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Massa threatened with jail as Brazil turns against him

5 November 2010

In an extraordinary revelation, Felipe Massa has been warned that should he repeat his German Grand Prix action of moving aside to let Ferrari team-mate Fernando Alonso pass him and gain extra points towards his F1 2010 title bid at Interlagos on Sunday, he could face up to six years in jail.

The F1 world is abuzz ahead of this weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix – the penultimate round of what has been a thrillingly unpredictable, topsy-turvy campaign – with the Ferrari situation, or rather, how the Scuderia will manage matters if Massa proves to be quicker than Alonso.

Whilst the Spaniard has generally held the upper hand this season, it is the Brazilian who will be on home turf – literally, as a Paulista in São Paolo – and Massa went unbeaten in qualifying at Interlagos from 2006 to 2008, missing last year's event following his Hungaroring injury.

He would very likely have triumphed in each of the last three Brazilian Grands Prix he has entered, too, but for ceding the lead to then team-mate Kimi Raikkonen in the 2007 edition in order to enable the Finn to nick the crown away from Alonso and McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton by just a single point.

Which brings us neatly around to Ferrari's current dilemma. Widely censured for the contentious Hockenheim 'team orders' episode of the summer – an incident that many believe the Maranello-based outfit was lucky in the extreme to escape practically scot-free – there is no doubt at all that a similar stunt in Brazil would not be tolerated and could end up costing Alonso all chance of the crown.

So what do Ferrari do if Massa is faster? Try to artfully and surreptitiously manoeuvre the home hero out of the way – not likely to go down particularly well with the thousands partisan supporters thronging the Autódromo José Carlos Pace's grandstands – or accept that Alonso will not score as many points as he may like to in the race? The 2008 world championship runner-up himself is adamant that he knows what his role for the weekend will be.

“I did it already, in 2007,” the 29-year-old replied, when asked if he would yield again to Alonso if asked to on Sunday. “Fernando is leading [the championship] right now, so for sure I think he can do it here, but as we have seen this season, everything is possible. My personal aim is to try and win the race, and of course I can help Fernando by taking points away from his rivals.

“When you have a driver taking points away from the others in the championship, it is always important, so I see myself there, thinking about starting and finishing in the best possible position. I expect to win the race, and I will do the best I can to win it for the [Brazilian] people. It's true that even after the race in Germany, when I arrived in Brazil, people were very nice with me, were fantastic, pushing me forward. The real people, they are great. It's the journalists who are much more difficult.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Alonso, with the double F1 World Champion rubbishing notions that he is perceived as the bad guy in Brazil and that his reputation elsewhere has been similarly tarnished by various incidents of his on and off-track behaviour over the years – and calling upon spectators to understand the situation that Ferrari is in.

“In several countries they say my image is not good, but when I land at airports or go to the hotels or racetracks, what I see is the opposite,” he is quoted as saying by The Daily Telegraph. “I'm not worried about it. My job is to get results at the track, and to have the team happy with my work.

“For sure there are some people who understand [the situation] – they have the knowledge about this complicated sport – but there are some people who will never understand. The crowd have opposing views, but I insist our work is not to understand the opinion of the crowd but to do the best on the track.”

But here's the rub. Paulo Castilho – a prosecutor in Brazil's Special Criminal Court and palpably a man who does not understand – has told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that if Massa goes ahead with his promise to help Alonso out by ceding position to him should he find himself able and required to do so, even if it is of his own free will, he will find himself in hot water indeed in his homeland and facing up to six years imprisonment for 'defrauding' fans of their right to honest competition.

For years, Rubens Barrichello was sarcastically nicknamed 'The Tortoise' in Brazil for the subservient second fiddle role he played to multiple world champion Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, and the country is not about to stand for the same thing happening again with Alonso and Massa – with the latter, indeed, finding himself vilified by his countrymen post-Hockenheim for having meekly rolled over and effectively put his own ambitions to one side in favour of someone else's.

Whilst conventional wisdom goes that the best way to ensure that Alonso wins the championship is to ask that the out-of-contention Massa help him wherever possible – and Red Bull Racing and McLaren-Mercedes have both conceded that should one of their drivers mathematically fall out-of-the-reckoning, they too would likely do the same – the Brazilian public, accustomed to cheering on heroes of the ilk of Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and the late, great Ayrton Senna will not react kindly if the country's present standard-bearer sacrifices a popular victory in two days' time to aid his team-mate's cause.

Or, as Castilho remarks, 'if he does this he will have to leave Interlagos in handcuffs'. Felipe, Fernando and Ferrari, you have been warned...


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