By mrbill on Jun 19, 2005
As my fellow Formula One fanatic Robin Wilton has already blogged today, the U.S. Grand Prix at Indy was a farce of monumental proportions. Let's look at what (according to the press) has happened.
Michelin supplied a bad set of tires to their 7 teams, accounting for 14 of the 20 cars on the grid. Michelin did everything possible, including immediately flying out a whole new set of tires to Indy, but the new tires had the same design flaw that the old ones did. Michelin informed the 7 teams on Sunday morning, approximately 8 hours before the race that the tires were not safe to run at speed in the banked turn entering the start/finish straight.
Apparently the Michelin suggestion was to add a chicane (a quick set of flicking turns) in the middle of the high-load corner to slow the cars down, and reduce the load. The FIA said no. If the chicane was added, the race would be unsanctioned. The Indy track management offered to add the chicane, but the FIA said no. So what happens? The 20 cars all line up, take a formation lap (a slow lap behind the safety car to heat up the tires and make sure the cars are all roadworty). The three teams not running Michelin tires go to the starting grid at the end of the formation lap, and 14 cars enter the pit lane and procede into their garages, retiring before the race even starts. The cars left in the race included Ferrari (obviously a strong team in any season), Jordan (a team in upheaval after after an ownership change and major personnel attrition), and Minardi (well, Minardi is kind of the poor stepchild team of F1). Like there was \*any\* doubt at all who was going to win. Ferrari ended up running 6 seconds a lap slower than the cars were capable, out for a Sunday drive. BORING!
So who is to blame?
Michelin? No, engineering and manufacturing mistakes happen. They even came up with a suggestion to make the drivers safe, while maintaining the integrity of the race.
The Michelin teams? No, Driver safety is key. It would take a fool to expect a driver to get into a car that is likely to come apart (as two of the Michelin clad cars did during practice sessions) and go drive 200+ MPH. There are enough serious accidents and enough danger in racing without adding to the danger by running equipment known to be defective and dangerous. Without the modifications to the track, they were absolutely correct in choosing not to race.
Ayrton Senna, Ronnie Peterson, Rolland Ratzenberger, Gilles Villeneuve, Alberto Ascari, Lorenzo Bandini, Fancois Cevert, Bruce Mclaren, Wolfgang Von Trips. If you recognize some of these names, all of these drivers were killed while driving a Formula One race car. It is a dangerous sport on the best of days with the best of equipment.
The non-Michelin teams? No, they had safe equipment, and their expenses for the weekend were already astronomical. To choose not to race, and stand beside their fellow drivers in the garage would have undoubtedly caused serious ramifications to their sponsor funds. Besides, if the FIA says there is going to be a race, and there are driver and constructor points to be made, it would be silly not to drive.
The FIA? Maybe. Perhaps if they had allowed the chicane to be installed, it would have been a race worth watching. If they had installed the chicane, the Michelin teams would not have been penalized for having brought unsafe equipment to the race. Bottom line, everything was done according to the rules. Perhaps a compromise of moving the non-Michelin teams to the front of the starting grid would have made up for the inconvenience of the chicane? Maybe a time penalty of some sort (drive through, stop-go, etc.) for the Michelin teams could have been offered if the chicane was added for them? Maybe forgetting about "points" and standings for once, and thinking about the show and the fans would have been prudent?
So... bottom line, who loses?
Indy. The people who own and manage the Indianapolis Motor Speedway now have hundreds of thousands of racing fans screaming for a refund. Through no fault of their own, the weekend's headliner show was a bust. They still have to pay the bills, pay the staff, and pay for all of the supporting costs of putting on the weekend's races.
The biggest loser? The fans. How many of the 200,000+ fans who paid alot of money for tickets, meals, time off of work, hotels, and souveniers are going to come back next year? Probably not alot of them. Formula One racing has been building a fairly large following over the past few years, with one of the major networks finally televising a few of the races for the past couple years.
This year's rule changes have already had a negative impact on the fans at the races. One engine must last two race weekends. This means that the headline drivers don't put in alot of laps in practice sessions. Who wants to pay to see a bunch of "third drivers" doing testing laps? Not me, I want to see Schumacher, Kimi, Coulthard, and Alonso cranking out laps while they test their setups, and occasionally spinning off into the gravel when they push past the edge. One set of tires per car per qualifying and race. There goes the excitement of the pitstop. Now more than a dozen guys rush out, surround a car, and watch one guy put fuel in. Wow, hold me back, I'm getting all excited watching that drama. (yawn) FIA, wake up, it is about the fans!
There had to be a compromise, but everyone was looking at their own interests, instead of the "end user consumer", the racing fan. There had to be a way to get the majority of the cars out on the track safely. There had to be a way to give the fans the show that they paid for. There had to be a way to get the sponsors of the cars, the sponsors of the television time, and the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the event and exposure that they paid for. And foremost, there must have been a compromise in there that didn't damage this sport in the eyes of the fans.
I now have serious second thoughts about traveling to see Formula One races. I have been to the U.S. Grand Prix at Indy, back in 2002. The trip cost me only about $1,000.00 USD total, since I drove there and stayed in a relatively inexpensive hotel 20 miles from the track. I have been dying to go to see one of the old tracks, like Spa Francorchamps (Belgium) or Monaco. With this risk of seeing a couple Ferrari's out for a Sunday drive, at the cost of several thousand USD (more like $10,000 USD to make a long weekend in Monaco live up to the venue), I am unlikely to roll those dice in the near future.
Did you hear that FIA? Did you hear that Bernie Ecclestone? Did you hear that Team Principals? Did you hear that tourism boards of cities and countries holding F1 races? Did you hear that team sponsors? I, Bill Walker, a huge F1 fan with disposable income to burn, will NOT be taking a risk with that fun money to travel and see a Formula One race. I'd rather take my kids to some amusement park and spend my Father's Day with them. I can always check the TiVo to see if there is any kind of decent sports to watch later (fast-forwarding through your sponsors' commercials).