One of the major talking points from the US Grand Prix weekend was the decision by Ferrari on Sunday morning to deliberately break a seal on the gearbox of Felipe Massa’s car, so that he would get a five place grid penalty which would move team mate Fernando Alonso one place up the grid and onto the clean side of the grid for a better start.
Practice starts during the weekend had shown that the dirty side of the grid was so lacking in grip that the car would lose up to a second in the 350 metre run to Turn 1, equivalent to two positions.
Much has been said and written about Ferrari’s tactic in the last 24 hours, but it’s worth looking in more detail at the background and technical detail of this to better understand whether the rules need to be re-written to avoid similar actions in future.
Ferrari used Article 28.6 (e) to give their own driver a tactical penalty on Sunday. This states that: “a replacement gearbox will also be deemed to have been used if any of the FIA seals are damaged or removed from the original gearbox after it has been used for the first time.”
The rules on gearboxes are that each ‘box must last for five Grands Prix. An FIA seal is placed in several areas of the gearbox, “to ensure that no moving parts, other than those specifically permitted … can be rebuilt or replaced.”
These seals may only be broken with the approval of the FIA in order to make limited repairs. These include replacing a damaged gear ratio with a similar one, O-rings and oil seals. Nothing is allowed to be done to the transmission itself and if needed a new gearbox must be used which incurs a five place grid penalty.
Ferrari were transparent about the fact that there was nothing wrong with Massa’s gearbox and they will have been equally open with the FIA about it. In fact they will have gone through the procedure carefully with the FIA’s Charlie Whiting and Jo Bauer to ensure that they satisfied the regulations. They broke the seal on the cross-shaft, which is at the back of the gearbox and drives the final drive.
Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali confirmed that the team waited until the last moment to break the seal, so as not to allow time for Red Bull to react and do the same with Mark Webber, who was starting 3rd. However Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said that they never even considered it.
This is the second race in succession where a team fighting for the championship has done something unusual in order to gain an advantage for the race. In Abu Dhabi Red Bull Racing were penalised for not having enough fuel in Sebastian Vettel’s car in qualifying.
He was sent to the back of the grid, but Red Bull Racing used Article 34.5 of the Sporting Regulations to change his car and optimise it for overtaking in the race. So he was able to gain an advantage from what should have been a severe penalty. The rule states, “If a competitor modifies any part on the car or makes changes to the set‐up of the suspension whilst the car is being held under parc fermé conditions the relevant driver must start the race from the pit lane.”
Both actions were within the rules and as things stand, both rules are in the 2013 Sporting Regulations.
A lot of effort goes into thing through various scenarios and wording these regulations; for example on the rule regarding teams using 8 engines in a season, Ferrari was one of the prime movers in adding a detail whereby if an engine is replaced after qualifying with another from the permitted eight, the unit removed cannot be used again that season for qualifying and race. This was to avoid teams producing special “qualifying engines”.
This is the level of detail the teams and the FIA go to.
There’s no doubt that what Red Bull did in Abu Dhabi and what Ferrari did in Austin played badly with fans. Ferrari’s move affected their own driver Massa and it meant that several drivers who had qualified on the clean side of the grid, were forced to start on the dirty side.
The most affected were Senna, who moved to 10th and lost two places at the start. However his team mate moved onto the clean side in 9th and still lost four places. Hulkenberg moved to sixth and picked up a place at the start.
The dirty side did have an impact overall; Raikkonen lost three places from 4th and Hamilton lost a place from second.