On this day in 2005 F1 plunged itself into controversy as only six cars took the start for the United States Grand Prix.
Fourteen cars withdrew on the formation lap after tyre supplier Michelin discovered a problem with its product, and attempts to find a compromise solution failed.
Five years on it’s hard to see how F1 has learned from that shameful day in Indianapolis and what could prevent a similar fiasco.
Friday morning at Indianapolis on June 17th, 2005: Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota hits the wall at turn 13 and skids to a halt opposite the pit lane. Schumacher, who’d suffered back injuries in a similar accident at the track 12 months earlier, climbed from the cockpit and dealt his TF105 a hefty kick.
But he should have aimed his boot at the car’s left-rear Michelin tyre. That was what had let him down and was about to spark one of F1’s most notorious and disgraceful episodes.
From the moment Schumacher hit the wall, the embarrassing six-car spectacle F1 served up two days later was not inevitable. That an opportunity to prevent it was squandered makes the memory of that day even more bitter.
What went wrong
After Friday practice Michelin found faults with six tyres and flew them to its headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand, France for analysis.
While their investigations went on the seven teams using its tyres – Toyota, McLaren, Renault, Sauber, Williams, BAR and Red Bull – were instructed to keep their running to a minimum. The tyre company also flew in another batch of tyres of a different specification.
But Michelin’s worst fears were realised when the headquarters reported back that their tyres’ sidewalls were failing due to the unusual combination of lateral and vertical loads experienced at maximum speed through the banked turn 13 – a corner unlike any other on the F1 calendar.
Michelin instructed its seven teams accordingly. By now it was the early hours of Sunday morning. The ten team owners met and together nine of them – including Bridgestone-shod Jordan and Minardi – agreed on a solution: installing a chicane before final corner. The only dissenters were Ferrari, under the leadership of Jean Todt.
The Michelin teams went further. Offers were made that they would not score championship points and all the Bridgestone teams could start in front of them on the grid.
Taken together, here were the elements of a compromise solution in which F1 could have saved face by putting on something that at least resembled a real race, while allowing the Bridgestone teams to enjoy the benefit of the superiority they had demonstrated in bringing suitable tyres.
Instead, 14 cars entered the pit lane at the end of the formation lap and only six participated in the race. Why did this happen?
Why no solution was found
Fingers pointed in all directions in the aftermath. While there is no doubting the original failure on Michelin’s part to supply suitable tyres for the race, pinning down exactly who was at fault for turning their crisis into a catastrophe for Formula 1 is difficult.
It’s normal for the FIA president not to travel to every race and on this occasion Max Mosley was at home in Monte-Carlo. But he was in close contact with events unfolding at Indianapolis and had his own thoughts for how the race could go ahead.
His proposed solutions were manifestly flawed and would have produced a sham race every bit as unsatisfactory as the six-car farce that followed.
The suggestion that the Michelin drivers could slow down for the banking – even if given a separate lane on the track in which to do so – would have resulted in the highly unsafe sight of some cars charging into the corner flat-out and others braking to minimum speeds, with the difference between the two likely to be around 250kph.
The absurdity of the speed limit proposal was confirmed when the seven teams were charged by the World Motor Sport Council of “wrongfully [refusing] to allow their cars to race, subject to a speed restriction on one corner which was safe for such tyres as they found available”, and found not guilty.
Another suggestion, that every Michelin car could drive down the pit lane every lap, would scarcely have been any more satisfactory than seeing them all pull in and retire on the formation lap. Not to mention the temptation for drivers to abuse the arrangement knowing their tyres would hold up to an occasional flat-out blast around the banking.
It’s not hard to see why many viewed these proposals not as a serious attempt to find a solution, but engineered to maximise Michelin’s humiliation.
Some have sought to lay blame at Todt’s feet for failing to support the calls for a chicane to be built. But given that Mosley never so much as asked Todt whether he would be happy with a chicane, it’s doubtful Todt could have made a difference.
Michelin offered to refund tickets for everyone who attended the race, and bought 20,000 tickets for the following year’s event to give to people who’d attended in 2005.
Ferrari won the joyless six-car ‘race’ that ensued, but Michelin-shod cars won every other round of the championship.
Both titles went to Renault, using Michelins, in 2006 as well. After that the French tyre manufacturer quit the sport as the FIA moved to introduce a single tyre supplier.
That tyre supplier contract is up for renewal once again and it’s striking that, only five years on from Indianapolis, there has been no talk of Michelin’s mistake at Indianapolis bring an argument against allowing them to return to F1. Todt, now in charge of the FIA, is believed to prefer a Michelin deal.
Mosley shrugged off calls for him to resign in the wake of the fiasco and won re-election to the FIA presidency later in 2005.
The United States Grand Prix was only held twice more at Indianapolis. There was no repeat of the tyre failures for Michelin in 2006.
Lessons for the future
There would be no point in re-opening these old wounds and not learn anything from them. The stark warning of the Indy fiasco is this: it could happen again.
It may be tempting to think that the end of the tyre war in F1 makes such a problem unlikely to happen again. But NASCAR had tyre trouble of its own at the same circuit in 2008 despite all its competitors using Goodyears.
Earlier pre-event testing at the venue might have illuminated Michelin’s problem, but that is even more tightly restricted now than it was five years ago.
Bridgestone are lately being encouraged to bring more marginal tyres in the name of exciting racing. And next year’s tyre supplier could be one that has been out of the sport for the best part of two decades.
It took more than just the technical problem with Michelin’s tyres to cause the fiasco. The poisonous political atmosphere of the day was the catalyst and those circumstances, too, could be repeated in future.
The backdrop to Indygate was the ongoing argument between the FIA and the teams over the Concorde Agreement, the document that defines how the sport is run. While Ferrari had reached an agreement with the governing body, the others were holding out for better terms.
F1’s political rows have a nasty habit of spilling onto the track. It happened at Jarama in 1980, at Kyalami in 1981 and at Imola in 1982, all of which either saw several major teams missing from the race or events being stripped of world championship status.
Indianapolis 2005 was another occasion when the governing body allowed politics to intrude on racing.
The political climate is much improved this year compared to five years or even one year ago. With the teams now united under the the Formula One Teams’ Association, it’s possible that if a similar crisis broke out a solution could be found without having to rely on the governing body.
Let’s hope the team’s organisation in its current guise holds together longer than it has in the past, because it’s the best chance we have at the moment of preventing a similar situation in the future spiralling out of control.
But the political situation in F1 waxes and wanes – who’s to say things won’t become turbulent once more in the next year or five?
Allowing Indygate to happen in the first place was a terrible failure of the powers-that-be in Formula 1. Allowing it to happen again would be an even worse mistake.
Were you at the United States Grand Prix in 2005? Who do you blame for no compromise being found? Have your say in the comments.
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