Tire Soap Opera Kills U.S. Grand Prix

By Deane Barker on June 19, 2005

Michelin tells teams not to race U.S. Grand Prix: Michelin, who supplied tires for 14 Forumla One teams in this weekend’s U.S. Grand Prix, announced after qualifying that their tires were not safe on the final turn at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Problem: In Formula One, you’re not allowed to change tires after qualifying. This rule is in place because too many teams were using extremely sticky (and short-lived) tires in qualifying to get good lap times, then switching to standard tires for the actual race.

But despite the warning from Michelin, the FIA refused to allow teams to change tires and they further refused to erect a chicane in the final turn to slow speeds and make it safe enough for the Michelin-equipped cars. They refused this even after many of teams agreed to compete for no points, just so the race would go on.

Nine teams boycotted in protest. This left only six cars on the huge course. Reaction from the U.S. fans was not good:

From their seats in the grandstands, the few American fans of the globe-trotting racing series watched in wide-eyed disbelief as just six cars started Sunday’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

[…] The crowd was stunned when the 14 cars pulled off, with fans pointing and gawking as they tried to figure out what was going on.

[…] [Michael Schumacher] was booed on the podium, the traditional champagne celebration was canceled, and the public address announcer implored the few remaining fans in attendance to stop throwing things.

Fans booed and some threw water bottles on the track in disgust.

“If I was a fan out there I would do the same,” said driver Jacques Villeneuve, a former Indianapolis 500 winner.

After just 10 laps, many spectators began heading for the exits. There were reports of thousands of fans showing up at the ticket office demanding refunds, and that police had been called to keep the peace.

This sucks, because Formula One has never caught on in this country, and since every racing series in the U.S. seems to be moving to nothing but ovals (which I find interminably boring), a road series was going to be nice.

Gadgetopia

Comments

  1. That does suck. I hate OVal racing. Every once and a while I’ll have Nascar on while I’m working but that’s because it isn’t distracting until a crash. I wish they would have more “street” like racing conditions. I know sweating and holding that steering wheel at 190+ is hard work for 3-4 hours but it would be much better if they were driving around a road track.

  2. With you all the way, oval racing is a complete bore. What I find depressing is how many nascar teams hire “road circuit” experts to drive their cars when Watkins Glen and Sears point??? occur. And how far the ratings drop when these races do occur. From what I have been told by fans of that series, “true” nascar fans want those races replaced with high banked ovals. Draw you’re own conclusions.

    Lets just hope Shuey doesn’t win another title by a very slim margin because it will be a very hollow title to say the least.

  3. I know why most fans prefer oval tracks: they’re easy to watch-in person. I love road tracks, but where do you sit if you attend a race? On most road tracks, it’s tough to have line-of-sight to more than a few hundred yards of track. With ovals, you can see almost all of the track at one time.

    Yes, there are more people watching on television, but consider this —

    They can get 300,000 people to attend the Brickyard 400 at Indy. The cheapest ticket price for that race was $150, and they probably averaged $200. That’s $60 million in gate receipts. Sixty million dollars, not counting concessions, merchandise, or parking fees. By comparison, how much is the television revenue for a single race?

    (The Indy 500 is even more lucrative. They allow spectators on the infield for that race, so they can get 400,000 people in there. Could that be the most attended sporting event in the world?)

    I wish I had a solution or rebuttal for that, but I don’t.

  4. Just a couple of corrections:

    • Michelin supply 14 cars not teams. There are only 10 teams altogether, each with two cars.
    • Nine teams said they wouldn’t race (Ferrari, as ever, were different). In the end, Jordan and Minardi (who have Bridgestone tyres) did join Ferrari in competing.
    • The seven teams didn’t boycott the race, they were told by Michelin that the tyres were unsafe unless the track was altered to slow the cars down. Given the FIA’s refusal to change anything, they had no option but to withdraw.

  5. I was there and it was a disappointment. However, Michelin teams could have run slower through turn 13 or opted to take a penalty and change tires as needed.
    The track configuration has not changed in the last 6 years so there is no excuse for Michelin to expect concessions to be made because of their inferior product.

    Bridgestone has had tire problems this year and hasn’t asked for any special accommodations. Imagine the uproar of Ferrari asked for such a change.

    The tire rule was enacted this year, many argue, to break the Ferrari stronghold. There is some irony in the way it backfired.

    What could be more dangerous than making a significant change to the configuration to a track literally minutes before the start of the race with no chance to practice?

    To let one, albeit a significant, supplier hold an event hostage is inexcusable. The FIA should come down hard on the teams that refused to play by the rules, whatever the rules are.

    Fan sentimentality aside, the teams responsibility is to their the people that pay them to go drive around on worldwide TV for 90 minutes with their logos painted on their cars….I can’t imagine the sponsors are going to be too happy with the loss of advertising. To them, winning is good, but exposure is better.

    Lastly, it demonstrates the mutual lack of interest in F1 in the US. I can’t imagine this happening at a European track.

  6. I searched for “the most attended sporting event in the world,” and Google came up with this CNN article:

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/racing/05/20/indy.event/

    Turns out I was right:

    The Indy 500 is known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for a very good reason: It’s a spectacle, pure and simple. On race day more than 400,000 race fans will walk along 16th Street and file into the Brickyard, making the 500 the most highly attended sporting event in the world this year.
  7. MLW you seem to have a different point of view, but let’s compare notes.

    The Michelin teams couldn’t change tyres – that’s what they wanted to do but the FIA rules wouldn’t let them. The track configuration hasn’t changed, but the diamond cutting of the surface to “increase the grip for NASCAR” is new this year and is certainly unique for F1 circuits. Certainly the Michelin tyres did not work – there is no avoiding that this was the initial problem.

    As for “What could be more dangerous than making a significant change to the configuration to a track literally minutes before the start of the race with no chance to practice?”, how about racing on tyres which the manufacturer had said were not safe? Where there had been 10 failures, two catastrophic, during practice?

    I don’t understand how you think that the supplier was “holding the event hostage”. They wanted to race, the teams even offered to race for no points, but the FIA would not let them.

  8. The fan just talked about the “road course experts” brought for NASCAR races. How many Nextel Cup races have been won in recent years by the ringers?

    None.

    And this year’s Busch race at Mexico City was a four-way street fight — Busch Series regulars, many of whom have never driven professionally on a road course, Nextel Cup regulars (“Buschwhackers”), the road-racing aces, and the “Pilotos de México,” or the Mexican drivers. While a Pilotos scored P1 for qualifying, he beat himself on the first pit stop, despite being a team which usually has a Nextel Cup ace behing the wheel, and the race was clearly a battle between the Busch Series regulars and Nextel Cup stars, as Martin Truex, Jr, whose only previous professional road racing experience is from races at Watkins Glen and Lime Rock, dominated.

  9. If a competitor arrives at a competition – any competition – with inferior equipment, it is not the fault of the organizers or of the other competitors. It is the fault of the competitor himself. I simply cannot understand why anyone thinks that Ferrari (a team I have no love for) or the FIA or indeed anyone else was expected to help out the Michelin teams who had come to the US GP with the wrong tires for the track.

    So what if the tires they had arrived with would be unsafe at maximum speed through turn 13? Sometimes it does happen that the equipment a team has is not good enough for the conditions. And when that happens, the team (an honest, competitive team) has simply to adapt to the new circumstances. Good God – how often do you suppose the Minardi team turns up with equipment that is borderline for the track? Do you think the other teams would agree to a new chicane every time Minardi complained that it had a car that was dangerous through fast bends?

    What the Michelin teams did at Indianapolis was to behave like a group of disgruntled union leaders. They led the boys out on strike. If they couldn’t get what they wanted – to be fully competitive on the track – then they weren’t going to take part.

    And of course, like Union bosses with a big union behind them, they figured that they could get away with it. No-one could argue with more than half the work force walking out, could they?

    Well, whether anyone could argue or not, they did it anyway and they really couldn’t care less about the fools who paid to watch. F1 has long since ceased to be about the people who turn up to watch. We are not part of the show. We are simply the extas who happen to be there.

    If the drivers had any balls (which once upon a time they did) they would have insisted on driving. And they could have done. If the tires were dangerous flat out through turn 13 then they could all have agreed to take that turn a gear lower. The telemetry would have kept them all honest on that one.

    Ferrari would have won, of course, and Jordan and Minardi would probably have done better than usual. But the Michelin teams would all have raced fairly amongst themselves for the other points on offer. Ah, but could the teams really have agreed such a thing?

    Well, they all seemed to be able to agree their theatrical walk-out easily enough. They can agree with each other when they want to.

    The sad truth is that if they had all wanted to race they would have found a way. but they have all long since forgotten that F1 was once about pure racing and they have all sunk into a horrible world of political in-fighting and trying to outdo each other anywhere but on the track.

    F1 is not the real thing anymore and its high time we all showed that we too can easily walk away.

    Chris

  10. This is a good point, and one I’m coming to agree with. The Michelin teams should have raced, but just gone slower through the affected area of the track. This is the tack the FIA is taking, and I think they may be right. I think they just got screwed by Michelin.

  11. They could not race with dangerous tyres. After Kimi Raikkonen’s suspension failed at the European GP from vibration caused by a tyre flatspot, the FIA “warned that teams and drivers must give serious concern to safety, and in particular pay attention to tyre wear or risk being black-flagged (disqualified).”

    The FIA said that. The FIA wouldn’t let them change tyres. The FIA wouldn’t change the circuit. The drivers and teams wanted to race, and maybe in a less litigious time and place they might have done, but to have them slow down once a lap when racing? That would have been just as farcical and dangerous too. Would you prefer the whole race was run behind the Safety Car?

    Michelin screwed up, there is no denying that. Bridgestone screwed up earlier, in the Spanish GP, and Michael Schumacher retired because his tyres were dangerous. He didn’t get accused of “boycotting” that race.

    This union analogy mystifies me. A technical fault ruled out most of the field. It happens. The ideal solution may have been to postpone the whole race, but the real boss, TV, couldn’t allow that.

  12. It was unfortunate, but I don’t see how they could have put a full race on, even if the Michelin teams were allowed to race for no points and the FIA waived the rules or just discounted the whole race (made it non-championship). The Michelin runners could only run if the cars were slowed up at the crucial point, or if they used different, safe tyres.

    They couldn’t run with different tyres because (quite apart from the FIA regulations) they didn’t have any that they knew were safe. Michelin offered to fly new tyres in overnight, but they didn’t have any test data for those tyres, they’d never been run on that track with it’s banked turns and diamond cross-cut. Nobody could say for sure they were any safer than the tyres that failed. In theory, the FIA could have put in a chicane to slow the cars, but just as for running different tyres, every Michelin team would have had to run setup laps to get the engine mappings, suspension and aero-package settings adjusted, and to give the drivers time to become familiar with it (braking points, etc). It wouldn’t be safe to race flat out without this practice. A chicane can be put in rapidly only once it has been carefully designed according to the safety regulations – I believe some drivers had designed one the night before, but I don’t think the FIA safety experts could pass it for installation without a full safety check in any case.

    Some say that the Michelin runners could have just run slowly through that corner, but no-one knew just how slow that would have to be… a chicane would definitely slow them enough, but without one how would you ensure it was safe? If you told the drivers to put the pit lane limiter on at a set point, would that do it? How would you ensure they wouldn’t forget, or that one driver wouldn’t try it later than another? However, the main objection was that non-Michelin runners would be at full speed at that point, resulting in a dangerous speed differential between the two groups on the fastest corner of the track.

    Ultimately it was a safety issue. The race would be pointless unless the cars could actually race, and there was no safe option for this to happen. The risk was that drivers could be hurt and/or massive insurance claims could result.

    The FIA ‘correctly’ ran the race by the rules, which meant most teams couldn’t ocmpete for safety reasons, which ruined it for spectators.

    The real fiasco was that none of the main parties involved could make a sensible decision and put out a statement when they first became aware of the problem a day earlier. If the FIA, Michelin and the teams had made a decision and an announcement the night before of what was going to happen, then given spectators a chance to leave before the race with a full or partial refund, it would have been a little less disastrous – still bad, but not as bad as what actually happened.

  13. Actually, the FIA would have allowed them to change tyres. It told them that they could do so although – as stipulated in the rules – they would be penalised for doing so. But since Frank Williams now says all of the teams that pulled out were prepared to race for no points then it hardly seems to matter if they would have been penalised for fitting new tyres. So why didn’t they do that instead of insisting on a new and entirely unprecedented chicane?

    Michael Schumacher raced in Spain. He didn’t go through the act of sitting on the grid, driving round for the warm-up lap and then theatrically pulling off. Michael Schumacher is as capable as anyone of bending, breaking or ignoring the rules (just ask Damon Hill in Australia in 1994) but Schumacher did not boycott the Spanish GP this year by any stretch of the imagination.

    By mandating that all the Michelin teams took turn 13 in a lower gear than the cars are capable of would not involving them slowing down. It would simply prevent them from accelerating at the optimum point, something that would not be noticable to the crowd but would be apparent to the Ferraris who would simply have gone past them as if going past back markers.

    The union analogy is simple – Frank Williams, Ron Dennis, Flavio Briatore et al believe that it is they who are the true masters of F1, not the FIA. And they are prepared to pull their teams out if the FIA refuses to be bullied by them. The technical problem with the tyres was just an excuse to flex their muscles. There were plenty of solutions that were within the existing rules that could have been employed to deal with the problem (a problem that had not been created by anyone but the Michelin teams themselves) but Frank and Ron are bigger than the FIA and this won’t be the last time they seek to prove it.

  14. Exactly. Schumacher did not boycott Spain, the Michelin teams did not boycott the US GP. As for the unions, you seem to have it the wrong way around. The teams provide the money, via sponsorship topped up with a share from the TV coverage. Only a fool would enter an F1 team with the intention of making money.

    The FIA, on the other hand, seem intent on making the sport as dull yet as possible, and removing any incentive to innovate technically. There are plenty of formulae where all the cars are the same, but F1 is a team sport. And the politics is part of it. I actually quite enjoyed Sunday, and it has certainly given me plenty to talk and write about. Granted, I didn’t pay – and I’m sure if I had it would colour my opinion – but I have watched less interesting processional races in the past with outcomes similarly pre-determined

  15. That is a very interesting read. Some good news — the IRL has added two road courses and a street course for 2006.

    a street race in St. Petersburg, Florida and two road courses, at Watkins Glen International in New York and Infineon Raceway in California for 2005.

    That’s great because according to the article at Wikipedia (below), the Champ Car series is all but doomed.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IndyRacingLeague

    My only beef with the IRL has been the all-oval format. I’d be a convert if they had some road courses.

  16. Well, I did make the trek to Indianapolis (cost enormous) and I and my young son were looking forward to seeing the F1 cars in action. What we actually saw (of each Michelin car) was a qualifying lap and then a warm up lap when they all theatrically weaved around putting heat into tyres which they knew were never going to be raced. How dishonest was that??

    If you weren’t there its probably hard to imagine how disapponting it was when those same cars which had put heat into their tyres and whipped us all into a frenzy of pre-race excitement then disappeared into the pits and we never saw them again.

    Was it really necessary for them to have done that? Could they not have been honest about it and announced beforehand that they weren’t racing and given us the reason? At least then we would have known what was coming.

    But no. They had to make it as disappoiniting and dramatic as possible. They were – rightly or wrongly – angry with the FIA and they wanted to make a big show of that anger.

    Given all of that, its hard for me to agree with you and to find anything good to say about last Sunday.

    The teams compete in F1. They don’t own F1 though they behave like they do.(Actually, bizarrely, Bernie Ecclestone seems to own F1 and I’d like to know how that happened). And contrary to what you say, the F1 teams make a shed load of money out of it. They spend a shed load too, on drivers (why do F1 drivers get paid so much – they are good but not that good) and on the equipment and their lavish transportation and hospitality. I agree that the admission money that they nicked off me last Sunday doesn’t go far towards meeting their gargantuan overheads (the sponsors see to that mainly) but don’t make out that the teams are in it for the good of the sport! They are in it absolutely to make money and to sell products on the back of it.

    The unions think it is they and not the owners who run the shop. F1 teams have that same view about F1, and that it is not the FIA that runs the sport but the teams.

    On September 25th the IRL is racing at Watkins Glen, the home of the US grand Prix in the days when drivers were skilled and ballsy, Bernie Ecclestone and Ron Dennis were grease monkeys, and you were allowed in the pits even if you weren’t a super model or a friend of Tom Cruise. It’s the first open wheel racing at the Glen for many years. I shall be there and I don’t expect them to let me down like the overpaid prima donnas in modern F1!!

    Watch a DVD of that motor racing classic Grand Prix (not an acting classic, admittedly) and see what we lost when we let F1 get away from us.

    Chris

  17. A quick comment on Paul Stoddart’s statement which Derek posted the url to:

    1. Whatever he says, Mr Stoddart is not capable of commenting dispassionately about the FIA or Mr Mosely. The history between them hardly makes it likely that he can give a fair viewpoint. This is borne out by the fact that Mr Stoddart can never use the word ‘fiasco” in his statement (which indeed the US Grand Prix was) without writing it FIAsco. That’s how an angry teenager would write about someone or something he feels is treating him unfairly.

    2. Mr Mosely gives some pretty good answers in the Q&A published at http://www.formula1.com/race/news/3218/740.html

    I don’t know who’s summary of events is right or wrong, but in the end I do know that the FIA supervises F1; the F1 teams who had the wrong tyres had options presented to them which would have allowed them to race; and that the Michelin F1 teams as a group were determined to race only on their terms.

    The truth is probably this: The F1 teams are generally fed up with being told what to do by the FIA (since the teams are rich and powerful and don’t like being told what to do by anyone) and are now rebelling against that outside authority

    Just like an angry teenager.

  18. Baseball did it. Forgot who the customer was, and went on strike. Rich boys fighting each other.

    Penske and Tony did it…. CART- IRL split. Almost killed open wheel racin; here. Again, Rich boys fighting each other.

    Bernie thinks GP is about amassing his fortune. Rich boy fighting everyone else.

    Hockey players doin’ it. Forgetting who the customer is, on strike. Rich boys again.

    NASCAR knows how to put on a show.
    Rich boys entertaining.

    So now it’s FIA, GP, etc. turn to forget who the customer is. Rich boys playing games and being poor supplier to the customer.

    Have loved GP for decades; won’t go again. It’s poor racing anyway; great technology but poor racing.

    Rich boys. Not customer-driven. Screw ’em.

    Bill.

  19. Not sure if this works. Michelin offers to to reimburse fans. Then continues to whine about how they were not allowed to race. Everyone knows they were allowed to race. They and the teams chose not to.

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