American spectators storm out as Schumacher wins six-car farce

If you want to know where Formula One went in America yesterday, take a trip west on 16th Street, past the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, until you get to the Conkle Funeral Home. That is where it went after the most damaging day in the sport's history saw only six cars on the grid for the US Grand Prix, and Ferrari stage a flypast. Every Michelin runner - 14 of them - pulled straight into the pits after the green flag lap and did not even take the start following endless arguments over tyre failures in practice and resultant safety issues.

If you want to know where Formula One went in America yesterday, take a trip west on 16th Street, past the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, until you get to the Conkle Funeral Home. That is where it went after the most damaging day in the sport's history saw only six cars on the grid for the US Grand Prix, and Ferrari stage a flypast. Every Michelin runner - 14 of them - pulled straight into the pits after the green flag lap and did not even take the start following endless arguments over tyre failures in practice and resultant safety issues.

When the famed Indianapolis 500 starts, track owner Marie Hulman George traditionally intones the words, "Gentlemen, start your engines." Yesterday, seven of the teams made their own change in protest at the FIA's and Ferrari's refusal to sanction the installation of a chicane to slow speeds in the banked Turns 12 and 13. As Toyota, McLaren-Mercedes, BAR-Honda, Renault, Williams-BMW, Sauber Petronas and Red Bull quit en masse, their drivers were told, "Gentlemen, stop your engines."

It needed no genius to figure out what 130,000 spectators, paying an average $100 (£55) per ticket, made of that.

This bizarre day had its beginnings after left rear- tyre failures afflicted Toyota on Friday. One of them put Ralf Schumacher into the wall in Turn 13, where he crashed out of last year's race, and doctors prevented him taking any further part in proceedings. He would not be alone.

Practice continued normally on Saturday, while Michelin had some tyres with stiffer sidewalls sent over from their base in Clermont-Ferrand ready for Sunday. Then their teams spent all of Sunday morning arguing with Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA about the best course of action.

Michelin put their hand up and confessed that their tyres were not suitable for the track, which has the longest full-throttle run of any on the calendar and includes two banked corners. "Having collected the results of our in-depth analysis from France and the USA," they said, "we confirmed that with the tyres on which we have qualified we are not able to sufficiently guarantee the total safety of the drivers." They asked for the chicane.

The response from the FIA race director, Charlie Whiting, was unequivocal: "Your teams have a choice of running more slowly in Turn 12/13, running a tyre not used in qualifying (which would attract a penalty) or repeatedly changing a tyre (subject to valid safety reasons). It is for them to decide. We have nothing to add." Nine of the teams said, "No chicane, no race." Ferrari, sensing their first victory of 2005, said, "No problem."

Slowly the ludicrous situation worsened, and little by little Formula One at Indianapolis went from critical to needing life support. There were suggestions of imposing a 280kmh (175mph) speed limit in the banked turns, or, even more stupid, letting cars race - but behind the safety car. But on a day that called for strong governance, innovation and compromise, or at least a decent back-up plan, nothing happened.

At 12.30 local time Jordan's Tiago Monteiro left the pits, followed by the Ferraris and his team-mate Narain Karthikeyan. As the brinksmanship continued, it was another five minutes before Williams, Renault and BAR sent their cars out, followed by Minardi, Toyota, Sauber and McLaren.

"The future for F1 and Michelin in the US is not good," Bernie Ecclestone conceded as he worked the grid, and not even his legerdemain could rescue the situation.

It got worse. All 20 cars appeared on the grid after the formation lap, but after the green flag lap the Michelin cars pitted and the teams pushed them straight into the garages. It was unprecedented.

On the grid, the two Ferraris were joined by two Jordans and two Minardis, the latter two teams obliged to race by their Bridgestone contracts, and the suicide act was complete.

Disappointed fans gave a thumbs down. As Michael Schumacher led team-mate Rubens Barrichello around in what was meant to be a race, the crowd were on their feet - leaving. There was more action in the car parks than on the track. Irate fans reacted by throwing drink cans. "$ back" signs proliferated.

Later, Michelin's seven teams issued a joint apology. "The Michelin teams deeply regret the position that they have been put in today and would like to apologise to all the spectators, TV viewers, Formula One fans and sponsors for not being able to take part." The statement added: "It is sad that we couldn't showcase Formula One in the manner we would have liked today."

Doubtless, Ferrari fans were cheering as Michael Schumacher and Barrichello won, but others had jeered as the Brazilian slid off track on lap 51 disputing the lead. "We went out there to have fun, and that's what we had," Schumacher said. "It was not the right way to win my first race of the year, but it wasn't a disaster."

Maybe not for Ferrari, but on its deathbed here Formula One slapped its public in the face. On its bleakest day since Ayrton Senna was killed not one soul gained from a victory so hollow you could hear the wind whistling all the way through it.

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