INDIANAPOLIS – One by one, 14 Formula One cars ducked off the race track and parked in a unified protest over safety concerns at the United States Grand Prix.
From their seats in the grandstands, the few American fans of the globe-trotting racing series watched in wide-eyed disbelief as just six cars started Sunday’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The drivers were embarrassed.
The fans were disgusted.
Any chance F-1 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 bested five other cars on the track to win his first event of the season. It was his third consecutive victory in the U.S. Grand Prix and fourth in the six years it has been held at Indy.
But it will forever be tainted. He was booed on the podium, the traditional champagne celebration was canceled, and the public address announcer implored the few remaining fans in attendance 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 tiremaker worked endlessly with the teams to try to persuade the FIA, the series governing body, to make allowances that would ensure the 14 drivers using Michelins would be safe.
The FIA wouldn’t ease its rule that forbids teams to change tires after qualifying.
And it absolutely refused to consider installing a chicane in turn 13 to slow the speeds.
So Michelin advised its teams not to compete after a lengthy morning meeting between the seven team bosses, F-1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and the 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 lone 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.
This event already draws just a fraction of what other races here do. Less than 100,000 come to this race, compared to a crowd in excess of 300,000 for the Indianapolis 500.
Sunday’s debacle will do nothing to improve that.
“Quite frankly, the fans got cheated,” Ecclestone said.
Now the future of the series in the U.S. hangs in jeopardy. This is the rare country that has not embraced the world’s top racing series, and teams have been working hard to tap into the lucrative market.
All seven teams that pulled out of the race signed a single statement apologizing for the debacle.
“We are totally aware that the USA is an important market for Formula One and there is an obligation for Formula One to promote itself in a positive and professional manner,” it said.
“It is sad that we couldn’t showcase Formula One in the manner we would have liked today.”
Among those refusing to race were world championship points leader Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, who trails him in the standings by 22 points.
Schumacher entered the event 35 points behind Alonso, but cut the deficit to 25 with the victory – well within striking distance with 10 events left this season.
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