Ferrari's controversial decision to play the penalty game in Austin helped keep Fernando Alonso's title hopes alive — so why did the call come and what does it mean for the season finale in Brazil?
Ferrari were on the back foot again in Austin, with Alonso in damage limitation mode on a flowing circuit that clearly suited the cars of rivals Red Bull and McLaren much better than his.
While Vettel topped the times in every session, Alonso was 2.2s off in opening practice, 0.76s in P2 and 0.69s in P3. Massa made greater improvements each session, closing in on Alonso then out-qualifying him with the seventh fastest time with Alonso back in ninth.
Immediately after qualifying, Romain Grosjean was dropped down from fourth to ninth by a five-place penalty, pushing both Ferraris up a place — normally a benefit but not so at the brand new and very 'green' Circuit of the Americas.
The Austin track showed the same characteristics as any new track, with the remains of construction dust and a lack of ingrained rubber laid down from past races leaving it extremely slippery. During the weekend, the rubber laid by the F1 cars and the support racers created more grip but only on the racing line — and on the start-finish straight that meant the pole side of the grid was much more grippy — giving a significant benefit to the odd positions 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, etc.
The Grosjean penalty put Massa up to sixth and Alonso eighth — both on the bad side of the grid — and that led to Ferrari's clever engineers breaking a seal on a perfectly working gearbox to drop Massa back five places, putting Alonso up to seventh and onto the grippy side of the grid and Massa down to 11th, further back but also on the grippier side.
While controversial, such strategic gamesmanship should be praised.
Race teams need to use everything in their armoury to gain performance, and with Alonso firmly in the championship chase and Massa the long-standing team number two, the move was a no-brainer.
"There's not many drivers like me," Massa said with a reluctant smile as he walked to the grid. It's true, but it's part of his Ferrari role, which has long been focused on optimising their lead driver's chances.
Even if the dirty grid had not been an issue, moving Massa out the way of Alonso was arguably a place worth having. When it put the Spaniard onto the clean side of the circuit the advantage was far greater.
But it was the fact that Ferrari made the move so late that is so interesting. It backs up the team's defence of what some claim was an 'unsporting action' — because they knew that their title rivals could and probably would have pulled a similar move by breaking a seal on Mark Webber's third-placed car to switch Alonso back to the slippery side of the grid...if only they'd had the time.
Domenicali explained after the race: "It's part of the strategic things you have to decide. That's part of the game."
And he was absolutely right.
From seventh on the grid, on the clean side of the track, Alonso got a strong start and made it up to fourth after the climb up the hill to the first corner.
Had he not made the switch, there's a strong chance he would have remained stuck behind Kimi Raikkonen, Michael Schumacher and Nico Hulkenberg — and maybe even dropped behind Grosjean.
With the difficulty in warming tyres on the Austin track in the early stages, any early aggressive racing could have been harmful for his later strategy. But by getting up front quickly, he was able to secure crucial extra points for his damage limitation quest.
Webber's retirement through alternator problems made it an even better day for Alonso, putting him up on the podium. And Lewis Hamilton's victory meant Alonso lost just three points to title rival Vettel.
Now, that persistent alternator problem will be worrying Red Bull as will the high chances of an unpredictable season finale in Brazil, where rain is a distinct possibility.
There is 13 points between Alonso and Vettel which means that if Vettel fails to score in Brazil, Alonso can take the title by finishing third or higher. Had he finished just one place lower in Austin, the gap would be 16 and third in Brazil would not be enough, he would have to get second to overhaul a non-scoring Vettel. It's these small things that can change a championship.
Sure, the title is Vettel's to lose in Brazil. But the results from Austin are clear - Ferrari's controversial penalty move has given Alonso a slightly easier chance to snatch the title this weekend...