Ferrari looked impressive in Bahrain. They started off with a one-two in first practice and topped two other sessions, then just missed out in qualifying to Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull.
Alonso was beaming on Saturday afternoon, satisfied that although not on the front row he was in a good position from which to race, with Ferrari’s form traditionally coming good on race day rather than on a single-lap run.
But then, on Sunday, it all went wrong.
A clever strategy move put Vettel out on his own after he muscled his way to the front and made his traditional ‘run away and hide’ approach work, knowing he had three new sets of his favoured tyres waiting for him after limiting laps in qualifying.
Behind the Red Bull, Alonso had an early tussle with Rosberg which allowed Vettel to quickly build the one-second advantage needed to keep his challengers out of KERS range but during that fight his DRS system broke loose and forced him to pit.
Ferrari remains coy on what exactly happened – wanting to protect any secrets behind their activation system – but for such a complicated car it is a very simple thing to go wrong.
The system works by using an actuator that pulls the leading edge of the rear wing flap upwards to create a slot gap of 50mm.
This cuts the drag in two ways – reducing the frontal obstruction area of the wing and reducing the amount of downforce the wing creates, which in turn reduces the amount of downforce-induced drag it creates.
Most teams position the activating mechanism in the middle of the wing shielded by an aerodynamically shaped pod – which while cumbersome in look is the most efficient solution.
Inside the pod is a simple lever system that is operated using the car’s hydraulics. The hydraulic pressure moves a piston that in turn moves a horizontal connector that pivots at the wing and levers the front end of the flap up by the set amount. When the hydraulic pressure is released, the flap is simply pushed back down by the airflow.
The device is designed to act almost instantaneously, and has a stopper mechanism in it to prevent it from going beyond the regulation 50mm height.
However, in Bahrain, Ferrari suffered mechanical failure on the system that caused it to open beyond the stopper zone, and in doing so the airflow simply whipped the loose flap up to almost vertical.
That would have had the effect of reducing the drag even further, but it also meant that when the hydraulic pressure was released the wing was angled too far upwards for the airflow to do its job and push it back down in place.
It was a simple failure – albeit one that has only happened once before in the history of DRS (to Mercedes last year) – but it proved costly because Ferrari not only had to change their strategy to pit early but they then allowed Alonso to use the system again and suffered the same failure on the very next lap, forcing him to pit again and dropping him to 18th place on lap 9, some 43 seconds behind leader Vettel.
As for Massa’s puncture problems, it appears to simply be a case of bad luck striking twice.
Both problems were with the right rear, with Pirelli saying both were down to debris as the first suffered a cut in the tread and the second a cut in the sidewall. Massa, however, claims it was tyre delamination that caused the first puncture – where the tyre overheats in the high temperatures and that surface temperature feeds through to the core and irreparably damages the tyre. Either way, there was little he or the team could have done about it.
The result leaves Alonso fourth in the championship, 30 points behind leader Vettel with Massa 17 points further back in sixth. Ferrari sit third in the constructors chase, 32 points behind leaders Red Bull.
We’re only four races into a 19-race season, but every race is crucial – and Alonso has already had one DNF and one low points finish (he fought back to claim four points in the end).
Both Alonso’s issues came from operational errors – the decision not to pit him for a new front wing in Malaysia, which resulted in him crashing out, and the decision to allow him to continue using a defective DRS in Bahrain – which the team believes cost him a potential victory.
So while technical issues are to be expected over the course of a season, it’s how teams deal with them that matters. Ferrari will just have to hope these two mistakes do not prove costly when it comes to the title run-in...
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