Tyre story – when Formula 1 
almost drove itself off US circuit 
with Indianapolis six-car fiasco

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There have been many a dark day in Formula 1, particularly in the 1960s and 70s when death stalked the grand prix scene.

But days of embarrassment have been few and far between for one of sport’s most glamourous, lucrative and exciting arts.

The Crashgate scandal of 2008 involving the Renault of Fernando Alonso haunted the sport, as did Spygate, the row that broke out between McLaren and Ferrari 12 months earlier.

Yet rarely has Formula 1 been left with egg on its face as clearly as it was in 2005 at the United States Grand Prix, a race so farcical that it threatened to damage the image of the sport beyond repair, in the biggest media market of them all.

The USA has never been shy in promoting its own sports as the best on the planet. The NFL’s Super Bowl winners are declared the world champions and it is the IndyCar series that is seen in the States as the be all and end all of formula motor-sports.

Formula 1 has had a chequered history with the American market, through a disintegrating track at Watkins Glenn to being outsold by a ostrich race in Pheonix in 1990. But in June, 2005, the relationship came to a head when of the 20 cars who qualified for the F1 race at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, only six took part.

It all boiled down to tyres, who was using Bridgestone and who was using Michelin.

Ferrari, Minardi and Jordan on the Bridgestone tyres were happy enough to take part in the race, but the remaining 14 entrants, all using Michelin tyres, retired after the parade lap.

The reason was safety concerns, but it was understandably greeted with jeers from the fans who had turned up in their tens of thousands. Michelin had advised its seven customer teams that the tyres they provided for the race were not safe to use. Ralf Schumacher had spun out spectacularly during Friday’s practice session, and even though his Toyota team-mate, Jarno Trulli, qualified fastest for Sunday’s race, the Japanese team withdrew.

Michelin had been providing tyres for the race since 2001. However, the combination of a relaid circuit at Indianapolis and a law of 2005 that forbade tyre changes during a race, meant the safety concerns were deemed of too great a significance.

A compromise proposal was drafted by Michelin, whereby a chicane would be installed, but the FIA decreed that such a late change to the circuit would be dangerous and would also be unfair on the teams that used Bridgestone tyres and had come prepared.

Safety was put ahead of entertainment, a moral obligation the sport was arguably guilty of ignoring in the past.

The punters cared little, though, as the spectacle was ruined. The six cars that were left were of such a mis-match that the 73-lap race amounted to a 90-minute practice session.

Michael Schumacher, in the Ferrari he had won the five previous world championships in, had qualified in fifth with his team-mate Rubens Barrichello in seventh. Tiago Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan, in the Jordan, and Christijan Albers and Patrick Friesacher, in the Minardi, were the four slowest qualifiers on the Saturday and never really had any chance of matching the Ferraris.

Monteiro won the ‘race’ to finish third for what must have been the hollewest and most surprising podium finish in the history of the sport.

The whole weekend was damaging to Formula 1 in a market-place it was clinging to by its fingernails.

Bernie Ecclestone described the future of the sport in the United States as “not good”. David Coulthard added: “It throws into doubt the future of the race in US”.

It did not require a genius to forecast that trouble lay ahead. Indianapolis hosted humiliation-free grands prix in 2006 and ’07 to see out its contract but by then the money from the Gulf region was pouring in to Formula 1, so no-one really missed the annual attempt at trying to muscle in on the US marketplace.

So why this stroll down the not-so distant and sparsely-occupied memory lane of US grand prix history? Because Formula 1 is back in the land of the free at the weekend.

Not with a bang, more an engine cough and a spluttering exhaust as the 2012 season approaches the finishing straight of a marathon season.

The latest attempt to break America takes place on the street circuit of Austin, Texas. From 2014 onwards, two races are scheduled ‘Across the Pond’, with the race in Austin supplemented by one in New Jersey.

It is an ambitious double-header, one US motor-sport and the F1 power-brokers will be hoping runs a lot smoother than the race nearly sunk them Stateside seven years ago.