Ten years ago, Formula One nearly wrote itself and everyone involved off from one of the biggest markets it always wanted to conquer - driven by ego and self-interests. Here is what (probably) happened.
In 2000, Formula One was - generally speaking - more than welcome at the precious circuit, as the series and the legendary 500-mile race at the track had had shared history during the early years of the ‘continental circus’. The - more or less - only discrepancy emerging during the introduction of the United States Grand Prix to Indianapolis was the need to erect a road course in the infield of the track, which some people felt to be a sacrilege and pointed at the groin area of the newcomers, ridiculing the assumed lack of reproductive male organs for not racing on the classic oval. Due to the inherent design of F1 cars, this was never to be a plan, but the new circuit made up for some of the magic the circuit had to offer.Formula One is heading to Texas with Lewis Hamilton more than likely clinching the world title for a third time. There is much anticipation about the event, one could also say it is the most looked forward to since Formula One set a foot on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2000, following a near-decade-long absence from the country.
The winding, slightly unimaginative infield section ran clockwise - as opposed to the oval version -, but it finished off by merging with the original track for its final turn (i.e. no. 13 - the first one on oval configuration), running amok on the main straight in the ‘wrong direction’, only to engage in heavy breaking to leave the ‘outer rim’ on a 90-degree right turn.
The effect was spectacular. It wasn’t as if it was unprecedented for American audiences, but it was slightly new to (modern) Formula One. Circuits with only slightly similar features included the Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico, the Autodormo Nazionale Monza in Italy and the Autódromo José Carlos Pace in Brazil. All of them feature(d) long, fast, slightly cambered turns (funnily enough, the final one in all three cases), but the 9-degree banking of Turn 13 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was something Formula 1 had not seen in a very long time - yet it was considered relatively flat by US-standards.
Needless to say, the 2000 US Grand Prix was a massive hit. It drew the largest-ever crowd in all of F1’s history, instantly becoming a fan-favourite and a permanent fixture on the calendar. A shocked world was watching the race the following year, less than three weeks after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, with the cars running very little - if no - advertisement [EDIT: at Monza].
By 2005, the game was very different from the first race. There was much inner battle going within F1 to gain control over the series’ management by the teams, all of which failed - thanks to the de facto owner’s, Bernie Ecclestone’s impeccable survival instincts. In 2001, Michelin became the second tyre-supplier of the series next to the established Bridgestone, instantly spurring rivalry between the two. Moreover, the FIA introduced a new rule for 2005 that disallowed tyre-changes during races, forcing the manufacturers to run harder compounds, which still lead to some dramatic punctures towards the end of some races earlier in the season. To further complicate matters, the oval track was resurfaced in 2004 - after that year’s F1 race - featuring a brand new, high-grip, diamond-cut asphalt. As IMS was not an allocated venue for testing, the two tyre-manufacturers used previous year’s data as reference coming into the race for 2005, which proved to be disastrous for the French Michelin.
The three teams using Bridgestone tyres (Ferrari, Jordan and the backmarker Minardi) turned up with a - traditionally - more conservative mixture. Also, one cannot discount the fact that Firestone, the sister company of the Jaapnese, was a regular in the Indy Racing League and they just scored a win at the 500-mile race a few weeks earlier - already on the new surface. Therefore it is possible that Bridgestone wasn’t completely in the dark when heading into the F1 race.
The rest of the teams (all seven of them), who were sporting Michelin rubber, quickly hit a wall - quite literally - when going out for the first of the Friday free practices. One of the Toyotas - driven by Ralf Schumacher - suddenly veered off from the racing line in Turn 13 and kissed the outside barrier, slowly drifting towards the pit wall on the inside - not unlike what he managed to do in the previous year. The German was visibly unhurt, putting the blame on the car with an aimed kick at the nose cone, but it was apparent he was very much shaken by the accident. He was replaced by Ricardo Zonta for the rest of the weekend, but the problems revealed something much worse than that.
The Michelin tyre collapsed under the heavy load in the turn, only after a short stint of competitive driving. The biggest problem seemed to be that it wasn’t unique to the German’s accident. As a matter of fact, several failures on left-rear tyres were reported during the session.
Every single one of the 14 cars with Michelin rubber was in jeopardy through Turn 13.
Trying to avoid catastrophe on what seemed to be a collision course, Michelin flew new tyres in from its headquarters in France to Indianapolis, all of which turned out to be the very same compound the teams had already been using.
They were screwed.
Nevertheless, in a crude twist of irony, Ralf Schumacher’s team-mate, Jarno Trulli put his Toyota on pole position during Saturday’s qualifying.
This is where one of Formula One’s biggest scandals started.
Michelin notified the FIA - with Max Mosley sitting at home, in Monaco - about the situation and advised a chicane to be implemented just before Turn 13 to slow the cars down and to lessen tyre-load around the corner. Ferrari quickly shrugged off the matter and refused to take part in any further negotiations, claiming that it was only Michelin’s problem, but they adopted a neutral stand on the question of the chicane per se.
Somebody else opposed the modification of the track, though. The FIA itself. Bernie Ecclestone already ordered the chicane to be built on Sunday morning, which was stopped by FIA’s race director, Charlie Whiting. The official standpoint of the FIA was that they couldn’t assist to last-minute changes to the layout of the track for safety reasons. Therefore if the teams went on with the idea of the chicane, the FIA would be forced to remove all of its staff from the race and would exclude it from the World Championship. Ferrari’s Jean Todt didn’t like the idea at all as they were very much in battle for the Constructors’ title and this was their strongest chance to bag a win for the season, finally.
The rest of the teams initially agreed to proceed with the chicane and the non-championship race - even without Ferrari if it came to that -, but an alleged threat from Max Mosley signaled that the act would put all FIA-sanctioned races in jeopardy in the US in the future.
F1 and the Michelin teams - lead by Renault’s Flavio Briatore - weren’t left out in the cold, though. Cooking up a brand new Michelin compound was already ruled out the day before, therefore the only solutions left were the reintroduction of tyre-changes for the race - as the rules permitted changing in case of fearing terminal failure -, but it was downvoted by the teams. The same way the idea of enforcing a speed limit through the corner or a drive-through the pits - with the compulsory speed limit - was dismissed at the meetings where the Bridgestone-riding Jordan and Minardi was present as well.
In effect, it turned into a political struggle with all the teams - minus Ferrari, regardless of tyre-manufacturers, gravitating around Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone - apparently uniting against the sanctioning body, the FIA, not unlike in the early 80s. The only difference being this time is that Max Mosley took the other side. A widespread boycott was announced literally within the hour of the start of the race that would have meant that either a chicane was installed and all the teams - but maybe not Ferrari - would go out and race for zero points or everything was left as it had been and it would only be Ferrari starting the race.
As the start of the race was approaching at a rapid pace, the Jordan team announced they would make it to the grid, which was followed by Minardi’s similar announcement - despite team leader Paul Stoddart being very much vocal on siding with the Michelin teams - citing the Jordan precedent and pressure from Bridgestone when making the decision, and perhaps the guaranteed points - when not failing the race - for the last team on the grid was too attractive.
Approaching the top of the hour, all the teams went out to make the grid for the start of the race. With still too much confusion in the air, no one was willing to give a straight answer, citing only the chicane issue. Minutes after the signal was given for the formation lap (with two, former Indy 500 winners in the field), the - second - worst scenario unfolded. All Michelin-equipped cars peeled off into the pits, leaving the six Bridgestone-riding vehicles on the grid. The lights were off and the strangest F1 race was a-go.
Those in the grandstands and the many millions around the world couldn’t believe their eyes. A laughable amount of six cars were lapping the gigantic venue, four of them being no match for the front-runner Ferraris. The audience was furious, the live feed was showing people throwing bottles and beer cans on the track with brave marshals running in, collecting as much as they could. Makeshift transparents were made, wishing the FIA and Formula One hell, while others were leaving the track midway through the ‘race’.
The cherry on the cake was when the two Ferraris nearly collided following a pit stop, which was quickly followed by a team radio message that set the order between the two cars. The podium ceremony’s only positive moment was Jordan’s Tiago Monteiro’s brief, but honest celebration, spraying champagne, as the two Ferrari drivers quickly left the stage after receiving their respective awards.
The political self-interests between Michelin, Bridgestone, Ferrari and the FIA resulted in one of the biggest blowbacks in Formula One’s history.
Later that month, all Michelin teams were found guilty by the World Motorsport Council on the counts of failing to present suitable tyres for the race - with mitigating circumstances - and that they allowed the cars to race (by not notifying the stewards on NOT starting the race beforehand while going out to the formation lap, they technically started the race).
This would be the only race during the season where Ferrari or Bridgestone won. The FIA reinstated tyre-changes for the following season. Michelin left Formula one at the end of the following season. Brigestone would follow suit at the end of 2010, to be replaced by Pirelli as the sole tyre-manufacturer.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted two more US Grands Prix, then the event dropped from the calendar until the newly-built Circuit of the Americas picked up the race in 2012. The road course at Indy was reconfigured to circumvent the banked corner and it would be used for IndyCar and MotoGP races.
Flavio Briatore was temporarily banned from all Formula 1 race tracks and activities following the race-fix-by-crashing scandal at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, damaging Renault’s reputation, eventually pulling out of the sport as a manufacturer.
Both the Jordan and Minardi teams were sold, they are currently running as Force India and Toro Rosso, respectively.
Max Mosley did not run for the FIA presidency again, he resigned in 2009. His successor currently is Jean Todt, former Scuderia Ferrari team leader.
Bernie is still Bernie and not a fan of the US.