Debate: Were Ferrari right or wrong?

We debate the rights and wrongs of Ferrari's intentional gearbox penalty at the United States Grand Prix.

Fernando Alonso.
Marcus Chhan

By Marcus Chhan

Not so fast Ferrari

Marcus Chhan believes Ferrari violated the spirit of Formula One at the United States Grand Prix.

Ferrari were wrong.

The Formula One title race may be heading for a thrilling finale in Brazil because of Sunday's results at the United States Grand Prix, but it does so with embarrassment.

Ferrari's decision to hit their driver Felipe Massa with a self-inflicted gearbox penalty ahead of the race in Austin was controversial - and in my opinion not in the spirit of sport.

After qualifying, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who is the only driver left competing with Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel for the title, was supposed to start on the left-hand side of the grid in eighth.

Alonso's team-mate Massa had a slightly better Saturday and was set to start the race in sixth. 

By breaking a seal on Massa's gearbox Ferrari purposely activated the standard five-place grid penalty which pushed the Brazilian down to 11th and shifted Alonso up to seventh and, crucially, on to the right-hand side of the grid.

The Ferrari reasoning behind this move was based on data collected throughout the weekend which showed that they could lose up to three places before the first corner if they started on the ‘dirty side' or left-hand side of the track because it had less traction.

The strategy worked for Alonso as he was fourth by the first corner before going on to finish the race third - thus doing enough to deny pole-setter Vettel, who ended up finishing second behind McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, the margin in points he needed to sew up a third straight drivers' title.

I've been a casual observer of Formula One since the mid-90s. My first season following the sport was when Damon Hill became champion and since then we can all agree we have seen some worse controversies hit this sport then what happened on Sunday - for example the Renault Crashgate scandal from a few years ago was indeed a darker day than this in the history of Formula One.

However, this in no way justifies what Ferrari did at the United States Grand Prix.

It's wrong because it forced someone else to start from the ‘dirty side' of the track. It's wrong because if everyone had adopted Ferrari's attitude on Sunday, we would have had farcical scenes at the start. On a day when Formula One was supposed to put its best foot forward to impress the Americans, imagine the shame if Red Bull had reacted to Ferrari's move by also breaking the seal on the gear-box of Mark Webber (who started third) to push Alonso back onto the ‘dirty side' of the track?

I know tinkering with the gear-box was within the regulations but again I'll counter by saying the Ferrari reasoning and intent behind the move goes against what motorsport should be about. If the conditions of the track favour your rival, well that's just too bad. What you do is you suck it up and race even harder and prove to your opponent how much faster (better) you are than him.

What petrol heads don't want to see is what Ferrari did.

Who is to say Alonso, starting on the ‘dirty side' of the track, could not have driven out of his skin on Sunday and go on to get the result he needed? Now that would have been a great story and a terrific advertisement for Formula One in a market they are desperate to crack.

Instead, the appeal of the sport in the United States was slightly cheapened.

And to make matters worse, Ferrari are trying to manipulate the situation to try and get credit for being transparent. After the race, Alonso even said he was proud of his team for telling the truth.

What nonsense.

You're not supposed to rob and steal if you see something that you like, but you don't get a medal or a pat on the back for not doing it either.

Ferrari can talk all they want about the strategic success they had at the United States Grand Prix - and no doubt their hard-core fans will be probably feel their team has been clever in doing what they did - but for me it went against what sport is supposed to stand for.

In South East Asia we have seen instances of unsporting behaviour before. The 1998 Tiger Cup (now the Suzuki Cup) was supposed to be the region's premier football tournament but it was ruined by two teams that year who tried to be a little too smart for their own good.

In the group stage of this competition, Thailand and Indonesia met each other with both teams knowing they had done enough to be assured of qualification for the semi-finals. They also knew that the winner of their game would face hosts Vietnam in the semi-finals while the losing team would face a perceived easier opponent in Singapore.

As a result, football witnessed a ludicrous sporting contest where both teams did little to try and score in the first half while in the second half four goals were split between the two teams thanks to some dodgy defending. In stoppage time, an Indonesia defender then deliberately blasted the ball into the back of his net for the own-goal which would hand Thailand the 3-2 win and a supposedly more difficult semi-final with Vietnam while Indonesia got Singapore.

Was it a clever strategic move?

Both Thailand and Indonesia were later punished for "violating the spirit of the game" and Singapore went on to win the competition anyway.

Get off your high horse

Abhishek Mehrotra defends Ferrari's right to do what it felt was necessary at the United States Grand Prix to keep the Formula One title race alive.

Spirit of the sport.

A nebulous concept used by those who have their high horse (fans of irony will appreciate that Ferrari's logo is a horse) on standby at all times, just so that they can get on it whenever the chance arises.

The problem lies not with Ferrari, but with those of us who think both sport and sportsmen should be somehow purer, untouched by the grime that coats the rest of us.

They're not.

If anything, sport should be given more leeway given that the people involved play for far higher stakes under far higher scrutiny than most of us will ever experience. When there's so much to be won and lost, "sporting spirit" is not the first consideration that comes to mind.

Having said that, gamesmanship, which is what Ferrari indulged in, is not a recent concept. In cricket, Douglas Jardine employed the Bodyline as far back as the 1932 Ashes series between England and Australia to curb the incredible run-scoring exploits of Donald Bradman.

That led to a full-fledged diplomatic row of course, but it also led to England retaining the Ashes, with Bradman scoring at a relatively meagre average of 56.57, as opposed to his career average of 99.94.

Most importantly, the tactic was within the rules at the time. And that is the crux of the argument, really. If there are loopholes in the system, they will be taken advantage of - in sport and in life. 

Recently, I read an interview on reddit.com, a popular news aggregator site, by Patrick Collins - a footballer who has played for Sheffield Wednesday as well as England youth teams from the Under-17s to the Under 20s.

When asked about the prevalence of diving in the game, he gave a refreshingly honest answer - unlike the moralising that is rife in television studios, newspapers and websites across the world.

"It may sound controversial but sometimes you have to do whatever it takes," he said.

"I would do anything to win a match, and if a player on my team dived to get a penalty and scored to win a final, I would celebrate with them.

"I think it should try and be pushed out of the game but only if referees are stricter on players who are caught diving. If players can get away with something, they will try it."

Does that mean diving is not an unpleasant part of the sport? Of course not, and everything should be done to remove it from the game. But "if players can get away with something, they will try it" says it all.

The onus is on the lawmakers of the game - be it F1, football, cricket or anything else (bodyline was deemed illegal after the infamous '32-33 Ashes) to get rid of the more unsavoury aspects. 

And despite popular perception, F1 is a team sport. What Massa did, or rather was Ferrari did to Massa, was to get him to "take one for the team". Is that not a concept as idealised as "spirit of the sport?" How foolish would it have been if the Italian team had not taken advantage of the loophole, and possibly handed the championship to Sebastian Vettel on a platter?

And let's be honest here. If Vettel and Alonso are on the last lap, with both still in the running for the championship - it is going to be edge-of-the-seat action for us spectators.

At that moment, no one, absolutely no one, is going to slump back in his chair, thinking "Oh well, what Ferrari did in Texas was against the spirit of the game. What's the world coming to" before switching off the television and hugging a soft toy for comfort.

So if you have a gripe, direct it towards the authorities. Don't blame a team that was smart, cunning, sly - take your pick - enough to do everything in its power to shorten its odds of winning the championship.



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