By Tony Dodgins, England
Autosport-Atlas Contributing Writer
When Max Mosley first ran for the role of FIA president, in 1991, his election manifesto stated: "Unnecessary controversy should be eliminated. Management by consensus is needed, with less talk and more listening. The president should avoid unnecessary polemics." 14 years later, this all sounds like a good joke. But was the 2005 US Grand Prix debacle really the FIA's fault? Was there anything Mosley and his men could have done to avoid it? Tony Dodgins returns from Indianapolis with some conclusions of his own
Oh dear, oh dear. As I began writing, we were 40 minutes into the US Grand Prix, the six cars were circulating, the paying public - that is, those left - were jumping up and down, literally, in the grandstands. Many were heading for the exits.
I had just returned to the press room from the paddock, which is a walk away at Indianapolis. En route I was in an elevator with five burly brown-uniformed cops. Between the first and second floors, one of them drawled, "Ye-aawl under arrest!"
"Who?" I said, "Formula One in general?"
"You got it!!" he said.
Down in the paddock a resigned Jacques Villeneuve was lamenting the end of F1 in America.
"Once there was a mistake with the tyres there was nothing else we could have done," Villeneuve said. "But what's embarrassing is that no solution was found. All we needed was a chicane before the banking and then it would have been all right. But, from what I understand, one team (Ferrari) didn't accept, so you are left with six cars racing. I don't think the sport will recover from this in America."
I can see Jacques' point and there was much support for it. But it's not as simple as that. A chicane was not the answer. Okay, the public had paid to see a show and didn't get one. That's regrettable. But, shit happens, as they say. I remember going to Headingley to see the final day of a test match in the seventies. Some protesters wanted to free a convicted East End bank robber called George Davis. When we got there, they'd dug up the wicket. I didn't see any cricket. Tough, but there it was.
Ah yes, I hear you say, but that was outside the control of cricket's authorities. At Indy, there was much criticism of the FIA for not intervening and finding a solution. But was there one to be had?
On Saturday, Michelin's Pierre Dupasquier and Nick Shorrock wrote a letter to FIA safety delegate Charlie Whiting, which said: "Michelin has, in the sole interest of safety, informed its partner teams that we do not have total assurance that all tyres that qualified the cars can be used unless the vehicle speed in Turn 13 can be reduced."
To be strictly accurate, the point of no return probably came on Sunday morning when the FIA published a response to Michelin's letter that was distributed throughout the press room. In it was contained the information: "we understand you have told your teams the left rear is safe for a maximum of 10 laps at full speed..."
Anybody running a racing team, in possession of that information, especially with it out in the public domain, could not contemplate an 11th lap on a set of Michelins irrespective of the tyre company's position. Some carried the responsibility of representing major motor manufacturers in America, one of the most litigious places on earth. The consequences of an accident could not be remotely entertained.
Under the 2005 regulations you cannot change tyres once the race has started. Or rather you can, if the FIA agrees that they are in a dangerous condition, but there would have been be no point starting for the Michelin teams. To 'race' safely - and I use the word advisedly - in view of the '10 lap maximum' element, which everyone was aware of, the Michelin teams would have needed eight sets of tyres to complete 73 laps of the US Grand Prix. Which would have exceeded their weekend's allocation of four sets and led to a stringent penalty. Clearly, it was unworkable.
The idea of the drivers tooling through Turn 13 was never a serious option. The FIA pointed it out only because, under the rules, there was nothing to prevent it. But what was the right speed for a McLaren, a Renault, a Toyota? It was hogwash.
Nine of the teams agreed that they were prepared to put on a race for the fans, sponsors et al as long as the chicane was put in place before Turn 13. Even, apparently, if it was a non-Championship race. But you took that with a pinch of salt. The offer was likely made in the safe knowledge that Ferrari would never countenance such a thing. And why should they?
Michelin's basic problem at Indy was that its tyre sidewalls were too soft. The same characteristic that gives the tyres their superior one-lap qualifying performance - which, let's not forget, had resulted in Ferrari and Bridgestone coming to the US winless in eight 2005 races - had now turned around and bitten them. This was payback time. Ferrari and Bridgestone were more than entitled to make full capital. They had brought tyres that were perfectly capable of doing 73 laps, including Turn 13. Anyone suggesting that Bridgestone was in any way obstructive or intransigent was talking nonsense.
Some, with heads firmly shoved up their own shaded parts, suggested that Bridgestone could have furnished the entire field with tyres just to put on a show. Which is losing sight of why we were there in the first place, which was to watch the outcome of a regulated sporting contest. Never mind such things as commercial partner contracts.
One concrete proposal was to install the chicane, give the Bridgestone cars the first six places on the grid and then get on with it. Predictably, that was rejected. Frankly it was laughable. How long would it have taken McLaren, Renault et al to get past those frightfully competitive Jordans and Minardis and mix it with Ferrari?
How about a chicane and a one-minute penalty for anyone on Michelins? In other words, make it impossible for the Michelin cars to beat Ferrari and Bridgestone. Five minutes would have been more like it. Because It would have been patently wrong if Michelin cars had taken points away from Jordan and Minardi just as much as Ferrari. Or, what about racing but cancelling any points scored by Michelin competitors? If so, what would have been their incentive to start?
"Those proposals," Jean Todt said, "were never made."
Even if they had been, again, it wasn't that simple. If every competitor had been in trouble, the FIA could probably - probably - have invoked force majeure on safety grounds, stuck in a chicane and given the teams an hour's running on Sunday morning to sort out the correct brake ducts and arrive at a set-up.
Many pointed out that just such a thing had been done in Barcelona in '94 when the drivers insisted prior to the Spanish Grand Prix that they wanted a chicane, only to turn up and find that there wasn't one.
Let's remind ourselves what happened.
Before practice the drivers insisted: no chicane, no show. The GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers Association) had just been reformed and they had Niki Lauda galvanising their resolve.
There was a myriad other political issues clouding the picture then, as now - this is F1, when is there not? - but by Thursday the FIA had informed the circuit that if they changed the track, they would lose their licence. So Lauda got onto Max Mosley and asked why he was blocking something sensible?
It was for the same reason that Mosley didn't want a chicane at Indy. It would have been done without thorough undertaking and the FIA's event insurance, for example, is dependent upon the circuit being properly homologated. To take a risk in America? With race tyres that might still be dodgy? On a boffed-together track? Simultaneosly assuming responsibility and potential liability when it currently lay elsewhere? Three weeks after they'd just warned the tyre companies? Can anyone seriously be surprised that the FIA and Max didn't go for a chicane? No, sir.
In Spain '94 though, we did get a chicane. Well, we got a couple of piles of tyres in the middle of the road. That it was no bespoke solution was all too obvious. Lauda himself memorably said: "It's not a good chicane, but it's a good shitty chicane."
To give you some idea of the level of professionalism, between the two practice sessions the obstruction - it couldn't seriously be called a chicane - had to be opened up two metres to let the cars through properly. And in qualifying it took Berty Gachot around 13 minutes to knock it down. In the pressroom, a mate shook his head, had a quiet chuckle and said: "All we need now is Basil Fawlty..."
At the time, the FIA's foot soldiers, those on the ground responsible for the smooth and professional running of the show, quietly conceded, off the record, that they wished we hadn't gone there. And clearly we weren't going there again.
Here is where the divide occurs. Some say that it's F1's responsibility to put on a show for the paying public. In principle, I agree. But not at all costs. And people have to accept that. I mean, let's not kid ourselves - IndyCar fans risk not seeing the 500 if it rains! I admit, though, that it would have been nice if the punters had been furnished with some kind of refund. And kept fully informed of the whys and wherefores. Some wouldn't have understood but some would. Certainly the fan I met on the plane on the way home would have. He was in the crowd with a scanner listening in to TV broadcasts and informing a disbelieving, open-mouthed gathering in his vicinity.
In the course of their unopposed 73 laps, the Ferraris ran over a couple of plastic bottles thrown onto the circuit by disenchanted spectators. And the chap on the plane nearly convinced me. He had, he said, seen more than one child leaving the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in tears. And that, he believed, was awful. The kids may just have been tired, but he wasn't convinced...
That almost changed my mind, but not quite. To me, motor racing is sport first, entertainment second. Things get distorted by the amounts of money involved and all the marketing hooplah, but let's not get things out of perspective. It was a motor race, with a set of rules that have to be adhered to. And if it can't be run, then so be it. Let's not take ourselves too seriously. It's about a few grown men driving round in circles and not earth-shatteringly important in the overall scheme of things. And, like a bus, there'll be another one along in a couple of weeks. There was no solution. End of story.
If there is any valid criticism of the governing body it is perhaps the way it handled Michelin, who were badly humiliated and for whom I had sympathy.
Yes, they had screwed up badly. And yes, just after being warned. Max had the ball at his feet and the goal was glaring. But he could have shown a bit of presidential gravitas by merely tapping in. He didn't need to burst the net. The company has been a first class supplier and a great supporter of motorsport across so many different categories for as long as I care to remember.
One paragraph of the FIA's response to Michelin, in particular, looked like classic Mosley. You could almost see the smile.
"No doubt you will inform your teams what is the maximum safe speed for their cars in Turn 13. We will remind them of the need to follow your advice for safety reasons. We will also ask them to ensure their cars do not obstruct other competitors." Oh dear...
And if Michelin is in trouble, so are the teams. Because the teams assist Michelin in its tyre selection and are also responsible for turning up to an event with cars suitable to race.
The seven Michelin teams have been called before the World Motor Sport Council next week to face charges including acting in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the US Grand Prix. Along the way, they also forgot to inform stewards of their intention not to start the race. Important, that, because if they had, the grid could have been closed up, giving Tiago Monteiro a realistic opportunity to have a go at Michael Schumacher into Turn 1...
You might have expected the FIA to drop this as quickly as possible and brush the whole sorry mess under the carpet. But who knows what the real agenda is. Maybe there's a bill to be paid somewhere. Whatever, we are amid a paddock atmosphere more political than at any time in the past quarter century. And amid Mosley's election year, it will get smellier and smellier the closer to October we get.
Can't help harking back to the first point of Mosley's FIA presidential election manifesto of September 1991, which read: "Unnecessary controversy should be eliminated. Management by consensus is needed, with less talk and more listening. The president should avoid unnecessary polemics." That's all a bit of a giggle, right now...
BAR, of course, have already had a slap on the wrist (and are currently on probation) and isn't it awfully convenient for Max that all those troublesome breakaway-threatening manufacturer teams (plus Sauber and Red Bull) are caught up in the Michelin debacle. How many points will he have to dock from Renault and McLaren to put Ferrari in front? That's what someone's just asked me on the phone. No. It's impossible. He wouldn't. He couldn't... It's Formula One. Who knows?