Ferrari has decided to go ahead with the rumoured change of gearbox in Felipe Massa's car, a move calculated to boost team-mate Fernando Alonso's chances of remaining in the F1 title fight until the final round in Brazil next weekend.
The 'change' - a phrase that covers something as simple as removing the official FIA seals from the Brazilian's gearbox - will incur a five-place grid penalty for the United States Grand Prix, dropping Massa to eleventh in the starting line-up, but crucially elevating Alonso to seventh spot. Not only is that one place closer to pole-sitting title rival Sebastian Vettel, but should also give the Spaniard better purchase off the line on a still-greasy surface at the Circuit of the Americas.
The cleaner side of the track is estimated to be worth two or more positions at the start because of the lack of grip off the racing line. Alonso had qualified ninth fastest but a gearbox penalty for Lotus' Romain Grosjean moved the Spaniard to the 'wrong' side of row four overnight. Ferrari stated that it was investigating 'unspecified problems' with Massa's gearbox.
"This decision has been taken to maximise the potential at the start for Fernando, which is normal in a way because you have seen yesterday that starting from the dirty side of the grid is very poor," Ferrari communication's chief Luca Colajanni told Sky Sports
, "Fernando is going for the championship and we need to do all the best we can to help him in this fight.
"We shared the decision with the drivers, [and] Felipe accepted the decision. Of course, it's not the best thing that you can be told [but], on the other side, I can tell you we made this decision with complete transparency knowing that, in Ferrari, the interests of the team comes before everything else. And Felipe proved again to be a strong member of the team, who shared the spirit of the team - we would like to thank him publicy for this."
The official FIA notice confirming the gearbox penalty read: "An FIA Seal on the gearbox of Car 6 has been damaged," which was a "breach of Article 28.6 e) of the FIA F1 Sporting Regulations" and as a result car #6 driven by Felipe Massa was subject to a "Drop of 5 grid positions."
It remains to be seen what reaction the Scuderia's tactical decision provokes, with no reason why other teams don't follow suit in order to affect Alonso's starting position still further.
However, with the F1 circus desperate to gain a new foothold in the US market, and a full house expected at the spectacular CotA facility on race day, such moves could be tantamount to the sport shooting itself in the foot as it attempts to compete with the more straightforward world of NASCAR.