The miracle continues, thanks to a gearbox seal.
If Fernando Alonso happens to pull off the unbelievable and take a third Formula One world championship in the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix next weekend, a decision made in the Ferrari team garage on Sunday will have been key to his success.
Two hours before the inaugural U.S. Grand Prix at the spectacular new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Ferrari decided to break the seal on Felipe Massa's gearbox, which gave the Brazilian a five-place grid penalty for the race.
After Lotus driver Romain Grosjean qualified fourth but was pushed to ninth due to a penalty for an actual gearbox change, Massa's car dropped from sixth to 11th on the starting grid. Alonso, who had qualified ninth and two spots behind his Ferrari teammate, then gained another place and climbed to seventh when Massa was demoted.
The move by Ferrari played a central role in double world champion Alonso finishing third and staying within striking distance of championship leader Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull, who was second in Austin, with one race to go.
The U.S Grand Prix results mean the Ferrari driver heads to the season finale at the Interlagos Circuit in Sao Paulo 13 points behind the reigning double world champion with a maximum of 25 points up for grabs in the Brazilian Grand Prix. Clearly the best driver in 2012, Alonso continues to vie for the title despite driving a car that has never been the best at any point this season.
Through a combination of luck, shrewd race craft, and massive talent, Alonso lifted his Ferrari to heights no one thought possible at the beginning of the season. While he has only qualified in the top-3 four times in 2012, Alonso has converted his car's lack of raw speed into an incredible three wins and 12 podium finishes in 19 starts. On the other hand, his title rival Vettel's 10 top-3 starts have delivered five wins and 10 podiums.
Although Alonso now puts his chances of winning the 2012 championship at about 25 per cent, he's not ready to fold and concede the crown to Vettel.
"Maybe on paper that chance is not so big, maybe anything can happen at Interlagos and we saw again how important reliability can be, didn't we?" Alonso said referring to Vettel's Red Bull teammate Mark Webber retiring in Austin due to a mechanical failure.
"Then, there's the chance of rain and a race in the wet can be very risky and we definitely have nothing to lose. Clearly, if it's dry and we have a normal race, one can expect Red Bull to be in front of everyone and us on the third or fourth row, so the more unknown factors there are, the better it is for us."
Alonso and Ferrari will probably spend the next three days praying for the typical downpours that often drench Interlagos, since the Spaniard is usually sublime in the wet. In March, he dominated a rain-soaked race in Malaysia in a Ferrari that was only good enough to qualify ninth in the dry. In wet qualifying at July's British Grand Prix, Alonso took Ferrari's first pole in 31 races, but could not hold off Webber in the dry on race day and finished second.
To even have a chance at the title, Alonso must finish in the top-3 even if Vettel retires. Should Alonso win in Brazil, Vettel can finish no higher than fifth. A second for Alonso means Vettel must be eighth or lower and a third for the Ferrari driver requires the Red Bull to be 10th or lower. If Vettel is fourth or better he wins the title no matter what Alonso does. Any tie goes Vettel's way, due to his five wins in 2012.
While his odds remain long, Alonso's chances would likely be even more slim heading to the finale had Ferrari not decided to sacrifice Massa's gearbox. The strategy simply put Alonso back on the cleaner side of the starting grid where the better grip increased his chances of a good start. He had been there after qualifying, but Grosjean's penalty swapped him to the dirty left side, which saw the team use Massa to help its championship contender.
Seals are placed on each car's gearbox by the sport's governing Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile. They must be removed to open the gearbox for any work to be done, but just peeling off the seal is enough to incur a penalty.
The plan worked like a charm. Alonso got away like a shot, quickly jumped three cars, and moved to fourth by the first corner, exactly where he needed to be to keep his title hopes even if polesitter Vettel won. In comparison, Lotus driver Kimi Räikkönen started three spots ahead of Alonso in fourth – on the dirty left side – and dropped to seventh after the first corner. He barely recovered, crossing the line only one place better in sixth.
In the end, Vettel could not hold off a hard charging Lewis Hamilton of McLaren, and finished second, while Alonso inherited third after Webber dropped out.
While some saw the decision to torpedo Massa as controversial, the move to purposely sabotage Massa's race in favour of Alonso was perfectly within the rules. In fact, it was strikingly similar to the Red Bull team taking its only remaining new specification nose off Webber's car at the 2010 British Grand Prix and giving it to Vettel for the rest of the weekend after he broke his in practice session. In that race, Vettel started on pole but lost the lead in the first corner to Webber before a puncture ruined his race. Webber went on to win and sarcastically said: "Not bad for a No. 2 driver," as he crossed the finish line.
Similarly, Massa's demotion also saw him turn adversity into a sizzling drive as the Brazilian stormed up the field to take an impressive fourth place, finishing directly behind his teammate.
"For me, this result is a bit like a win, definitely the best race of my season. Now I can say I'm happy to have started 11th," Massa said.
"This morning, when I was told I was dropping five places, I can't say I was jumping for joy, but I accepted it to help the team and my teammate: I don't think many drivers would have done the same, but I am an honest person and will always do my utmost for my team."
Massa's positive attitude toward his teammate's title chances is a good thing too, because Alonso will definitely need all the help he can get to pull off an upset and win the championship in Brazil on Sunday.
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