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The 2005 US GP farce: The full inside story

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Jun 19, 2020, 9:19 AM

The 2005 US GP is remembered as the race that only six cars started after Michelin hit problems and all its teams withdrew after the formation lap.

The 2005 season saw a new rule introduced that restricted drivers to a single set of tyres for qualifying and the race. Bridgestone and its sole frontline user Ferrari struggled to adapt, leaving the Michelin teams – led by McLaren, Renault, Williams and Toyota – to set the pace. And then we went to Indianapolis, and everything changed…

Friday June 17th

The saga began on Friday morning when Toyota third driver Ricardo Zonta spun in the infield after his left rear Michelin went down. That attracted little attention, and it was only when Ralf Schumacher crashed heavily in FP2 when exiting Turn 13 – the banked right-hander onto the pit straight – that alarm bells started to sound.

John Howett (Team principal, Toyota): "Ralf's was a fairly big shunt, and we were all relieved that he got out of the car. They were replaying pictures of the incident, and it looked like the left rear tyre had gone down. I think we still ran a bit in that session, and when Jarno [Trulli] came in there were what looked like vertical cuts in the sidewall of the rear left. So we knew we had a problem, and it was, 'Why is it us?' First of all Michelin thought we were running under inflated pressures, but there was no issue there, we weren't running even close to low pressure. So we were thinking. 'Why have we got this problem?'"

The story took a different direction when it emerged that tyres on other cars were starting to show danger signs.

Howett: "One of the Michelin guys came along and said they had identified similar situation to Jarno's in three or four other teams. So an hour or so after FP2 it became obvious that there was an issue with the tyre. Michelin called a meeting, and they said we've got to work overnight to understand it. They wanted to see if it was a batch issue, but I think even at that time they were fairly sure that those tyres hadn't been produced from the same moulds or in the same batch. They wanted to verify that, and they were running tests overnight."

Saturday June 18th

Come the following morning the news from Michelin's Clermont-Ferrand base was not positive.

Howett: "There was a wave created in the sidewall as you go around the banking. And it was a question of the frequency of that wave relative to the design of the tyre – it's like those old suspension bridges when the wind blows, and the frequency is right, and they just fall apart. If you have a vertical load at the same time with that frequency, the tyre is very fragile, because of this harmonic wave. It was difficult for Michelin to be absolutely sure, but there was a belief that the natural frequency of the Toyota chassis and suspension design probably accentuated this wave, and therefore we were more vulnerable. It didn't appear that we had more downforce than anybody else."

Ralf Schumacher, kicks his Toyota TF105

Ralf Schumacher, kicks his Toyota TF105

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Charlie Whiting (FIA race director, speaking in 2015): "They came to us and said we've got too much loading, we've got these standing waves on the tyres. The sidewall started to buckle, that's what the prognosis was. I believe they claimed to have simulated it and found out that's what it was, flexing of the sidewalls."

Michelin duly told its teams to take precautions in Saturday morning practice.

Howett: "By then they were fairly sure it wasn't a batch issue. They couldn't simulate any sort of failure, even at their extreme running. So at that stage they couldn't tell us a great deal. We were all recommended to run towards the top end of the tyre pressures, and if possible, not do extensive running in practice, and to try to run with lighter fuel, so we were putting less force or less pressure on the tyre. So on Saturday morning most of the Michelin runners were doing fairly short runs. We didn't have any tyres that we could see any severe issue with, but I think one or two of the other teams had done longer runs, and they identified this slight mark starting in the sidewall of the tyre. We then ran fairly light fuel in qualifying in both the cars. Jarno took pole, but probably we were running lighter fuel than the others, because we seemed to have a more severe problem, so we were extra cautious."

Whiting: "The fundamental problem was that in those days the tyre companies came along with a tyre that was the so-called prime. And then they were supposed to have a back-up tyre should the prime not be suitable. But that's not how it worked, of course. The back-up tyre became the option, so it became edgier, as opposed to a safe back-up. So rather than say, 'We've got a problem with our prime we can use the back-up now,' they were in deep trouble. So they came to us, they said we've got too much loading, we've got these standing waves on the tyres, it's dangerous, so we have to slow the cars down. I said there must be other ways of addressing this? We're not going to slow the cars down, it wouldn't be fair to those who brought the right tyres. You need to get some more tyres sent over. They went off and came back and said they didn't have enough."

By then everyone knew there was a serious issue. It was at a meeting of the Michelin teams that night that the idea of introducing a chicane took hold. A similar thing had been done at the last minute at the 1994 Spanish GP, so team bosses felt that there was a precedent.

Bernie Ecclestone

Bernie Ecclestone

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Howett: "The only consistent feeling was that Turn 13 was the problem. That's where Ralf had had the crash, and Ricardo had had his deflation coming into the infield, which was only a few corners after Turn 13. The proposal then to Bernie Ecclestone and (Indy boss) Tony George was we should look to putting a chicane in before Turn 13 to slow the cars down. Bernie said it, 'OK leave it with me,' and Tony said it was no problem, he would get his crews out there. As we left on Saturday night we assumed we'd come in on Saturday morning and there would actually be a chicane in. The Michelin teams also said if there's an issue we'd be happy not to race for points."

Whiting recalled that he said from the off that that a chicane was not an option, and he was backed up by FIA president Max Mosley, who kept in touch by phone from his home in Monaco.

Whiting: "I'm responsible for the safety of the circuit, the circuit is homologated in a certain configuration, without doing proper simulations I'm not going to say, 'Let's just put a chicane in there.' What if a car hits the chicane and a wheel goes over the fence? There was absolutely no way that was happening. On matters of circuit safety I can't make any compromises. It would just be so amateur, and even if you could make a proper chicane with nice kerbs, instead of a tyre chicane, which is what they wanted to do, I still wouldn't want to put my name to it without doing the proper research."

Meanwhile in a last-ditch attempt to investigate the issue a random selection of 26 tyres were flown to a Michelin R&D base in Akron, Ohio, on a small cargo plane. The FIA agreed on the basis that technical delegate Jo Bauer chaperone them, and along with three Michelin engineers the German was given the use of a McLaren private jet.

Ron Dennis would probably have had a fit had he seen the four men, still in their work kit at the end of long day, munching their way through their takeaway pizzas... Bauer watched as the tyres were put through various tests, but nothing new was learned, and it proved to be a fruitless journey. He and the tyres got back to Indianapolis at around 6am the next morning.

Sunday June 19th

Come Sunday there was no sign of the chicane or any other solution. The first of many heated meetings that day was quickly convened by Michelin. Legal questions became paramount.

Howett: "Bernie came and Charlie came. The Bridgestone teams were invited, but Ferrari didn't come. Basically the position was that from Charlie's point of view was that they weren't prepared to put the chicane in, as it hadn't been tested, and they considered that it was unsafe. Because a precedent had happened at a previous race in Spain some of the teams were quite excited that this couldn't happen now. Flavio [Briatore] was getting hot and bothered, and Ron.

A Michelin tyre technician checks out the track temperatures

A Michelin tyre technician checks out the track temperatures

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"The counter proposals from the FIA they would lift the ban on running one tyre for the whole race, so we could change as much as we wanted during the race. We could tell the drivers to lift through the corner or of your pit limiter could be adjusted. Some of the drivers felt that wasn't too safe, because you do balance the car a little bit with throttle or whatever even though it's a banked track."

Tony George (Indianapolis Motor Speedway president): "I was in meetings with team principals and Formula One Management, listening mainly. I had Max on the phone at one point and there was a whole discussion about what we're accustomed to, and that's trying to have the show go on and give the fans what they paid to see."

Whiting: "I was dragged into a meeting on Sunday morning, the Michelin teams were there. It was pretty horrendous really, and they really put some pressure on me. I didn't want to go in there in the first place, there was no point. We said basically we're not going to do anything, we're not going to put a chicane in, that's completely out of the question.

"But we have got a few ways that we could suggest to help you, all of which proved to be unpalatable to the teams. They started to say you've got to do this, there won't be a race otherwise. I said there isn't going to be a chicane, you make your minds up, I'll be in my office if you want me."

Those ideas included running the cars through the pitlane on every lap, and perhaps more realistically, imposing a speed limit for the Michelin cars, while allowing the Bridgestone runners to lap at normal speeds.

Whiting: "We could have painted a line through the corner – Bridgestone cars could stay outside the line, and Michelin cars inside, or something like that, so they were separated. They could have just used the pit lane speed limiter. We would probably have monitored it with a speed gun, as we didn't have timing loops in those days in as many places. But there were ways of doing it very simply, really. We would probably have done it with a speed gun, we didn't have loops in those days in as many places. But there were ways of doing it very simply, really. They could have just used a pitlane speed limiter. We'd know what that was set at, run it in sixth gear instead of third gear, if they wanted to do it we could have come up with something.

"OK, it would have been disastrous for the Michelin teams, but we would have had a race, and the Michelin cars would have had a good race amongst themselves, and you would have had a full field. It would have been very straightforward. I was pressing them to tell me what they thought a safe speed was through that corner, and they could never tell me. So if I put a chicane in how does that guarantee that the speed is going to be safe through the corner? I gave them all the reasons why a chicane wasn't going to happen."

All teams that run Michellin tyres retire from the race due to them being unsafe

All teams that run Michellin tyres retire from the race due to them being unsafe

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The meetings continued as the clock ticked away towards the start. Then to Whiting's surprise he learned that steps were being made towards building a chicane, seemingly at the specific request of Ecclestone.

Whiting: "There was a Porsche race and then after that someone said , 'They're moving tyres from Turn 10 to make a chicane.' I said, 'I beg your pardon?' They said Bernie had told them to do it. I said, 'If you move any tyres this circuit's no longer homologated, there won't be a race at all. That's what's going to happen. So move the tyres back now, or there won't be a race.' It was being done as I went out onto the track, I saw these tractors moving a load of tyres."

George: "We were ready to do what we needed to do, build the chicane. But ultimately it was decided that wasn't an acceptable solution. I don't recall if Bernie had authorised it or not – it was all subject to getting hold of Max, as I recall. I think Charlie's opinion was, reading the rules and interpreting them literally, that it was not an option. We offered solutions that were considered, but ultimately rejected. I understand about the circuit being homologated and the sporting code and the rules and all that, but it became clear that this was something which was beyond our control."

Howett: "Michelin said sorry if we can't put the chicane in we don't think we can allow our partners to race. Their position was the risk was too high, that there wasn't a satisfactory solution. They then got reasonably strong on the issue. We thought there were more than reasonable options on the table, the teams were prepared not to score points, we accept the responsibility for the tyre issue, we want to provide a race for the teams, we think that having the two lap speeds isn't a race."

The big problem was that, perhaps not surprisingly, Ferrari team boss Jean Todt saw no reason why he should give any ground.

Howett: "Two Bridgestone teams decided that they would support us and wouldn't race if there wasn't a chicane put in, and that was Paul Stoddart [Minardi] and Colin Kolles [Jordan]. Bernie said he would try and renegotiate with Todt, as Ferrari had tried to block it on the basis that it was unfair towards them. That was one of the arguments coming from Max and the FIA. Flavio went off with Bernie to talk to Todt, and to phone Max. There was another meeting called, a very brief one, because it was getting very close to the race start, where it was made clear that Max absolutely refused to actually put a chicane in. If they did anything like that the FIA couldn't accept it as an FIA race, and if it wasn't an FIA race, it wouldn't be part of the World Championship."

Pat Symonds (Renault): "Safety comes first, end of story. When you get standing waves in a tyre, the only things that affect it are load, speed and pressure. We were at the highest pressures we could run, so you had to reduced load and speed. We couldn't do that. But the chicane shouldn't have happened, it's sport, it's not about bringing everything down to the lowest common denominator. If you can't perform, you can't perform."

Michael Schumacher, Ferrari F2005

Michael Schumacher, Ferrari F2005

Photo by: Motorsport Images

By then things had reached the point of no return. The FIA made it clear that with a chicane, it would withdraw its officials. Among the teams there was even silly talk of how they would quickly fill the key jobs with their own people. Eventually the teams came to the decision not to take the start, and they had to persuade their drivers to go along with it

Fernando Alonso (Renault): "It was very a strange weekend with the problems of the tyres, many discussions, many meetings in different motorhomes, trying to come to an agreement of racing but maybe not taking the points, or some kind of decision to make everyone happy. In the end it was not possible, which I think was a shame for the people, because the show was affected by that decision."

Howett: "To me if you were really serious about giving the crowd a race you've got to do something sensible. The Michelin teams in the end thought there was no difference between coming in after a lap or having a two-speed banking or coming through the pitlane. At the last meeting all the Michelin teams agreed that we would not race, we would go to the grid because we were contractually obliged to do so in the Concorde Agreement, and then we'd come in and stop. Kolles didn't come to that final meeting, and Ferrari weren't there. I think Stoddart was pressured by Bridgestone, so he apologised to the Michelin teams and said I will have to complete the race."

Whiting: "I'd been told what was going to happen. They said we are going to do the formation lap and then all come in. I was prepared for it, but I wasn't sure it was going to happen. But I was sure of one thing, and that was we were going to start the race and run it, and we weren't going to be pressured into not running the race, such as it was. I'm sure that they were convinced that they would win the day, but equally we showed that we don't succumb to pressure like that. If they don't come along with the right stuff we can't change the rules just because they haven't come prepared. That was the thing that got me, had the boot been on the other foot would the Michelin teams all have said, 'Let's put a chicane in for those three Bridgestone teams?'"

George: "Ultimately the FIA conduct the competition, we don't. That's where our hands were somewhat tied. At an IndyCar-sanctioned event we would probably have arrived at different conclusions. When the final decision was made and we knew what was going to take place I thought there's no way in hell I'm going to go out there and wave the chequered flag, I don't want to be standing out on a podium and have people throwing beer cans at me! I didn't feel it was in my best interests to go out there..."

Some of the drivers took a bit of persuading, but in the end all 14 Michelin runners filed into the pitlane at the end of the formation lap, leaving just the six Bridgestone cars on the grid. It was particularly difficult for the two main title contenders.

Alonso: "I was fighting with Kimi for the championship, and he was second on the grid I think, and I was sixth. I had this instruction if he goes to the grid, you to the grid, if he goes to the pitlane, you go to the pitlane. We had all agreed to go to the pitlane, but in case Kimi changed his mind at the last moment, I had to do the same! So there was some stress on that formation lap..."

Dissapointed fans

Dissapointed fans

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Jacques Villeneuve (Sauber): "The most frustrating thing was that at the time Ferrari and the FIA would not accept that we change the course, even though we would give them all the points. They didn't want to play the game and think about the good of the sport. It's not like we could have done anything. No Michelin cars would have finished the race, we would have all ended up in the wall there. It was just not possible."

Whiting: "I wasn't convinced that there would be complete solidarity, but they'd obviously all cut their palms and made this big pact, and they all did it. I suppose they'd been told they had to by Michelin. It was pretty awful starting that race. My goodness, the crowd opposite, when I climbed down off the start platform, you should have heard the boos. It was horrendous. I wanted to run inside, but I tried to walk in as dignified a fashion as possible! Obviously it wasn't me they were aiming their boos at, but what really worried me was when they started throwing beer cans onto the track at the first corner. I thought if that gets a hold, we'll have to stop the race."

The aftermath

The race ran with just the six Bridgestone cars from Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi taking part, and Michael Schumacher duly led team mate Rubens Barrichello home. It was to be Ferrari's only win of a season that was, ironically, all about Michelin's superiority.

Inevitably the US GP story did not end on the Sunday night. In the days after the race there was a messy war of words between the FIA and Michelin – although as the tyre company was not a competitor, it could not be penalised. Eventually it agreed a compensation package that included a promise to subsidise tickets at the 2006 event.

Meanwhile the seven Michelin teams were subjected to a World Motor Sport Council hearing, and they were found guilty of "failing to ensure that they were in possession of suitable tyres for the 2005 US Grand Prix; but with strong, mitigating circumstances," and "of wrongfully refusing to allow their cars to start the race, having regard to their right to use the pitlane on each lap."

Three other charges were dropped, however, including "refusing to race subject to a speed restriction." Ecclestone apparently told Mosley what the teams had learned from their legal departments when they faced litigation from disgruntled fans, and presumably that was taken into account by the governing body, which was also under threat.

"We had a class action against Toyota," recalls John Howett. "As I think a number of teams did. When we sent all the documents to the US lawyers, they weren't that worried. They said, 'If you guys had actually raced, in the knowledge that you had of the tyre defect, under Indiana law you would have been responsible for criminal negligence.' Even without an incident, by racing we were technically putting the life of the marshals and so on at risk.

"Michelin did a very good job in offering to provide a large number of free tickets for the next race, and in the court's mind they'd obviously reduced any issue regarding their situation. But the biggest issue for our lawyer was that the teams did the right thing by not racing, and the court would immediately support them for doing that."

"We didn't know what the fallout would be," says Tony George. "But it we knew it would probably be great. In some of the litigation that followed we were concerned about who was going to step up to the table here, and share in some of the responsibility. And to their credit Michelin went a long way into trying to make it right, and allow us to come back the next year."

Podium: Race winner Michael Schumacher, Ferrari F2005, second place Rubens Barrichello, Ferrari F2005, third place Tiago Monteiro, Jordan Toyota EJ15 and Ross Brawn, Ferrari

Podium: Race winner Michael Schumacher, Ferrari F2005, second place Rubens Barrichello, Ferrari F2005, third place Tiago Monteiro, Jordan Toyota EJ15 and Ross Brawn, Ferrari

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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Series Formula 1
Author Adam Cooper