Michelin cars pull off track after warmups

Updated: June 19, 2005, 11:03 PM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Michael Schumacher climbed from his car to a chorus of boos, the die-hard Formula One fans unable to accept his first victory of the season after more than two-thirds of the field quit in protest over tire safety.

Sparking a fiasco for a series desperate to capture the American audience, Michelin advised the 14 cars it supplies that its tires were unsafe for the final banked turn at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Unable to forge a compromise, all 14 Michelin teams ducked off the track after the warmup lap Sunday, leaving Schumacher and the five other drivers who use Bridgestone tires to race among themselves.

Fans headed for the exits in disgust, drivers were left bewildered and track officials joined team members in speaking afterward as if the United States Grand Prix itself is in jeopardy.

Schumacher returned to the podium, but there was no champagne toast for the Ferrari team on this Sunday.

"Bit of a strange Grand Prix," Schumacher said. "Not the right way to win my first one this year."

When an agreement couldn't be reached over the use of fresh tires or the placement of a chicane to slow the cars going into turn 13, the Michelin teams pulled off the track and parked in a unified protest.

"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 situation created a farce of a race for F-1, the world's most popular series. And it couldn't have happened at a worse venue: The series is already struggling to build an American fan base, and Indy officials were left unsure of the event's future.

"Undoubtedly, this sets us back in all of our efforts or all of the gains we've made in introducing this sport to America," said Joie Chitwood, track president. He declined to speculate on if the race would be back at Indy next season.

But even the Ferrari team, which finally scored its first win of the season, acknowledged that the series' future in the U.S. is in trouble.

"I wish we can come back to the States, this is a very important country and our No. 1 market," said Ferrari boss Jean Todt. "But this is a very bad day for our sport and I feel bad for the supporters."

Many blamed Ferrari itself -- the Italian team was the lone holdout in a series of compromises the nine other teams frantically tried to reach.

After two Michelin tires failed in Friday practice sessions -- one causing a wreck that prevented Ralf Schumacher from competing -- the tiremaker ruled that its rubber was unsafe for this track.

Michelin was rebuffed when it asked the FIA, the series governing body, to ease its rule forbidding teams to change tires after qualifying. The FIA also refused to consider installing a chicane.

So Michelin advised its teams not to compete after a lengthy morning meeting between nine team bosses (Ferrari did not attend), F-1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA. At one point, all 20 drivers were summoned to the meeting.

The nine teams even agreed to race for no points, as long as the obstacle was added to the course.

All of them said Ferrari would not agree to any of the proposals. Todt denied that Ferrari held up any deals, and said any decisions were left to the FIA. However, he said Ferrari would have protested the use of a chicane.

The teams worked up until the final moments for a resolution, even lining up on the grid and taking the warm-up lap. Then they pulled off, climbing out of their cars at the same time the remaining six drivers started the race.

The crowd was stunned, with fans pointing and gawking as they tried to figure out what was going on. Some booed. Others threw water bottles on the track in disgust.

"If I was a fan out there I would do the same," said driver Jacques Villeneuve, a former Indianapolis 500 winner.

After just 10 laps, many spectators began heading for the exits.

Indy officials said they had not yet discussed offering refunds, and track boss Tony George issued a statement urging fans to direct their frustration to Michelin, the FIA and F-1's management.

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.

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.

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 F-1'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.

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.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press