Fernando Alonso goes into the F1 season finale in Brazil this weekend with a chance of winning the world championship, and he has an act of sabotage to thank for it.
Ferrari’s leading driver had endured a poor qualifying session at the United States Grand Prix, finishing down in ninth place.
A five-place grid penalty for Lotus’ Romain Grosjean was on the face of it a boost, pushing Alonso up to eighth – but in fact it damaged his prospects further. It meant he would have to start at the new Circuit of the Americas on the other side of the track. This side was dirty, hard to get away from, and accordingly slow.
So his team stepped in. Team-mate Felipe Massa had outqualified Alonso in seventh place, and to restore their championship challenger on to the clean side of the track they intentionally broke his £100,000 gearbox, costing him a five-place penalty to replace it but, crucially, moving Alonso across the track and up to seventh.
It was Machiavellian, predatory, and a stroke of genius.
Ferrari, who made no attempt to hide their scheme, are probably the only team in the sport with the resources and the gall to pull it off. It was only a seal that was broken, so we don't imagine the equipment had to be chucked in the bin, but in the financially-sensitive F1 of 2012 few teams would have felt comfortable doing such a thing.
The Scuderia have a clearer number one and two driver than anyone else on the grid, so they were able to convince Massa to go along with the plan. They also had the temerity to ask FIA whether it would be against the rules, and having cleared it, saw it through. It paid off, too: Alonso zipped up from seventh to fourth in no time at all, and went on to claim third.
Formula One is all about exploiting the rules to their limits for success. That comes in the form of innovations in car design – new parts that make the car quicker sometimes exceed the prescribed limits for competing in the championship, but teams have to take risks. You see it in the pit lane, where stops are getting quicker than ever, or in team orders, now clarified as legal and rightly so. It infiltrates every aspect of teams’ thinking.
For large chunks of the year Alonso has managed to keep pace with the reigning double world champion Sebastian Vettel in spite of his Ferrari rather than because of it. It is inferior to the championship-leading Red Bull, improving over the season from absolutely terrible to usually the second- or third-best car in the field. The Spaniard regularly qualifies a handful of places down the grid from his German rival. Then through his racecraft, opportunism and sheer force of will he drags himself up through the field on race day to claim his points.
Without Ferrari’s intervention, Alonso appeared to have left himself a task too far.
Thanks to this move, Alonso wins, Ferrari win, and Formula One wins. The Brazilian Grand Prix will see a genuine race-off for the title – Vettel is clear favourite, but the title could remain in the balance until the last lap.
But – and there is a but – this should be the last time this trick is pulled. There were losers from this move – the drivers who found themselves shunted to the dirty side of the track through no fault of their own – and that is not fair. As Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali admitted, they did not consider the effect on other constructors; then again, it is hardly Ferrari's fault that the track failed to provide a level playing field for the start in the first place.
The gearbox move is not on the scale of the most controversial of moves: the infamous Crashgate at Singapore in 2008, when Nelson Piquet Junior deliberately crashed his car into a wall in a pre-meditated move to force a safety car and boost his team-mate’s chances in the race. As fate would have it, that team-mate was again Alonso, although the Spaniard is not believed to have had any involvement in the plan. Nobody stood a chance of being hurt in Austin by Ferrari’s move – only their race prospects were damaged.
It could also have degenerated into farce – Red Bull, had they realised, could have done the same thing to Mark Webber’s car for Vettel’s sake, shuffling Alonso back onto the dirty side. Every team could have had a go until a bizarre stand-off was created, the sort that has marred many a Q3 session in qualifying as drivers decline to even race for grid position in the top 10 because if they don’t set a time, they have a choice of tyres for race day.
That is where the FIA must step in, and make a ruling on it. But as a one-off, which has kept the championship alive, it was ingenious.
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