Sebastian Vettel's Formula One title hopes suffered a potentially fatal blow Sunday after he was forced to retire from the Japanese Grand Prix with engine failure.
The gremlins that have plagued Ferrari since the summer break struck again at Suzuka when Vettel's car lost power at the start, ending his race after just four laps.
Lewis Hamilton, who started on pole alongside Vettel, stormed to victory to open a 59-point lead over his German rival with just four races left.
"Of course it hurts but sometimes things just break down," said a dejected Vettel, who led the championship six weeks ago.
"It's normal to be critical, especially if things go wrong because it's part of our job.
"But I need to protect (the team) -- they've done an incredible job so far."
The omens did not look good for Vettel as Ferrari mechanics frantically worked to fix a spark plug issue before lights out.
Vettel held on to second place off the line but quickly complained of a loss of power as he tumbled back to sixth place on the first lap before being told to retire the car.
"It's just a pity in the last two races with the reliability issues," he said.
"The car had no performance but it's like that sometimes. Now I think we just have to get back, get some rest and go flat out for the last four races and see what happens."
Vettel's latest setback leaves his hopes for a fifth world title in tatters after damaging results in Singapore, where he crashed from pole, and Malaysia, where he finished fourth after starting from last.
"We are all on the limit," said the German. "It's a real pity. Once we noticed the issue, we tried everything possible to reset but it just wouldn't work."
Hamilton, who has been in unstoppable form, winning four of the last five races, could mathematically clinch the title at the next round in Austin, Texas.
But Vettel attempted to strike a defiant tone.
"We still have a chance this year," he insisted.
"Obviously it's not as much in our control as we like but overall I think the team is in a good way," added the former Red Bull driver.
"I think we are improving race by race and we got a lot further than people thought so for sure there are some positives -- but today is not the day to look at positives."
Hamilton, meanwhile, refused to get ahead of himself.
"Sebastian has been incredibly unfortunate," said the Briton.
"There's still a long way to go. I'm still going to keep the pedal to the metal."