MARCH 28, 2012
Being the sceptics that some of us are, the Conspiracy Theory Sensor went onto Full Alert - or perhaps I should say Red Alert - on Sunday when Sauber issued an instruction to Sergio Perez as he chased after Fernando Alonso and victory in the Malaysian Grand Prix.
The message from race engineer Marco Schupbach - "Checo, be careful, we need this position. We need this position" - triggered a number of thoughts, not least that the car ahead was a Ferrari, desperately in need of victory and powered by the same engine as the V8 in the back of Perez's Sauber.
It also prompted a reminder of the wide-spread belief that Perez is a shoe-in for a seat at Ferrari, perhaps sooner rather than later given Felipe Massa's disappointing performances. Or later, much later, if Perez stole the win from Maranello. Or not at all if he put Alonso off the road in the process.
The trouble with all of the foregoing is that it assumes Perez is an idiot - which he clearly is not judging by mature performances in his 19 Grands Prix so far. But, before we discuss the Swiss team's curious need to mother their boy, let's look at the Ferrari conspiracy that has occupied many a message board on F1 websites.
The problem here is that Ferrari does not have a good track record when it comes to manipulation, more recent examples being Eddie Irvine's unspoken role as Michael Schumacher's assistant; the more public humiliation of Rubens Barrichello in Austria 2002 and the infamous 'Fernando is faster than you' phone call to Massa at Hockenheim that probably did as much damage to the poor guy's head as the wayward spring in Hungary.
Add to that the thought that Alonso himself is not averse to asking for favours, the request (rejected by Renault) to have Giancarlo Fisichella stand aside during the 2005 Canadian Grand Prix coming easily to mind.
Throw that lot into a pot, stir in - 'stir' being an appropriate word - the probing media and heat the mix with the blow-torch criticism and expectation from Italy and you have the recipe for 'Must win at all costs; that includes you, Mr. Sauber' conjecture.
I don't know the truth any more than you do but, watching from a distance, I have to say such supposition seems fanciful. Critics have latched onto the use of 'position' in Schupbach's message. Peter Sauber subsequently explained that it was a bad choice of word when, in effect, they meant: "We need the points".
No one can argue with that when the team was on the verge of scoring, at a stroke, the same number of points it took them six races to earn at the start of last season. From the evidence of the first two races this year, the Sauber has a better handle than most on the 2012 Pirelli tyres; who can blame them for wanting to make hay before some of the better heeled teams catch up.
Then there is the business of Perez leaving the road and losing five seconds, as if reacting to this imaginary command to back off and leave Alonso alone. If Perez was going to stay safe in second, then launching himself over a kerb on the outside of one of the most difficult corners at Sepang was hardly the place to do it. Like I said, the boy isn't stupid.
The most pertinent question was why he had gone off. Which brings us back to the radio message; a pretty dumb call, if ever I heard one. Apart from presupposing Perez hadn't worked out the implications of a DNF for this little team, history shows that asking a F1 driver to slow down is like suddenly discussing the weekend's shopping while having sex. Or, so I would imagine.
The classic example - driving, not sex - is Ayrton Senna at Monaco in 1988. Holding a 50-second lead over Alain Prost, Senna receives a suggestion from the pit wall that it might be a good idea not to keep banging in fastest laps. Exactly one lap later, he tags the barrier at Portier, a corner he had gone through at least 100 times that weekend without incident. And yet here he was making a basic misjudgement he simply could not believe possible as he stepped from the damaged McLaren and glared at the offending metalwork minding its own business on the far side of the road.
Would Perez have got by Alonso? Quite possibly, given his speed, a wide track and the advantage provided by DRS at Sepang. But we'll never know - any more than we'll know the absolute truth over the Red Alert theory.
Personally, I'd prefer to go with the nice thought of just missing out on the first victory for a Mexican since Pedro Rodriguez at Spa in 1970. Would Pedro have backed off in such circumstances? You must be joking.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.