After burning through a load of unsuccessful venues in the 1980s, F1 went through much of the 1990s without having a grand prix in America. For the 2000 season, that all changed as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – one of the most iconic racing venues in the entire world – opened its doors to F1 on a new infield circuit.
The track itself utilised the main straight, ran clockwise (the opposite direction to races on the full speedway) and featured a somewhat unspectacular series of twisty slow- and medium-speed corners. The one thing it did have going for it was a flat-out blast from Turn 11, through Turn 12 and onto the banking of Turn 13 (Turn 1 of the Indy 500) and then down the long main straight. Proper banked turns are a rarity in F1 so that alone brought some interest, as did the fact that F1 was racing at a venue as historic as the Brickyard.
The first few years of racing were solid, if unspectacular. The track was the scene of Mika Hakkinen’s last win in 2001, and a really dodgy end in 2002 when Ferrari completely messed up an attempt to stage a photo finish. The banking itself didn’t seem to have much of an impact on things, however, until 2004.
Early in the race, Fernando Alonso’s Renault suffered a tyre failure at the end of the straight. A couple of laps later, Ralf Schumacher also had a tyre failure on his Williams – this time on the banking – and ended up running backwards into the wall. The massive impact left him with a concussion and minor fractures in his spine, forcing him to miss the next six races. Both cars were running Michelin tyres – a fundamental tyre problem, or the freak result of debris from the four-car accident which had happened on the opening lap? Either way, it was a foreshadowing of the events that were to unfold the following year.
By the time of the 2005 race, things had changed a bit. Indianapolis had been resurfaced and then, when the field rocked up to test for the Indy 500 that year, tyre manufacturer Firestone noted that the tyre wear was unusually high. Small grooves were cut into the surface, which helped, as did the fact that Firestone was able to change its tyre construction to cope with the changes.
Over in the F1 world, the tyre rules had seen a significant change. Bridgestone and Ferrari had dominated 2004 to such an extent that the FIA introduced rules designed to peg them back – one of which was to mandate all drivers to use a single set of tyres for the entire race, only being allowed to stop for fuel. It worked – Ferrari lost all competitiveness, and the teams using Michelin tyres – Renault and McLaren – moved to the fore.
At the 2005 US GP, all of these changes were about to come together in a perfect storm and create possibly the biggest farce in Formula 1 history.
It started on Friday practice when, for the second year running, Ralf Schumacher had a tyre failure on the banking and his Toyota slammed into the wall. Thankfully, he was OK, but was ruled out of the race on medical grounds and replaced by Ricardo Zonta.
After the Friday sessions, Michelin discovered six more tyre failures and flew them back to France for analysis. There, they discovered the unique combination of loads and stresses caused by the banked Turn 13 and new surface was the cause of the failures. A new specification of tyre was flown out to Indianapolis but these didn’t work either, and Michelin advised its teams not to run more than 10 consecutive laps.
This raised a big, Metal Gear Solid-style exclamation mark above the circuit: something bad was about to happen and a solution needed to be found. Qualifying went ahead without a hitch and, despite all the problems for the team, surprisingly it was Jarno Trulli who gave Toyota its first F1 pole position.
Race day came and still, everyone was confused. It was clear that the Michelin tyres couldn’t last an entire race distance, so what was going to happen?
A number of solutions were proposed. One was to install a temporary chicane on the final corner to reduces the speeds. Nine of the 10 teams agreed, with only Ferrari blocking the idea. Another was for the Michelin drivers to be able to race, but be forced to pit every 10 laps. Another suggested that the Michelin teams would be forced to either go through the pit lane on every lap or run around the top of the Turn 13 banking at a reduced speed.
If any of these plans could have been agreed upon, there was the option to run the race as a non-championship round and at least put on a show for the 130,000 fans who’d turned up to watch – not to mention the millions around the world watching F1 race in one of the sport’s biggest and most important markets. But FIA president Max Mosley – who wasn’t actually at the circuit – reportedly threatened that if that happened, he’d shut down every FIA-affiliated organisation in North America.
As the start of the race drew nearer, no solution had been agreed upon, and it became increasingly likely that Michelin wouldn’t allow its drivers to take part. The drivers lined-up on the grid and set off on the formation lap. A team radio message from David Coulthard was broadcast: “if this comes down to my choice, I want to race”.
He had no choice. At the end of the formation lap, Trulli led a train of the 14 Michelin-shod cars down the pit lane as they all withdrew. It at least shed a bit more light on his pole position: in the days when you had to qualify with your race fuel onboard, it seems Toyota had been so certain of not being able to race that they sent Trulli out for his qualifying lap on minimal fuel to at least try and grab some positive headlines for snatching P1.
Meanwhile, the two Ferraris, two Jordans, and two Minardis lined-up, spread out in their original grid positions, ready for a 90-minute six-car race over 73 laps. Understandably furious at what was playing out in front of them, the crowd booed and jeered, throwing things onto the track, holding up protest signs, and walking out in their droves.
Despite looking certain for a ‘good result’, Minardi boss Paul Stoddart was left absolutely fuming – not only at the decision to race, but because Jordan (with whom Minardi were fighting for last in the championship) had apparently gone back on a pre-race agreement for the two teams to join the Michelin runners and boycott the race out of solidarity. Speaking on Dutch TV, he gave a sweary and honest review of the situation.
“I’m not in the slightest bit interested [in the points]. It’s the saddest day in Formula 1’s recent history. We had an opportunity to have a race here this afternoon, it was denied by the non-approval of putting in a chicane. The Michelin runners have my sympathy and the only reason my cars are out there is because the Jordans went out, having agreed this morning they wouldn’t go out, but they went out.
“I can’t do anything. I’m a Bridgestone runner, I don’t take any pleasure in this, this is not a race, it’s a farce. My apologies go out to the fans that are here today and to the millions and millions of people watching this on television around the world. This is why Formula 1 needs to be a sport… I’m angry…
“I can [swear]? Are you sure? This is fucking crazy. The FIA needs to get a grip with itself and sort this sport out before there’s no fucking sport to sort out. Yesterday was bullshit.
“The championship is over for Minardi. We were only fighting Jordan and this bullshit race has meant that the season finishes here. We can’t ever overtake the points from today. It’s over. This race has not just screwed the Michelin runners – it’s not a race, it’s a farce – it’s screwed up the little fight between Minardi and Jordan that was getting quite good.”
The ‘race’ went ahead without much incident – save for a brief moment where the two Ferraris almost collided after a pit stop. Michael Schumacher won what would be his only race of the season ahead of Rubens Barrichello, with Tiago Monteiro winning the battle to finish third ahead of Narain Karthikeyan and the two Minardis of Christijan Albers and Patrick Friesacher.
Those who had stayed behind to watch what unfolded duly booed at the podium ceremony as the Ferrari drivers glibly accepted their trophies. Monteiro didn’t care, though – however it had happened, he’d achieved his first podium, becoming the first (and so far only) Portuguese driver to do so, and he celebrated as he would if had been more genuine. And fair play to him – it wasn’t his fault, so why not try and make the most of the situation?
So, who was to blame? Well, Michelin had made the tyres that weren’t fit for purpose, but they couldn’t have predicted that a resurfacing of the track would have such an adverse effect on the way they made their product. Bridgestone had managed it, sure, but they had the benefit of data from Firestone (a company owned by Bridgestone) on the new surface, so was able to make changes.
So, how about blaming Ferrari for blocking the chicane idea? Well, as nice as it would have been to see them show solidarity with the other nine, you can’t blame a team for seeing an opportunity to grab maximum points from a weekend in doing what they can to ensure that happens. It wasn’t their responsibility to make a race happen in the first place.
How about the FIA for not doing all they could to make sure a race goes ahead? Perhaps a little, but in a sport so bound by strict rules and regulations, suddenly changing the layout of the track or adjusting the format of the race to accommodate a tyre manufacturer with a faulty product are things which require more than a day or two to figure out.
Whatever happened, somebody was going to lose out. In situations like that, the best thing to do is to choose the option that’s going to upset the fewest people. In this case, the best thing to do would probably have been to cancel the race, or postpone it to later in the year. It would have annoyed Ferrari, and been very frustrating to the fans, but hopefully understandable. But in going ahead with the race anyway and leaving it up to Michelin alone to take the fall was an insult to pretty much everyone and not the sort of response that you’d expect from such a massive global sport.
Michelin offered refunds to the fans as well as free tickets for the race the following year, but the damage was done. After two more races, Indianapolis dropped off of the F1 calendar, while Michelin pulled out of the sport at the end of 2006. The FIA even had the cheek to investigate the seven Michelin teams for violating the terms of the Concorde Agreement (the document which governs the terms under which the teams race in the sport), but later dropped the charges.
Thankfully the even had little impact on the wider championship fight, with the exception that it probably meant Michael Schumacher finished two places higher in the standings than his should have done (third instead of fifth) and that Ferrari beat Toyota to third in the constructors’.
Despite it being one of the lowest moments Formula 1 has had as a sport, watching it from home at the time was actually weirdly entertaining. It was an entirely unprecedented situation and although the race being boring as hell, it actually seemed to go really quickly.
We hope this sort of thing doesn’t happen again, but oddly, it almost did. This year’s Australian GP could have been a right mess following the withdrawal of McLaren and the reports that a number of drivers got flights home before the race had been cancelled. Thankfully, the sensible decision was taken and the race was cancelled – and you’d like to think that the lessons learned from the 2005 US GP played a small part in that happening.