared by radio.
But once back to the paddock, neither Ferrari nor Vettel were confirming his suspicions about the nature of the problem.
Maurizio Arrivabene, the team boss, told German newspaper Bild it seems the failure was simply a valve or injector.
“That’s never happened to us before,” he added, telling Auto Motor und Sport that it is “90 per cent” sure that Vettel has lost the power unit altogether.
But both Vettel and Raikkonen insisted their respective failures in Bahrain and Australia are not a sign that Ferrari’s title campaign is off track.
“I had an issue in the last race, Seb had something here,” said Kimi, who finished second in Bahrain. “It’s not ideal and it’s an unfortunate part of the game but, like I said, we have some work to do.”
Vettel agreed: “It’s not ideal and we can’t be proud of it. But we had a good preparation over the winter, we are pushing very hard and we know that we can still improve.”
Boss Arrivabene said Sunday in Bahrain was painful for Ferrari, but the bright side is that if Raikkonen’s fingers had not slipped on the clutch lever at the start, the Finn might have challenged Nico Rosberg for the win.
“Perhaps, and I stress this, perhaps this has compromised his chance to win,” said the Italian.
Raikkonen agreed: “I got surprisingly close to Nico at the end.”
But it’s an open question as to whether Lewis Hamilton, in the other Mercedes, might have been even further down the road had he not suffered a poor start and been bumped into a half-spin by Valtteri Bottas.
Toto Wolff claims the Briton, who fought back to third, was further handicapped to the tune of one second per lap due to damage from the Bottas clash.
The Mercedes boss confirmed in Bahrain that a request to parent Daimler has been made for a new clutch design, to help the drivers get more cleanly off the grid.
“I think it was just not a good getaway by myself,” Hamilton explained. “At least I could keep going” after the crash with Bottas “and still have some performance left in the car to get back into the top three.”
Teammate Rosberg leads the world championship by 17 points, but Hamilton insists he is not worried.
“In Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali got the dude to believe that he was winning but he didn’t,” said the Briton. “So anything can happen.”