June 19, 2005 is a date etched in Formula One history for all the wrong reasons. The image of the sport in the United States was already poor, but this particular event all but clarified F1’s position across the pond.
Only six cars started due to an issue with the tyres supplier Michelin provided to their seven customers on the grid, meaning 14 cars pulled in on the parade lap and didn’t even start the race. It was won by Michael Schumacher’s Bridgestone-shod Ferrari, with only Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi running. However the event was marred by the tyre fiasco, long running politics behind the scenes, poor organisation and an already ailing partnership in the US.
The two go back a long time, with the first Formula One certified race in 1959, won by Bruce McLaren due to team mate, and eventual champion, Jack Brabham’s car slowing down on the final lap. This was set at the famous Sebring circuit but wasn’t a hit with fans, as promoters barely broke even with costs of running, winning drivers cheques etc. It moved to the Riverside raceway for 1960 but again cost more to run than it paid out.
However the next move seemed to finally provide a home for the US Grand Prix, with Formula One travelling to Watkins Glen. Located in upstate New York, fans flocked every autumn to see it and it became one of the most popular races on the calendar. Having a festive feel to it due to the event being held at the end of the season in November and December, Watkins Glen would be host of the US Grand Prix for the next 20 years.
The race was dominated by Brits in the 1960’s, with legendary Scotsman Jim Clark winning in 1962, 1966 and 1967. Two time champion Graham Hill won in 1963, 1964 and 1965 before a young Jackie Stewart won in 1968. 1970 champion Jochen Rindt broke the British dominance by winning in 1969. 1971 saw Francois Cevert win his only Grand Prix of his tragically short career as he was killed in 1973, ironically at the USGP.
This prompted Jackie Stewart, three time champion to retire instantly, and has since become a pioneer in Formula One safety. By 1980 drivers were sick of Watkins Glen’s poor driving surface and the ‘drunk’, rowdy fans. Long Beach had become the US Grand Prix of the West, making the US the first nation since Italy in 1957 to have two Grands Prix on the calendar at the same time. Las Vegas tried hosting a GP in 1981 but was very poor, with the event moving to Detroit in 1982, sending the US race back into a state of identity crisis.
Detroit lasted until 1988 before the ill-fated move to Phoenix. In 1991, the final running of the race, only 18,500 spectators turned up. The US GP lost its place on the F1 calendar until 2000, when it moved to the world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 2002 was the first of two controversial moments, with the infamous Ferrari dead heat which saw Schumacher almost stop on the start line as team mate Rubens Barrichello overtook on the line and won the race.
However the topic of discussion here is the 2005 running of the event. In Friday Practice for the race, teams using the Michelin tyres were suffering failures, and this culminated in Ralf Schumacher crashing heavily on the famous Indy banking at turn 13. His Toyota span due to a failure on his left rear and he slammed in to the wall. He walked away unhurt but this was just the start of what became a very messy weekend.
Michelin and the tyre debacle
Due to Michelin’s tyres not being strong enough to withstand the final corner, Michelin boss Pierre Dupasquier said that their tyres would only last 10 laps unless speed reductions could be implemented at turn 13. The rules had changed for 2005 also, with tyre changes being forbidden, and so the FIA, the sport’s governing body, refused to come to a compromise with the tyre suppliers, who’d been in F1 since 2001.
Race controller Charlie Whiting was said to be surprised that Michelin hadn’t brought sufficient tyres, as this was the first time tyres weren’t up to the task, and with them competing with Bridgestone back then, it’s not the one supplier monopoly we have nowadays with Pirelli. A catastrophe for the French supplier, as it essentially spelled the end of their tenure in the sport.
All the major players at the Grand Prix held a meeting, with members present including; F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, Circuit President Tony George, the two most senior Michelin representatives present at the circuit, and all the team principals barring one, Ferrari’s Jean Todt. Minardi boss Paul Stoddart took notes from the meeting. Minardi and Jordan boss Colin Kolles were the only Bridgestone supplied team principals present, and Michelin asked them an out installing a chicane at turn 13, to minimise problems and risk to maximise safety and in the interests of providing an exciting race.
Some crazy ideas were thrown around, such as limiting the Michelin cars, making them go through the pitlane every lap, making two separate lanes, one for Bridgestone and one for Michelin. Before any more absurd ideas were thrown out, such as a theft of Bridgestone’s tyres, Todt refused to agree to the chicane at turn 13, claiming it was not between him or his team, it was between Michelin and the FIA to sort it out. However Todt denies saying this.
Also, then FIA President Max Mosley said if any attempts were made to alter the circuit he’d cancel the race. The idea of a ‘non-championship’ race was thrown about with Michelin teams being ineligible for points and using the chicane, but again this was binned by the powers that be. It was that bad that the FIA were prepared to withdraw their staff if the race went ahead with a chicane. This meant all personnel would need replacing, from Charlie Whiting, to safety car driver Bernd Mylander.
However race day came along, with Toyota driver Jarno Trulli securing the team’s first ever pole position (below). All 20 cars went on the parade lap, with it seeming that the race would in fact go on as planned. That was until all the Michelin cars pulled into the pits on the way back to the grid, leaving just Schumacher, Barrichello, Jordan duo Tiago Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan and Minardi pair Christijan Albers and Patrick Friesacher to take the grid.
|3||Jenson Button||BAR Honda|
|8||Takuma Sato||BAR Honda|
|14||Christian Klien||Red Bull|
|16||David Coulthard||Red Bull|
As you’d expect, boos from over 100,000 people soon followed, with some disgruntled fans throwing beer cans on to the track, not causing any incident and soon recovered by marshals. The race we were promised soon became a procession, as the Ferrari’s pulled away and Schumacher led Barrochello home, with the only real overtake being Karthikeyan on Albers for fourth place.
Six cars finished, some happier than others...
Schumacher won what turned out to be his only win all season as Barrichello finished second, Monteiro third, Karthikeyan fourth, Albers fifth and Friesacher sixth. Rare points for the two backmarkers, and the podium ceremony was clear the embarrassment suffered on that day. Schumacher and Barrichello grabbed their trophies and quietly exited while Monteiro, lost in the moment, and who can blame him, as he enjoyed his and Portugal’s first and currently only podiums.
Schumi was propelled up the championship order, from fifth to third, with no one above him competing. Renault’s Fernando Alonso and McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen still led the way on 59 and 37 points respectively, with Schumacher on 34. Formula One was enjoying a nice period, after five years of Schumacher and Ferrari dominance, Renault and McLaren were fighting it out for the titles, with the Scuderia falling off the pace a little.
However this race soon became known as ‘Indygate’ and is still spoken about to this day. The repercussions for Michelin began almost instantly, as they were charged on five counts of breaking article 151c of the international sporting code. These were as follows; - failure to ensure availability of suitable tyres, - wrongfully refused to allow cars to start, - wrongfully refused to allow cars to race subject to speed restrictions, - combined with other teams to make demonstration damaging the image of F1 by pulling into pits and finally - failed to notify stewards of decision not to race.
On June 29 the FIA found the Michelin guilty of the first two counts, and not guilty for the other three, but the availability of tyres was in mitigating circumstances. July 22 saw the FIA abscond the teams of any wrongdoing thanks to evidence submitted to the FIA senate. Also perhaps surprisingly Michelin could have faced criminal charges under Indiana state law for knowingly outing others at risk, even if no accidents had occurred.
Michelin had a lot of fans to try and appease, and did so by arranging compensation packages to all fans who bought tickets to the race. As well as buying 20,000 tickets for the 2006 race for those who attended the ‘farce’ race. But the long standing political background which often sprung up to ruin certain Formula One events had struck again.
The FIA and teams were arguing over the Concorde Agreement, which in basic terms is the terms which teams agree to and adhere to the teams competing in races and how TV revenues and prize money were distributed. Some popular events which were affected by politics include the 1980 Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. The fight between FISA (then in charge of Formula One) and FOCA (the Formula One Constructors Association) was in full flow, and went on throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, with controversial figure Jean-Marie Balestre at the helm of FISA.
Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Renault didn’t compete due to the fight between FOCA and FISA, as the race had become a non-championship race due to FOCA believing their counterparts were biased towards their teams, the three mentioned above. FISA deemed the race illegal and no points were awarded, therefore making it not part of the championship.
Politics and Formula One go hand in hand (sort of)...
Politics have always been at the forefront when it comes to Formula One, and the wider scope of sport in general, such as the problems dogging FIFA in football with all the corruption scandal outbreak. In recent times since the 2005 US Grand Prix Formula One has been run in a more civilised manner, with barely any political drama since Ferrari principal on that fateful day Jean Todt, became FIA President succeeding Max Mosley, who had his fair share of criticism.
However, a point to make, and a tad controversial a point too, has Formula One become boring? With Mercedes dominating the sport, and no political issues or teams managing to sufficiently challenge the Silver Arrows means Formula One has fell into a state of flux. If you look at all eras of the sport, the 50’s had the likes of Fangio, Moss, Ascari all fighting for different teams in Maserati, Mercedes and Ferrari respectively. The 60’s had Hill, Clark, Brabham, all in Lotuses, Coopers, BRM’s and even Brabhams competing hard.
The 70’s were full of drama, with Fittipaldi, Reutemann, Regazzoni, Hunt, Lauda, Andretti and so on all in with a shout of titles. McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus, Brabham, Renault, all fought for the constructors titles too. The 80’s, particularly in the later years saw a spell of dominance, with Senna and Prost at McLaren winning four titles in four years. But Mansell, Piquet, Villeneuve, Patrese, Rosberg, Lauda, all being top drivers sharing race wins between them.
The emergence of Michael Schumacher in the 90’s as well as Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard meant the nineties were full of drama and excitement. The noughties were all Ferrari until 2005 when Renault and McLaren took over, with Alonso and Raikkonen emerging as the new megastars. Nowadays it’s between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg and Mercedes. Red Bull enjoyed dominance with Sebastian Vettel from 2010-2013 but it was 2008 when there was last a real nailbiting fight in Formula One.
But the final line here is that the 2005 US Grand Prix was a dark day for Formula One, arguably up alongside the fateful 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in which two drivers, one being Ayrton Senna, died in two days. However the US GP is up there for different reasons. Indianapolis dropped off the calendar in 2007 with the relationship never healing after 2005.
We now have the US back on the calendar in the form of Austin, Texas hosting the Circuit of the Americas. But this is the first step on a long, long road to recovery for the sport and the folk across the Atlantic. As we approach the ten year anniversary it’s important we don’t forget the day Formula One finally let down the fans after years of exciting wheel to wheel racing. To be fair it took 55 years.