Picture this: you’re sitting in the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on a warm June afternoon. You and over 100,000 other fans are eagerly awaiting the roar of 20 screaming Formula 1 (F1) V10 engines to blow out your eardrums at the start of the race in a moment of pure bliss. The cars are finishing their warm-up lap and are approaching their grid slots near the starting line.
But wait a minute.
Why are most of the cars driving into the pitlane? And returning to their garages?
In shock, you look over at the starting area and see just six cars taking their spots on the grid. What’s going on? Why aren’t the other 14 out there with them?
Still, for some reason, the five red lights above the start line turn on one by one until they all go out at once, signalling the start of the race as the six drivers speed away into the distance.
You’re filled with rage.
“I drove for hours, paid over a hundred dollars and stood in the boiling Indiana heat for this?” you say to yourself. “An F1 race with just six cars?”
You hurl your Bud Light can towards the track in an act of defiance and storm out of the speedway. That’ll show them.
Now back to reality.
The above tells the hard-to-believe, completely true tale of the 2005 United States Grand Prix. Instead of a normal 20-car race, only six participated. The spectators were not aware of what was going to happen until moments before the start, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of American F1 fans that would prove difficult to wash out for years. It remains one of the most controversial races in F1 history.
Why did it happen? There are a few reasons.
Presently, F1 has only one tire supplier: Pirelli. Yet in 2005, there were two: Michelin and Bridgestone. Teams could choose between the two companies, who were constantly competing to produce tires with superior longevity, strength and driving quality. Of the 10 F1 teams in 2005, seven of them used Michelin tires, but only three used Bridgestone tires: Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi.
Another huge factor was the 2005 regulations. They mandated that teams could not change tires during races. The only times they could was if their cars’ tires were badly damaged or if wet weather tires were needed. Otherwise, cars would have to use just one set of tires for an entire race, which put a ton of stress on the rubber.
Lastly, there was the factor of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself. The track is, in standard configuration, an oval with banked corners. When F1 came to town, the cars would use a portion of the oval before driving through a twisty midfield section in the middle of the oval.
In 2004, the Speedway’s track was “resurfaced,” meaning new pavement was laid down to improve driving quality and increase safety. During the resurfacing, the pavement was cut with diamonds to improve tire grip and water drainage. This process formed tiny grooves on the surface of the entire track.
With these factors in mind, it’s time to examine the Grand Prix weekend.
It all started when Toyota’s reserve driver Ricardo Zonta had a tire failure and spun out of a practice session on Friday, June 17. He was unharmed. Shortly afterward, Toyota’s Ralf Schumacher had a tire failure of his own and slammed hard into the wall at the infamous turn 13, which was a banked corner. He appeared unharmed initially, but complained of blurry vision afterwards. The full-time driver was replaced by the backup, Zonta, the following day for the qualifying sessions (which determine the place of a driver for the start of the race) and the race itself. Two Michelin tire failures within minutes? Something smells fishy.
For Saturday’s qualifying, all teams running Michelin tires were ordered to pump them up to higher air pressures to reduce the risk of more tire explosions as the French tire company scrambled to figure out what was going wrong.
With Michelin unable to find the reason for their troubles in time for the race, they met with the teams and F1’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), to work out a solution. Of the many ideas thrown out, the most popular proposal was to add a temporary chicane, or a tight turn, at turn 13 to slow cars down and reduce the risk of tire failure.
Yet this was shot down, as Ferrari disagreed and the FIA said it was extremely dangerous, considering they couldn’t do their typical extensive safety checks on it. They also reasoned that a chicane was unfair to the prepared Bridgestone teams. The Michelin teams couldn’t even change tires during the race to reduce their wear, as the rules banned it. Even if the teams were given an exception and were allowed to, their supply of tires at the track was too low to constantly change them.
With the FIA threatening to hand out no points for the race and even cancel all North American motorsports if the race happened with an added chicane, the teams were on thin ice with negotiating.
A final verdict was reached just minutes before the race began on June 19.
RACE AND AFTERMATH
At the end of the warm-up lap, all Michelin cars pulled into the pit lane and into their garages, leaving the six Bridgestone cars of Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi the only ones to compete. Fans loudly booed and left the venue in droves once the race got underway. Some threw items on the track in disgust.
Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher (Ralf’s older and more successful brother) won the uneventful race. His teammate Rubens Barrichello was second, and Jordan’s Tiago Monterio was third. It was Monteiro’s first podium (top three) finish, so he aptly celebrated by spraying champagne as the crowd booed and both Ferrari drivers quietly left the podium.
The culprits of the botched race finally came to light later on. Michelin discovered after the Grand Prix that the grooves cut into the track the year prior, coupled with the high banked corners, caused the tires to stretch and pull much further than expected at the steep turns, resulting in failure. Bridgestone, on the other hand, forecasted this change and adapted their tires accordingly.
Michelin did their due diligence in reparations by offering to refund fans who attended the race and give out 20,000 tickets for the following year’s United States Grand Prix.
On June 29, the FIA charged all Michelin teams with violations of the International Sporting Code because they refused to participate in the race. Although they were found guilty at first, the decision was overturned in July, and the teams were not punished.
F1 returned to Indianapolis for two more years before leaving America all together. F1’s former chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, said he would never allow F1 to return to the track, most likely in part due to 2005’s events. Yet not all was lost for F1’s American venture.
In 2012, the sport returned to the U.S. in Austin, Texas at the well-received Circuit of the Americas (COTA), where it is held to this day. Funny enough, Ecclestone put “immense effort” behind bringing back the U.S. Grand Prix by “awarding [Talvo] Hellmund and other investors a ten-year contract to hold the U.S. Grand Prix at COTA as of 2012.”
While F1 fans may be grumpy that races are forced to be held without spectators this season due to the COVID-19 outbreak, they should be thankful that they at least get to experience a normal race on TV, rather than the “farce” of the 2005 United States Grand Prix that fans were subjected to.
Mistakes were made, lessons were learned and life moved on.