The decision by Ferrari to break the seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox in Austin in order to benefit Fernando Alonso caused a storm before the race. The Scuderia took a lot of flack from various quarters for making such a move, but with the championship on the line it was the right thing to do.
By enforcing a deliberate gearbox penalty on Massa’s car it meant Alonso moved up to seventh on the grid and crucially from the dirty half of the grid onto the clean side, which gave him a much better chance of gaining positions on the first lap.
With Alonso’s title hopes on the line, starting on the clean side of the grid potentially meant the difference between ending the first lap in fourth place or falling back to around tenth.
Furthermore, with the chance of getting a poor start from the dirty side of the grid much more likely than from the other side, the odds of falling back into the midfield and then getting caught up in a first corner collision were high. With main rival Sebastian Vettel looking fast all weekend and certain to score big points if he had a trouble-free race, an opening lap incident for Alonso would almost certainly have ended his title challenge, which was a risk that Ferrari were not willing to take.
Whilst undoubtedly harsh on Massa, the fact remains that he is not in the fight for the championship, he is the number two driver at Ferrari and he would have had to make way for Alonso during the race regardless. With Alonso still in the fight for the championship it would make no sense for Ferrari not to favour him. If by incurring an intentional grid penalty for Massa they would help Alonso in the title battle, the only logical thing for Ferrari to do would be to go ahead and break the seal on Massa’s gearbox.
With Ferrari’s infamous history when it comes to team orders it is perhaps understandable that fans are critical of the Scuderia whenever they make such a call. There is no doubt that incidents such as at Austria in 2002 and Hockenheim in 2010 were uncalled for and damaged the integrity of both the team and the sport, but this was a necessary sacrifice of Massa that came at a crucial time in the season with the championship still on the line.
Ferrari don’t have the best reputation when it comes to ensuring equality between its drivers, but they are by no means the only culprits for this kind of thing. Red Bull have done exactly the same for Sebastian Vettel in the past, does Silverstone in 2010 and 2011 not ring a bell? Don’t think that Ferrari would be the only team to act in this way in this situation, because almost every other team on the grid would do the same thing if it meant giving one of their drivers a better shot at the title.
As for the race itself, Alonso made a great start to gain three places on the opening lap and inherited third when Mark Webber retired, whereas Massa produced a strong drive to finish fourth and just one place behind his teammate.
Did Ferrari’s decision help Alonso limit the damage in the championship? Yes. Did sacrificing Massa actually affect where he would have finished given that he would’ve made way for Alonso later in the race anyway? No.
Which just further enforces the fact that Ferrari did the right thing in Austin.