Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ motorsport director, believes Ferrari are paying the price for their rapid rate of improvement this year and have effectively “reached their limits”.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel has enjoyed the fastest car for much of this season – certainly for most of the recent Asian swing – but reliability issues, particularly relating to his engine, have seen the German fall from three points behind Lewis Hamilton to 59 points behind the Mercedes driver in the space of just three races.
Asked whether he felt it was a shame that this year’s title race appears to have been decided by reliability rather than driver skill, Wolff replied: “In this sport, you take no prisoners. It is about having the fastest car, the best driver and the most solid performance.
“And we’ve been there. We’ve had difficult moments for each of the drivers in the past in terms of reliability. When you’re pushing the boundaries you will eventually reach [your] limits. Ferrari’s development from 2016 to 2017 was exceptional and probably this is a ‘development’ phase.”
Wolff added: “I can relate to how it feels; [that feeling of] having had three races where you’ve lost a lot of points. It doesn’t feel nice. We’ve benefited from Ferraris’ misfortune and reliability woes in the last three races. But that doesn’t mean that we’re patting ourselves on the back. On the contrary, I think we need to continue to push.”
How Ferrari have imploded in the space of three races
Sparked out: Sebastian Vettel has spark plug fault in Japan
After winning the Italian Grand Prix on Sept 4, Lewis Hamilton took the outright lead of the drivers’ championship for the first time this season, three points clear of Sebastian Vettel. Formula One was relishing the prospect of the closest finish in years, but things have since unravelled quickly for Ferrari:
Singapore, Sept 17
Vettel qualifies in pole with Hamilton only fifth and clearly struggling for pace in his Mercedes. But Ferrari gift the Briton victory by taking out each other and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen at the start. Hamilton’s lead increases to 28pts.
Malaysia, Oct 1
With Mercedes still struggling in the heat, Ferrari have an open goal. However, an air-intake issue rules Vettel out of qualifying. The same issue then sees Raikkonen retire before the race. Vettel comes from the back to finish fourth but Hamilton’s second place is enough to extend his advantage to 34pts.
Japan, Oct 8
More engine woes for Vettel when a ‘freak’ spark plug issue crops up as he makes his way to the grid pre-race. Ferrari’s mechanics buzz about trying to fix the problem, but Vettel has to retire after going backwards for four laps. Hamilton wins to stretch his lead out to 59pts.
Vettel was pulled from Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix after just four laps due to a spark plug failure. And the German had already left the track by the time the race finished, having gone around commiserating with his team.
“Of course, I don’t need to be a genius or a mathematician,” the German said when asked about the points gap to Hamilton. “What we have to do now is, like I said to the guys, let’s get back and get some rest. It has been a tough, tough [few] weeks with a lot of changes and the mechanics are tired and the team is tired, I think, so it is good to get some rest.”
Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner, whose drivers have been the other big beneficiaries of Ferrari’s recent problems, commiserated with his opposite number Maurizio Arrivabene, whose future at Maranello has been called into question.
“I think it’s very difficult to judge from the outside,” Horner said when asked whether he thought Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne might make changes. “Obviously F1 is a technical sport. Things go wrong. We’ve seen that with our power unit this year. Different teams deal with it in different ways.
“It’s not for me to say how Ferrari will react. They’ve obviously had some bad luck. I feel for Sebastian – because that is a killer blow for his championship – and for the fans because it looks like we’re not going to get the exciting run-in to the end of the year which, certainly going into the summer break, we thought we were going to get.”