(Adds Red Bull, Massa reaction)
AUSTIN, Texas, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Brazilian Felipe Massa took a five-place grid penalty for the U.S. Formula One Grand Prix to help Ferrari team mate Fernando Alonso stay in the title chase on Sunday.
Massa qualified ahead of the Spaniard, who is the only driver who can deny Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel a third successive championship. Vettel, with a 10-point lead and one race remaining after Austin, starts on pole position.
Ferrari said they had broken a seal on Massa’s gearbox, incurring the mandatory penalty, for “strategy considerations, with the objective of maximizing Alonso’s start potential.”
The penalty means Alonso will now start in seventh place and, crucially, on the ‘clean’ side of the grid.
“We saw yesterday that starting from the dirty side of the track would have been penalizing: there was a significant risk of finding ourselves too far behind the leaders at the end of the first lap,” Ferrari said on their website (www.ferrari.com).
The team, whose constructors’ title hopes are effectively over, said both drivers had agreed to the move.
“We’ve always maintained that the interests of the team come before that of the individual drivers and this has always been our very transparent policy,” said Ferrari.
“Felipe has fully comprehended the reasons behind this decision and so he’s once again proven his total dedication to the team - something for which we would publicly like to express our gratitude.”
Red Bull boss Christian Horner shrugged off the controversial move, which is perfectly legal, while his 25-year-old German driver told Britain’s Sky television: “There’s not much to feel about, it’s their business.”
Massa, who starts 11th, said Alonso had talked to him about the decision and did not seem troubled by something that also put him on the clean side.
“It’s difficult to find a driver like me,” smiled the Brazilian, who has had to move over on track for Alonso before now this season and would have had to again if ahead of the Spaniard on Sunday. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)