Michelin tells teams not to use tires in Grand Prix
INDIANAPOLIS -- The United States Grand Prix was in jeopardy hours before its scheduled start Sunday because tiremaker Michelin advised the seven Formula One teams it supplies not to compete because of safety concerns.
Michelin, the world's largest tiremaker, has been unable to determine why some of its tires failed during Friday's practice sessions at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One failure led to an accident that knocked Ralf Schumacher out of Sunday's race.
In an effort to salvage it, Michelin bosses met with Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone in a lengthy, closed-door meeting Sunday morning that ended roughly 90 minutes before the scheduled start of the event.
Several team bosses said nine of the 10 teams agreed to run if a chicane was placed in the final turn to slow speeds. Ferrari was the lone holdout.
The FIA, which earlier in the day adamantly refused to use a course obstacle, didn't immediately rule on the agreement.
Team bosses also said it wasn't clear if the U.S. Grand Prix would count in the championship standings.
"This is disappointing because Formula One, at times, can't realize it is a sport first and a political battle second," Minardi team boss Paul Stoddart said. "Nine teams have agreed to drive for points or no points as long as a chicane is installed. It is now in the FIA's hands, but for nine of us our position is this is sport and there are hundreds of millions of people wanting to see a race."
During the meeting, all 20 drivers were summoned to join the discussions that could be seen through glass office doors. The drivers left about 10 minutes later and declined comment.
The talks were clearly heated at times, and Ecclestone and Renault boss Flavio Briatore engaged in an animated conversation. Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George was seen pacing and talking on his cell phone. He looked displeased when he left the meeting shortly before the drivers arrived.
In a letter to the FIA sent late Saturday night, Michelin officials said they informed teams that it could not guarantee that its tires are safe -- particularly in the high-banked final turn where Schumacher and Toyota teammate Ricardo Zonta both wrecked.
Schumacher sustained a serious concussion and two broken vertebrae in a similar accident here last season.
The tiremaker asked for permission to change the tires -- F-1 teams are forced to race on the same set of tires they qualify with -- or the use of a chicane in turn 13.
The FIA sent back a sharply worded response, questioning how the tiremaker landed in this position and warning the teams that they would be heavily penalized if they changed tires.
Michelin responded Sunday, saying its teams could not use the original tires. The company supplies tires to seven teams -- 14 of 20 cars in Sunday's race -- including championship leaders Renault and leading rival McLaren-Mercedes.
"We confirmed that with the tires on which we have qualified we are not able to sufficiently guarantee the total safety of the drivers," Michelin officials wrote Sunday. "As a result, we reached the conclusion that we will not compete with these tires in the current configuration of the circuit."
The FIA replied with a terse letter, refusing to budge on the issue.
"Your teams have a choice of running more slowly in turns 12/13, running a tire not used in qualifying [which would attract a penalty] or repeatedly changing a tire [subject to valid safety reasons]," FIA race director Charlie Whiting wrote.
"It is for them to decide. We have nothing to add."
Michelin had been trying to ship a fresh batch of tires in from its warehouse in France, but was unable to get permission from the FIA to allow teams to use them.
The FIA replied in its first letter Saturday night that if teams broke the one-tire rule, they would be heavily penalized.
"We believe the penalty would not be expulsion but would have to be heavy enough to ensure that no team was tempted to use qualifying tires in the future," Whiting ruled.
He also ruled out the use of a chicane.
"To change the course in order to help some of the teams with a performance problem caused by their failure to bring suitable equipment to the race would be a breach of the rules and grossly unfair to those teams which have come to Indianapolis with the correct tires," he said.
Only Ferrari, Minardi and Jordan use Bridgestone tires.
Points leader Fernando Alonso of Renault and Kimi Raikkonen of McLaren-Mercedes, who is second in the world championship standings, are among the Michelin drivers.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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