Ferrari on Sunday sparked a pre-race controversy by deliberately inflicting a penalty on Felipe Massa.
A long-life gearbox rule means that breaking an official FIA ‘seal’ – usually necessary only in the event of a technical problem – incurs a five-place grid penalty.
Brazilian Massa qualified ahead of Fernando Alonso on Saturday, so the deliberate ‘seal’ breaking moved the Spaniard moved one place up the grid, from eighth to seventh. With the US grand prix being the penultimate grand prix of the year, Ferrari’s tactical move – a decision made “for strategy considerations” according to the famous Italian team – may prove crucial.
Alonso needs to finish fourth or higher in order to prevent Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel from winning the drivers’ title on Sunday, if the German wins the race.
The main consideration, however, was about the “dirty side” of the grid; a higher factor in Austin given the newness and low-grip nature of the Circuit of the Americas asphalt.
“Starting from the dirty side of the track would have been penalising,” a statement posted on Ferrari’s official website explained. “There was a significant risk of finding ourselves too far behind the leaders at the end of the first lap. It was a decision agreed by both drivers,” claimed the team.
“We’ve always maintained that the interests of the team come before that of the individual drivers and this has always been our very transparent policy.”
Although completely within the rules, Ferrari’s move is highly controversial. British broadcaster Sky’s pitlane reporter Natalie Pinkham wondered: “It’s legal, but is it fair?”
“Not much to feel about it. It’s their business,” Red Bull’s Vettel said on the grid.
Ferrari’s strategy worked well for Alonso a few minutes later, when the Spaniard moved up from his new seventh on the grid to fourth on the first lap, while the ‘dirty’ side of the grid struggled.
“Engineers were right,” said Sky commentator Martin Brundle, “it was all about one grid slot.”