Indianapolis, 2005

Indygate remembered, 15 years since F1’s six-car fiasco

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Exactly 15 years on, I recall the scene clearly. Ron Dennis, then McLaren’s head honcho, heading stone-faced down the US Grand Prix grid, stopping one by one beside selected peers – six in total – as he twirled an upward-pointed index finger in a single circle before mock-slicing his throat with said digit. Significantly, Dennis did not acknowledge Jean Todt, then Ferrari’s team boss, tending his top car, placed fifth on the grid.

Each of Ron’s respondents nodded silently in return, faces set grimly as their eyes locked with Ron’s, the gesture clearly having been pre-arranged, and the unsaid implication crystal clear to each of the team bosses. Tellingly, they all sported a Michelin logo on their team gear.

As my gaze followed him down the grid it dawned on me that this sign language spelt disaster for F1; that the single finger meant ‘one’; the circling mimed a lap, with the throat ‘cut’ being F1-speak for ‘kill engine’. My worst fears for the 2005 US Grand Prix were about to be realised: the seven Michelin-shod teams would circulate for the formation lap, then peel into pit lane without taking the start proper.

Thus, only six cars would actually take the race start: The Ferraris, fifth and seventh on the grid, plus the Jordans and Minardis, occupying the final two rows. Significantly, all Bridgestone-shod.

A power struggle between teams and authorities had reached peak damage, and F1 was about to self-immolate in the hybrid-oval cauldron at the self-styled ‘Racing Capital of the World’ to the shocking detriment of hundreds of sponsors, hundreds of thousands of spectators packed into stands and hundreds of millions of fans, the largest slice tuning in at European prime time. F1 was on a public suicide mission.

Ralf Schumacher, Toyota, Indianapolis, 2005
A tyre failure pitched Ralf Schumacher into a wall
The weekend started like any other – Thursday preliminaries, Friday practice, and Toyota tester Riccardo Zonta stopped with a deflated tyre; otherwise all normal. FP2 saw the left rear Michelin on Ralf Schumacher’s explode, causing his Toyota to thud backwards into the wall.

These things happen, we though. The session was red-flagged, he’s whisked to hospital for checks, lappery resumes with Michelin-shod Juan Pablo Montoya eventually topping the time sheets in his McLaren.

Then the FIA press conference. Michael Schumacher, who had just seen his younger brother suffer his second heavy crash at ‘turn 13’ in as many years, remarked on Bridgestone’s tyre selection for the weekend. “We have left at home tyres with better performance but less durability because we knew what kind of stress the tyres would be under here, so I don’t know what was [Michelin’s] problem but this was not our problem.”

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Cryptically he added, “I hope everyone understands there was nothing from our side to do in that respect.”

Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, Indianapolis, 2005
Schumacher revealed Bridgestone changed its tyre plans
His comments later slot neatly into place when it emerges the track had been resurfaced then diamond cut ahead of the previous month’s Indianapolis 500, delivering better lateral grip and causing IndyCar sole supplier Firestone to revise its specifications. A Bridgestone source later admits its sister brand provided technical guidance to its F1 associates. Of course, nobody thought to tell Michelin…

Whatever, the first inkling that something was seriously amiss came on Saturday morning. No Michelin cars ran more than a few consecutive laps before pitting, whereupon engineers descended on their rear tyres. A BAR engineer told me: “We can’t do more than 10 laps with these tyres, the sidewalls collapse due to lateral forces.”

The solution seemed so blindingly obvious: Install a chicane before cars enter the fast oval banking sector to reduce loads. Much as had been done at the Spanish Grand Prix 11 years earlier.

This time politics came into play: a late change would require team unanimity and Ferrari refused. The FIA, then presided over by Max Mosley, refused to play ball, allegedly for insurance reasons – although Safety Delegate Charlie Whiting was present and could have approved modifications.

Ron Dennis, Bernie Ecclestone, Indianapolis, 2005
Attempts to thrash out a solution failed
The (utterly) ridiculous solution proposed by the FIA was to force Michelin-shod cars to pass slowly through the pit lane every lap while their rivals sped by normally. Equally idiotic were suggestions that Michelin cars be speed restricted on the banking while the other six sped past them on at arguably the most dangerous point of the lap.

Proposals for a non-championship race on a modified circuit were rejected by the FIA. Michelin flew a different specification in from France overnight, but these showed the same structural problems when tested upon arrival so that was a no-no.

Pit stops weren’t an option, either: A major regulation change for 2005 was that drivers were forced to use one set of tyres for qualifying and the race. Thus a perfect storm was brewing in a major market the sport was in the process of wooing by racing at the iconic speedway. Effectively every possible suggestion was met with reasons why this or that solution was impossible.

Asked by RaceFans this week whether he recalled the race, then-F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said with a half-chuckle, “Oh yes, of course I do – I wanted to run the race somehow, but Max [Mosley] said ‘No’.”

Insurance reasons? Silence. Then: “No comment.”

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Whatever, power-play was par for the course F1 2005-style. We’d already had Minardi threaten to sue the FIA in Melbourne’s High Court and BAR banned for two races over fuel tank irregularities. Meanwhile, eight races into the season, the previously all-conquering Ferrari team were yet to win a race. This weekend would prove their sole 2005 victory in the hollowest of circumstances.

Indianapolis, 2005
All bar six of the 20 cars pitted before the start
All 20 cars took the formation lap – ironically led by Jarno Trulli’s Toyota – but as I feared the 14 Michelin drivers all followed their teams’ instructions. As we cleared the grid ahead of that lap and headed for the media centre I hoped fervently that by some miracle the Michelin drivers would ignore their bosses – but under the circumstances that would have been sheer folly, and they all knew it.

The Indianapolis press room is situated overlooking the start/finish line, above and behind a main stand. Hence we could see clearly the shocked looks on fans’ faces as the sextet lined up, unevenly scattered in their original grid positions. 100,000-plus punters who had paid good money to see this unfolding debacle made their fury known by lambasting F1 on all available news feeds. ‘Fiasco’ was too tame a word for it.

Of course there were recriminations: Mosley and co. summoned the Michelin teams to a World Motorsport Council to explain their conduct, having charged them with five offences as per the analysis of an FIA press release, written at the time by my good friend and colleague Forrest Bond for RaceFax. It superbly portrays the politics at play while nailing the cack-handed manner in which all stakeholders – bar one – acted.

That individual is Paul Stoddard, who stood to gain the most given that his Minardi team had no chance of scoring points in a normal race but stood to finish at least fifth and sixth were the race to run with a depleted field. Yet the wily Australian pushed for solutions, and was later dubbed ‘an eccentric gentleman’ by Mosley – which in retrospect seems a bit rich. His analysis of events can be read here.

Marshal, Indianapolis, 2005
Marshals retrieved bottles thrown on the track by angry fans
Michelin agreed to refund ticket holders via the promoter, and made 20,000 tickets available to fans for the next year. However the manufacturer left F1 at end of that season, despite having shod 2005-06 world champion Fernando Alonso’s Renault. Similarly, there was little wonder that the Indianapolis Speedway Corporation did not renew its F1 contract when it expired in 2007, and is only now mulling a return over a decade later.

The seven teams? Their suspended sentences were annulled by the FIA after they appealed, successfully arguing that to have raced on with cars in a dangerous condition would have left them open to federal charges in America, particularly if an accident with serious consequences had occurred. In retrospect one can only wonder what the FIA thought by pressing charges, particularly given that Mosley qualified as a barrister.

One knows how his success Jean Todt reacted at the time, putting Ferrari ahead of the good of F1. That, of course, was his job at the time, and its reward was a (hollow) one-two victory, the team’s only win of the season. One wonders how he would react under similar circumstances as FIA president. I’d like to believe he would have pushed for a pragmatic solution – as he has under Covid-19 – rather than stick rigidly to protocols and regulations.

Although certain F1 factions would rather the entire shameful episode were forgotten, 15 years on it serves as a reminder of the dangers of inflexibility, of entrenched thinking and of putting selfish interests well ahead of the overall welfare of F1 and by extension its fan base.

At a critical time when all stakeholders should have pulled in one direction and found a solution to unfortunate set of circumstances, every solution was opposed on principle. Ultimately they got their just desserts – a farcical event for which the players should hang their collective heads in utter shame for publicly forcing F1 into disrepute in the world’s most influential market, one F1 has still not cracked 15 years on.

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Indianapolis newspaper reports, 2005
Indianapolis newspaper reports, 2005

37 comments on “Indygate remembered, 15 years since F1’s six-car fiasco”

  1. It was rather telling that Mosley refused to come to Indianapolis and just continued to fire shots from his London office. Anyway, I was away that whole week and came back home only when the race was already half-way through…not knowing anything about what had transpired over the past few days. It was quite a shock to see an almost empty race track and it took me a bit of time to realize what was going on.

  2. Recently watched this farcical event and it was might have put a nail in coffin on what otherwise a good track.

  3. Not used to this sort of outrageous claptrap from this author – he’s usually excellent! No reason why the Michelin teams couldn’t pit every 9 laps (or so) to replace a damaged tyre, as was permitted at the time. Michelin stuffed up and their teams wanted a solution that benefitted them best – ie. Something that allowed them to maximise their own points. No reason they couldn’t a) take a different line through that corner and drive more slowly, or b) pit every handful of laps to change tyres for safety reasons. In a season where Michelin dominated, due in part to severely late notice on the change in regulations (which Ferrari sportingly agreed to, to their own disadvantage), to point the finger at anyone other than Michelin is stupid. Their fault, their problem.

    Also alarmed that Dieter hasn’t discussed the other options proposed, such as the pitting every handful of laps. Why the hell should the tyre supplier that provided adequate equipment agree to a chicane to help their incompetent (in this instance) competitor?

    Different story if all teams were suffering or concerned (as was the case to an extent in 1994).

    Imagine if Red Bull and Torro Rosso both consistently lost their wings over the bumps in Brazil and then expected everyone else to quit as a result? Or Mercedes moaned that the air in Mexico was too thin for their engine, so Ferrari, Renault and Honda need to rev-limit theirs to make things ‘fair’????

    Come on Dieter, you’re better than this sloppiness.

  4. Matthew Taylor
    19th June 2020, 12:43

    We were in the stands that weekend. This all predated everyone having a smartphone with them all day, every day, so the first we knew was when the giant screens showed a Toyota heading straight to the pits at the end of the formation lap, followed by another car and another. Not one hint of what was happening had been made by the commentators at the circuit (I don’t remember if this was an event where the old Kangaroo TV service was available – we certainly didn’t have one). There was no mention of any concerns through the whole build up to the race or, as I recall, explanation afterwards.

    Seeing just six cars take the start was the most surreal thing, like something from an anxiety dream where you turn up to a job interview with no trousers on. We walked to the stands directly opposite the podium at the end of the race where the jeers were pretty well deafening, until Tiago Monteiro decided he was not going to let circumstances stop him marking the moment and he got cheered.

    The local press wasn’t especially illuminating on what had happened in the Monday newspaper so it took a few more days until we were back home to access a decent account of events. I don’t know that the sport would actually communicate properly to fans at the track about a similar situation these days, but as we’re all usually just a few taps away from reliable reporting I guess we wouldn’t be left quite so badly in the dark now.

  5. Pedro Andrade
    19th June 2020, 12:58

    Perfectly recall this race as well, huge sense of disbelief at watching F1 self-implode. The Portuguese commentators spent the whole race discussing the Michelin incident, I don’t think anyone cared too much about what was happening on track, apart from that brief moment it seemed Barrichello might get past Schumacher at the pitstops.

    As a Portuguese, it was nice to see Tiago Monteiro on the podium though – deserved I might add, as the competitors did not provide suitable machinery (isn’t that what F1 is all about?).

    1. deserved I might add, as the competitors did not provide suitable machinery (isn’t that what F1 is all about?).

      In principle I agree with this, @pedro-andrade. But when safety is involved I expect FIA to come up with a better workaround than telling more than half the teams to pass the pitlane every lap.

      And the worst part, which I only found out today, is that many “competitors did not provide suitable machinery” only because their tyre supplier was not advised about an important change to the track. This made it even more important for FIA to provide a solution which would work for all teams.
      I wonder if increasing the minimum tyre pressure (as they do often nowadays) could have been a workaround. Although this might have been more difficult in those days as there were 2 tyre suppliers.

    2. Jose Lopes da Silva
      19th June 2020, 14:43

      The podium was deserved as Tiago beat fair and square his three rivals. But I feel today the same I felt that Sunday: the whole thing was an embarassment and Tiago could have been more sober on the podium. Nowadays there’s an online cartoon meme on an athlete celebrating maddly only for us to realize in the final that he was third place and both first and second were staring awkwardly at him, and that’s exactly what happened there. Lamy’s 6th ten years before is a better memory for me.

  6. MMh strange in my mind it was the Spyker team instead of the Minardi team but if Dieter wrote this then my memory is faulty afraid this is when you get old(er)
    Or was Christiaan Albers in that team?

    1. Jose Lopes da Silva
      19th June 2020, 14:45

      Sure. Monteiro, Karthikeyan (Jordan), Albers and Friesacher (Minardi)

    2. The team was indeed sold to Midland but retained the “Jordan” name for the 2005 season.

    3. Jordan became Midland in 2006, who became Spyker in 2007.

      1. …meaning there’s no way Jordan and Spyker could possibly have shared a grid. This was Minardi’s last year.

  7. Was the difference with the Chicane at Barcelona in ’94 not that in ’94 the chicane was installed on the Thursday before the circuit underwent homologation & was therefore homologated with the chicane.

    I’ve always seen that the chicane was never a possibility in 2005 due to the way circuit homologation needed to be done before the weekend & that a chicane would have broken the homologation & all of the insurance policies that go along with it, Thus putting the FIA & everyone else involved in F1 as well as IMS at legal risk should anything occur in terms of injury/death within the circuit grounds.

    1. What I’d like to know is why couldn’t the FIA/Charlie mandate pit stops on the grounds of safety? I believe now they have to power to change the rules on safety grounds, regardless of unanimous agreement from the teams. Was this not available at the time?

    2. @roger-ayles I believe that you are correct and that the chicane used during the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix was a modification which was agreed with the reconvened GPDA prior to the race weekend starting, with the drivers also agreeing that they would go through the chicane in single file. That does mean, as you note, that the circuit was already homologated for use with that circuit and with constraints on its use already agreed as part of the rules for the race weekend.

      You do raise the fair question of what complications would the FIA have had to deal with if the layout was changed. Whilst it’s often assumed that it would have solved the problem, with the evidence at the time, how certain were those involved that the chicane would have definitely solved the issue and what would have been the legal consequences for the FIA if something had gone wrong?

      The discussion does generally tend to be from the perspective of the teams – much as there might be to criticise the FIA for, at the same time we don’t get their perspective on the story and what could have been the consequences if they had acted differently.

  8. Now what if Ralf Schumacher’s tyre never failed at all?

    1. Jose Lopes da Silva
      19th June 2020, 14:46

      One of the other 19 Michelin rear-left tyres would have, eventually.

  9. I must admit my understanding was that yes Firestone gave their (Bridgestone) stablemates all the details about the new diamond surface and that that had been relayed to Michelin as well, but due to the tyre war Michelin failed to act on it thinking their tyre could cope. If they were never warned at all then its perhaps fortunate nothing more serious happened.

  10. My take is that whilst nobody came out of the disaster looking good, the single point of ultimate failure was Max Mosley.

    He just made the situation worse by manoeuvring himself into the position as the only person who could not be blamed for this cavalcade of nonsense – it was either one or more of the teams, the track promoter, the tyre suppliers or Bernie who was at fault, but never him, whereas he, as president of the FIA, could likely have made an intervention, even if Ferrari or someone else didn’t like it, for the good of the sport.

    I guess getting others to take the blame for their inadequacies is a Mosley family hallmark.

    1. @optimaximal For me the point of ultimate failure was the rule which banned pit stops. It was flawed and problematic (dangerous) from the start – such an idea would never be entertained today, regardless of this Indianapolis FIAsco.

      Of course, this rule was brought in solely to hinder Ferrari and Bridgestone, so fair play to them for not agreeing to change it.

  11. One of those weekends that proves that F1 and common sense come together extremely rarely.

    Remember watching the ‘race’, and how the Finnish broadcaster cut to news midrace because, well, there wasn’t much of a race on.

  12. I’d sooner forget it. ;)

  13. If you think it was a fiasco… think twice! I mean, thank God there were 6 cars equipped with Bridgestone and not an entire field with Michelins…..

    1. That was part of the problem, though.
      If all cars were in danger, F1 would have had no choice but to make changes to the track, or there’d have been no race at all.
      And that would have been a far better outcome for everyone.

    2. Bridgestone knew what was gonna happen. The track had been repaved and diamond grooved in the oval and firestone (who Bridgestone own) first test was abandoned a few weeks before the 500 month started. Firestone beefed up the tyres before rookie orientation came round. So that’s why we had working Bridgestone tyres.

  14. “A Bridgestone source later admits its sister brand provided technical guidance to its F1 associates.”
    Who is that source?
    Typical Dieter Rencken article painting Ferrari as the perennial villain.

    1. My recollection is Bridgestone would send someone to inspect a race track several weeks before an event to ensure the track was safe, and that Michelin didn’t do that at the time. The Bridgestone person discovered the track wasn’t what was expected and made sure their teams had the right tyres on the cars.
      There is the question of what would have happened if Bridgestone hadn’t discovered there was a problem until they got to the racetrack? I suppose the chicane and a few other measures would have been adopted which would have meant the race would have proceeded more or less as normal.
      I’m still not sure why making the track “more grippy” would have created a problem, because aren’t tyres supposed to stick to the track like glue?

      1. Nope @drycrust – The point was that the track was so abrasivea and grippy it had a severe effect on how the tyres wore, and what forces were they put through.

        It was indeed a tipoff from Firestone, who had run into trouble with their Indycar tyres who warned their own sister brand about the issues and showed how they solved it. I am not sure where – since I read about that over a decade ago – but that is what enabled Bridgestone to provide tyres that do work.

        And as the Schumacher quote shows, both Bridgestone and Ferrari were clearly aware of this “advantage” they held, despite what you say, they were one of the bad guys in this episode @philby

    2. @philby

      This article is incredibly kind to Ferrari, given that there’s a wealth of circumstantial evidence indicating that this was a deliberate plan intended to help them.

      It is completely indisputable that Bridgestone and the FIA both knew about the major change in track surface _from the specification the FIA gave both tyre suppliers_ and chose not to tell Michelin.

    3. @philby you will find that there are other publications that state that Firestone was providing information to Bridgestone about the work which was being undertaken at the circuit based on tests undertaken earlier that year (e.g. the Motorsport network and Autosport noted it as well at the time).

      @drycrust the indication is that the modification in the surface profile due to the diamond cutting meant that the microtexture of the corner was significantly rougher than Michelin had expected, resulting in greater peak dynamic forces being transmitted through the carcass of the tyre than Michelin had originally expected. I’ve seen figures quoted that suggest Michelin were originally expecting a peak force equivalent to a mass of 900kg acting laterally on the tyre, but the loads that were measured from sensors on the push rod of some cars was closer to a peak of around 1400kg.

      Something, somewhere, seems to have resulted in Michelin badly underestimating quite how big the peak loads would be – possibly the changes in the grip levels allowed drivers to take different lines or resulted in different peak lateral acceleration, but the net effect was a significant overload of the tyre carcass. That overloading and increased deformation of the tyre then seems to have resulted in the steel band that was being used to reinforce the tyre shoulder debonding from the surrounding material, weakening it until it eventually failed.

  15. Significant for me. It was during this event that I became an F1Fanatic, later Racefans reader.

    I remember I created an account just to make the comment “Michael Schumacher just set the farcest lap!”

    I have been an avid reader every day since. I have long since lost the details of my original account and for years not had any comment to make.

    Here’s to 15 good years!

  16. MaFIAt at its full force.
    Jump forward to 2020 and Jean Todt says FIA’s shady engine deal with Ferrari is totally fine…

    Same actors, same story.

  17. Tyres can potentially fail in any racing series – but only in F1 can they fail to do anything about it in a positive way.
    F1 ate itself on that weekend – and rightfully still suffers the consequences of it’s arrogance and stupidity.

  18. Richard Ashby
    20th June 2020, 8:43

    What I remember about this event is that it caused me to stop watching all F1 and FIA events for 7 years.

  19. The (utterly) ridiculous solution proposed by the FIA was to force Michelin-shod cars to pass slowly through the pit lane every lap while their rivals sped by normally. Equally idiotic were suggestions that Michelin cars be speed restricted on the banking while the other six sped past them on at arguably the most dangerous point of the lap.

    Just read autosport’s piece on this and what you are calling ‘ridiculous’ and ‘idiotic’ were actually solutions put forth by none other than Charlie Whiting.

    While Michelin and FIA are majorly at fault for the farce that happened out there, lets not forget that they did put forth some valid compromises which the Michelin teams did not accept. While Michelin and their teams stressed for the need of a chicane, at the same time, they also weren’t able to tell Charlie what was the maximum safest speed for the tyres. Charlie, (rightly, IMO) argued that then why is chicane even being proposed as a solution?

    While the article does a great job of saying that Ferrari put itself above F1, lets not forget that Michelin teams also approached this entire fiasco with an attitude of not accepting any solutions which disadvantage them compared to Bridgestone runners. They were happy to see the entire sport fail if they didn’t get their wish of fighting for 10 points.

    Excerpts from

    Whiting: Those ideas included running the cars through the pitlane on every lap, and perhaps more realistically, imposing a speed limit for the Michelin cars, while allowing the Bridgestone runners to lap at normal speeds. We could have painted a line through the corner – Bridgestone cars could stay outside the line, and Michelin cars inside, or something like that, so they were separated. They could have just used the pit lane speed limiter. We would probably have monitored it with a speed gun, as we didn’t have timing loops in those days in as many places. But there were ways of doing it very simply, really. We’d know what that was set at, run it in sixth gear instead of third gear, if they wanted to do it we could have come up with something. OK, it would have been disastrous for the Michelin teams, but we would have had a race, and the Michelin cars would have had a good race amongst themselves, and you would have had a full field. It would have been very straightforward. I was pressing them to tell me what they thought a safe speed was through that corner, and they could never tell me. So if I put a chicane in how does that guarantee that the speed is going to be safe through the corner? I gave them all the reasons why a chicane wasn’t going to happen.”

    1. Exactly my opinion.
      I think the big fault was on Michelin Teams side. They were morally responsible to find a solution, and to assume their failure.

      Other solution was to accept tyre changes exceptionally for this race, so the Michelin teams would still be able to complete the race pitting six or seven times, and that would mean an amazing race.

    2. People say a lot “this a business, not a sport”. Unfortunately this is not true. This way of “I prefer to win the race even if F1 collapses” is a very sport approach. Preferring 25% of 100 to 10% of 1000 is still the mindset in F1 that even now 15 years later is taking F1 down.

      Teams need to begin seeing themselves as business partners instead of rivals, and do as much as they can to improve the business. Because if the product F1 is good, that’s good for everyone. If the product is bad (like it was in Indy) everybody suffers, including the winners

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