Sunday, June 19, 2005
The Indianapolis Formula One Grand Prix descended into farce when just six cars started the race on Sunday. The problem arose when Michelin discovered that its tires were incapable of more than ten laps at race pace.
The first indication of trouble was when the rear left tire of Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota racecar exploded during practice on Friday. Schumacher’s car collided with the track wall while travelling at 300 km/h (approx. 186 miles/h), leaving him shaken but generally unharmed. However, further investigations by Michelin revealed that another ten tires had suffered problems, with one also failing on track.
All the problems occurred on the rear left tire during the two long 90 degree corners leading onto the main straight. The nine degree banking and grooves cut into the surface of the track compounded problems.
It is believed that Michelin may not have properly accounted for the grooves cut into the Indianapolis track to improve grip for Indy cars after the track was resurfaced. Indy cars have smaller down-force generating wings so need more grip from their tires than Formula One cars.
Bridgestone, the other tire manufacturer currently in Formula One, did not have similar problems. It is possible that their US subsidiary, Firestone, who supplied tires for an Indy car race after the resurfacing, may have sent information back to their Formula One tires department in Japan. The three teams running Bridgestone tires – Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi – were therefore able to compete without any safety concerns.
Under FIA racing regulations, the only course of action was for the Michelin runners to withdraw from the race on safety grounds. Rules prevented alternative tires from being flown from France overnight, although Michelin were unsure whether these tires were also affected by the problem.
Drivers and teams had also suggested building a chicane to slow cars down between the corners, but Ferrari opposed the idea, and ultimately the FIA rejected the idea under regulations.
Actually the FIA rules states that the tyres manufacters should provide two sets of tyres for the race. One normal, optimized for performance, and one optimized for safety, to be used when the normal one set could not be used. In this case the safe set was not present.
The 123,000 fans watching from the stands were unaware of the farce unfolding below them until the parade lap before the race.
The fourteen Michelin runners peeled off into the pit lane rather than take up their starting positions on the grid. However, at least one driver, David Coulthard told his team that he was willing to race on the tires in question, had the decision been left up to him.
Fans jeered and booed as they realised what was happening, and a small number began throwing bottles and cans onto the track.
Rubens Barrichello, in a Ferrari, ran over one bottle of water at high speed which exploded in a spray of droplets.
Fans started stamping in the stands on the finish line straight, causing them to shake.
A British ITV filmcrew spoke to some fans. “I paid $85 for three-day ticket. I travelled nine hours from Baltimore to be here. Indy cars wouldn’t do this. NASCAR wouldn’t do this. I’ll never attend a race again – only watch on TV.”
Other fans had travelled from Mexico and Panama to watch the race, and said they wanted refunds.
A Police Captain also talked to ITV, saying he’d never seen fans as angry as this before. If trouble flared, they could call on 400-500 officers from local and state police, Indianapolis Police Department and the FBI under contingency plans.
The race was eventually won by Michael Schumacher from his Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello. Jordan’s Tiago Monteiro finished third. Despite what was clearly a one-manufacturer race for the win, both Ferrari drivers did indeed race one another hard, with them almost colliding following Schumacher’s exit from the pit lane after his second pitstop, with Barrichello having to take to the infield to avoid spinning off. Following the race, the two drivers did not speak.