Pit Stop: Ferrari bends rules in US Grand Prix

Was Ferrari's move to keep Alonso in title chase clever, or cheating?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 2:28am


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How far would you be prepared to go to win the Formula One world championship? Would you be happy to bend, if not the letter of the law, the spirit of it? Ferrari might well have had this discussion before the grand prix in the United States. It's more likely, given their response to the latest controversy in the sport, that they did not give it a second thought.

I am referring to the team's decision to deliberately break the seal on Felipe Massa's gearbox after qualifying. It was done to engineer a grid penalty, and therein promote title contender Fernando Alonso up a place. More importantly, moving up a place switched him to the clean side of the grid.

As a new race track, the Circuit of the Americas would have had very little rubber laid down off the racing line. There was a lot of talk of how difficult it was going to be to get away from the left side of the grid, the "dirty side", with its lack of grip.

Goodness only knows what Massa said when he was informed of this cunning plan. You have to feel for the Brazilian, but not as much as the other drivers who found themselves suddenly on the wrong side of the track through no fault of their own.

The scheming worked a treat, with Alonso - now in seventh place - getting a customary stellar start and rounding the first corner in fourth. He finished in third, just a place behind Sebastian Vettel, and in so doing kept the championship alive. A lot of people, regardless of the rules, would call the stunt Ferrari pulled cheating.

This week the team remained defiant. Alonso said he was "proud of this decision, but more proud of this decision to say the truth, sometimes when teams take decisions not many people say the truth". If you are able to put your moral indignation to one side, you have to applaud the Italian team for their honesty if nothing else.

You also have to say it was clever to the point of genius. It is perhaps a true manifestation of Formula One. Whether it is ruthless drivers on the track or designers bending the rule book off it, this is not always a sport of gentlemen.

Certainly, Red Bull are not complaining. In public at least, their boss Christian Horner has lauded the move. "It's within the regulations; it's a tactical move" he said afterwards. In this game, it's the rule-makers who are always chasing to catch the teams, not the other way around.

Ferrari's actions may yet land them the title. Alonso is 13 points behind Vettel and the German is still the favourite in this showdown in Brazil. But anything can happen in Sao Paulo. Just ask Massa, who lost the championship on home soil on the last corner in 2008 to Lewis Hamilton.

Vettel could run into his old friend Narain Karthikeyan or any other back marker. He could get into trouble in the rush to the first turn. Red Bull are also nervous about reliability, with alternators letting them down several times this season. The Interlagos track can throw up its own surprises and there is rain forecast this weekend.

Having said that, Ferrari have problems of their own. The long-running battle to sort out their aerodynamic woes continues, and that points to another poor qualifying show because of the increased importance of DRS in the Saturday showdown. It may be that a bit of tinkering can pay dividends, but I would not bet the house on it.

Indeed, if you are a betting person, it is odds-on that on Sunday Vettel will become only the third person to win three world titles back to back. But he would have been made to work for it throughout a fabulous season, which has seen six world champions on the grid, eight different race winners and one stunning new track. Whoever takes the title in Sao Paulo, it is the fans who are the real winners this season.

It is going to be a tall order to match this next year, but you would be foolish to bet against it.