One by one, 14 Formula One cars ducked off the racetrack and parked in a unified protest over safety concerns at the U.S. Grand Prix.
From their seats in the grandstands, the few American fans of the globe-trotting racing series watched in wide-eyed disbelief as only six cars started Sunday’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The drivers were embarrassed.
The fans were disgusted.
Any chance Formula One had of capturing the American audience was crippled.
“I feel terrible. I have a sick feeling in my stomach,” David Coulthard said after pulling out of the race. “I am embarrassed to be a part of this. The reality is that mature adults were not able to come to a resolution that would have allowed us to put on the show that everybody wants to see in Formula One.
“It is a very sad day for this sport. I am so, so sorry for what we’ve done.”
Michael Schumacher beat the five other cars on the track to win his first event this season. It was his third consecutive victory in the U.S. Grand Prix and fourth in the six years it has been held at Indianapolis.
But it will be tainted forever. He was booed on the podium, the traditional champagne celebration was canceled, and the public address announcer implored the few still left in the crowd to stop throwing things.
“Bit of a strange Grand Prix,” Schumacher said. “Not the right way to win my first one this year.”
The event was in jeopardy from the start because Michelin advised the seven teams it supplies that its tires were not safe to race through the high-banked final turn at Indy.
The world’s largest tire-maker worked endlessly with the teams to try to persuade FIA, the series governing body, to make allowances that would ensure the 14 drivers using Michelins would be safe.
But FIA wouldn’t ease its rule that forbids teams to change tires after qualifying. And it absolutely refused to consider installing a chicane, or kink in the course, in Turn 13 to slow the speeds.
So Michelin advised its teams not to compete after a lengthy morning meeting involving the seven team bosses, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and FIA. At one point, all 20 drivers were summoned to the meeting.
In the end, nine teams decided they would not race without the chicane. Ferrari, which fields cars for Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, was the only holdout.
The nine teams even agreed to race for no points, as long as the obstacle was added to the course, in an effort to ensure the race was completed.
But when the chicane was not erected, the Michelin teams decided to withdraw from the event.
Already lined up on pit road, they all completed the warmup lap. Then they pulled off and parked, climbing out of their cars at the same time the remaining six drivers started the race. The cars that raced use Bridgestone tires.
“I am really sorry for the U.S.A. fans because they came here to support us and see our show,” pole-sitter Jarno Trulli said. “The decision for us not to race is sad, but we were in danger.”
The crowd was stunned when the 14 cars pulled off, with people pointing and gawking as they tried to figure out what was going on. Some threw water bottles on the track.
“If I was a fan out there I would do the same,” said driver Jacques Villeneuve, a former Indianapolis 500 winner.
Many spectators left after 10 laps, and there were reports of thousands of people going to the ticket office and demanding refunds, and that police had been called to keep the peace.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Chief ExecutiveTony George issued a statement urging spectators to direct their frustration to Michelin, FIA and Formula One’s management. The statement provided e-mail addresses for all three.
Joie Chitwood, the track’s chief operating officer, called it a “major setback” in promoting the series in the U.S. He would not rule out the possibility that Sunday’s race, its sixth at the Speedway, might be the last.
“We feel as victimized as the fans,” Chitwood said.
Scott Brombacher, a fan from California, said he was disgusted as he left.
“I love Formula One ... it just aggravates me,” Brombacher said. “I spent a lot of money and took a week off from work to come out here. To have all this happen at the last minute is just disgusting.”
“Quite frankly, the fans got cheated,” Ecclestone said.
The seven teams that pulled out of the race signed a statement apologizing for the debacle.
Among those refusing to race were world championship points leader Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, who trails him in the standings by 22 points.
Alonso is Formula One’s biggest threat this season to end Schumacher’s five-year reign as world champion. But when he and the other contenders pulled out of the event, it opened the door for seven-time world champion Schumacher to climb back into the championship derby.
Schumacher began the race 35 points behind Alonso but cut the deficit to 25 points, well within striking distance with 10 events remaining.
The tire problems began Friday when Ralf Schumacher crashed in the final turn at Indy after one of the Michelins failed on his Toyota. Although he wasn’t seriously injured, medical personnel refused to clear him to race.
Ricardo Zonta, his teammate, also wrecked because of a tire failure.
Michelin said it was unable to determine why its tires weren’t sturdy, and asked FIA if it could ship in a new batch of rubber.
FIA said no, and warned teams they would be heavily penalized if they changed tires.
So the teams tried instead for a chicane to make the turn slower. The turn has been a concern since last season, when Ralf Schumacher was seriously injured in an accident there.
When that was rebuffed, the teams said they had no choice but to pull out of the event.
“We did everything we could along with nine other teams to find a solution to this problem,” McLaren-Mercedes boss Ron Dennis said. “It is a bad day, but a clear demonstration of the difficulties the teams constantly have with finding solutions to problems.”