U.S. Grand Prix anything but grand

Posted: Monday, June 20, 2005

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.

Already lined up on pit road, they all completed the warmup lap. Then they pulled off and parked, climbing out of their cars at the same time the remaining six drivers started the race. The cars that did compete all race on Bridgestone tires.

''I am really sorry for the USA fans because they came here to support us and see our show,'' pole-sitter Jarno Trulli said. ''The decision for us not to race is sad, but we were in danger.''

The crowd was stunned when the 14 cars pulled off, with fans pointing and gawking as they tried to figure out what was going on.

Fans booed and some 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. There were reports of thousands of fans showing up at the ticket office demanding refunds, and that police had been called to keep the peace.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George didn't immediately respond to an interview request by The Associated Press. Instead, he issued a statement urging fans to direct their frustration to Michelin, the FIA and F-1's management. The statement provided e-mail addresses for all three.

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.

Scott Brombacher, a fan from California, said he was disgusted as he left.

''I love Formula One ... it just aggravates me,'' Brombacher said. ''I spent a lot of money and took a week off from work to come out here. To have all this happen at the last minute is just disgusting.''

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.



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