June 19

This Day in History

Automotive

Jun 19, 2005:

Controversy at U.S. Grand Prix

After 14 Formula One race car drivers withdraw due to safety concerns over the Michelin-made tires on their vehicles, German driver Michael Schumacher wins a less-than-satisfying victory at the United States Grand Prix on this day in 2005. The race, held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana, will go down one of the most controversial Formula One racing events in history.

Two days before the race, driver Ralf Schumacher (Michael's brother) crashed in practice while negotiating the speedway's banked right-hand 13th turn. Michelin, makers of Schumacher's tires, determined that the tires they had supplied for the Grand Prix could not withstand the high speed on the turn, and asked the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the sanctioning body for Formula One races, for permission to send another batch of tires. The FIA refused, citing its mandate that only one set of tires be used in a weekend. The organization also refused Michelin's petition to build a chicane, or series of turns, designed to slow down cars before the 13th turn--despite the fact that the speedway's chief executive and 9 out of the 10 teams in the race agreed that the track could be altered. The only team that didn't was Ferrari, the team of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello (who ended up finishing second) and one of three teams in the race that used Bridgestone tires instead of Michelin.

In the end, 14 cars stayed in the garage for the Grand Prix; the six remaining cars were from the Bridgestone-outfitted Ferrari, Minardi and Jordan teams. The race itself featured one moment of excitement, when Michael Schumacher almost collided with Barrichello after a pit stop, forcing Barrichello off the track briefly and onto the grass before he regained his bearings. Many disgruntled fans left early, while others threw beer bottles and other debris from the stands and booed the victory ceremony, during which a subdued Schumacher declined to spray the customary bottle of champagne into the crowd.

The teams that used Michelin tires issued a joint apology to fans and sponsors, while Michelin later reimbursed some ticket holders for the event. Though many faulted Michelin for not providing adequate tires and agreed that the FIA and Ferrari team had the right to insist that the race course not be changed, many felt a compromise would have benefited Formula One racing as a whole, especially in the United States, where it was still seeking to build a solid fan base. The 2005 Grand Prix had drawn a crowd of some 100,000 fans--far less than that attracted by the Indianapolis 500 or a regular NASCAR Nextel Cup event.  

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