By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Despite the booing and jeering from the American fans who were left to witness a six-car Grand Prix on Sunday, there was a positive side to the Indianapolis debacle: Formula One rules were enforced. Richard Barnes analyses the sport's latest scandal and explains why the situation could have been worse
"Formula One is a sporting contest. It must operate to clear rules. These cannot be negotiated each time a competitor brings the wrong equipment to a race."
These three short and simple sentences constituted the opening paragraph of the FIA's official statement regarding Sunday's bizarre United States Grand Prix. And they are the most concise and relevant cornerstone on which to base judgement of the lamentable circumstances that marred the Indianapolis weekend.
There are divergent opinions on what exactly modern F1 is - a professional sport or mass entertainment? Can one even draw a distinction between the two? The first sentence of the FIA's statement has the answer - "Formula One is a sporting contest."
Formula One did not start out as a form of entertainment. It was a hobby and passion practised by technologically- and mechanically-minded enthusiasts. Their bravery, skill and innovation in turn attracted increasing numbers of spectators to witness their endeavours and achievements.
However, the base purpose of those endeavours was to push man and machine to faster and better and higher limits, not to turn the participants into global entertainers. The growing numbers of fans, and the income they brought into the sport, were economically favourable by-products, and the fans, TV coverage and sponsors are now inextricably linked with the global industry that is F1. However, they were never the primary aim.
It might sound like a semantic distinction, but it's an important one in the context of what happened at Indianapolis. Throughout the weekend and its aftermath, we heard the same mantra repeated over and over - "We just want to put on a show", "the fans just want to see a show", "the FIA robbed the ticket-holders of a show".
But what exactly is 'the show'? Is it devious manipulation to ensure that each race and each Championship goes down to the wire, to ensure maximum thrill value for the spectators? Is it fake conflict generated by having two hulks with big hair and leotards shouting insults and threats at each other before each event? Is it the neat division of the participants into 'good guys' and 'bad guys', then careful scripting to make sure that the bad guys seem to be winning until, with their last ounce of strength, the good guys prevail? No - that is professional wrestling, and it is the prime example of what happens when a sport tries too hard to become entertainment.
The 'show' in F1 is, and always has been, the demonstration of power, speed, skill, precision and bravery that is put on by the world's best drivers in the world's fastest cars. There is no need to try and inject entertainment value into it. It is, on its own merits and without any external help needed, a highly entertaining endeavour. It shares this trait with almost all professional sports. But, in order for the elite sports stars to distinguish themselves, they must be subjected to the most extraordinarily trying and difficult conditions.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of professional golf. And, fittingly, the epitome of impossible conditions in golf is the US Open - which was concluded at Pinehurst mere hours after the chequered flag fell at Indianapolis.
At one US Open tournament, frustrated by the impossibly difficult Open rough, golfing legend Tom Watson stormed up to an official and declared: "The best players in the world are out there. What are you trying to do, make us look like idiots?"
"No," came the cool reply, "we're just trying to identify you."
Perhaps the most famous example of golf's legendary inflexibility was the tragic tale of Roberto de Vicenzo at the 1968 Masters tournament at Augusta. Playing on his 45th birthday, de Vicenzo completed a magnificent final round to finish in a tie with the clubhouse leader, Bob Goalby.
As he left the 18th green to the cheers of supporters, de Vicenzo was happy that he had earned the right to face Goalby in a play-off the next day to decide the winner. The only thing left to do was sign and submit his scorecard...
Unfortunately, playing partner Tommy Aaron had incorrectly marked de Vicenzo down for a 4 on the 17th hole, not the 3 that he actually scored. De Vicenzo failed to spot the mistake, signed the card - and was then informed by officials that, in accordance with the rules, the higher score would stand. There would be no play-off. Goalby was declared the winner by one stroke over de Vicenzo. And de Vicenzo, figuratively smacking his forehead, was left to utter one of pro golf's most immortal lines - "What a stupid I am!"
De Vicenzo hadn't cheated. On the contrary, his honest mistake had benefited his opponent. There was also absolutely no doubt that he had scored a 3, and not a 4, at the 17th hole. Thousands of witnesses had seen it. Yet de Vicenzo had no recourse. There were no negotiations to change the scorecard signing rules just for that one day, to let de Vicenzo contest the play-off with a two-stroke penalty, nor even to declare Goalby the winner but let de Vicenzo contest the play-off anyway 'to give the fans a show'. De Vicenzo had failed to meet the minimum acceptable requirements for a professional golfer and he paid the price.
Likewise, Michelin failed to meet the minimum acceptable requirements for an F1 tyre supplier at Indianapolis, and seven teams arrived with equipment unsuitable for the track conditions. In professional sporting terms, there was no other option for Michelin's Pierre Dupasquier than to emulate Roberto de Vicenzo, smack his forehead and declare: "What a stupid I am!"
To his and his company's credit, Dupasquier did not shirk his responsibility or try to deflect the blame. They supplied unsafe tyres and took the only responsible course of action - informing their customers that the tyres were unsafe, and advising them not to race.
The difference between the de Vicenzo and Michelin incidents is that, in 1968, the Masters galleries still got to see the world's best players contesting the full four scheduled rounds of golf. Of course, some fans were outraged that they'd been robbed of the playoff and declared angrily that it was the death of pro golf, that nobody would pay good money again to see such a farce. And of course, Tiger Woods and today's other stars would grin wryly at the absurdity of such statements.
Nevertheless, in between the cast-iron integrity of pro golf rules and the 'no rules, no holds barred' scripted melodrama of professional wrestling, there are sports in which genuine sporting and commercial/entertainment interests should be able to coexist harmoniously. Motor racing fans had been led to believe that F1 was just such a sport, and were understandably irate when 14 of the 20 starters pulled off the circuit and out of Sunday's race.
Few would contest that Michelin precipitated the problem by supplying defective tyres and ruining the prospects of a sporting contest. But who is to blame for failing to find a compromise and ruining the entertainment spectacle? In terms of effort to reach a solution, nobody is to blame. All the major parties were willing to talk and negotiate and discuss solutions. Ultimately, the problem was that all four suggested solutions were unworkable.
The first solution, that Michelin fly in Barcelona-spec tyres as replacements, was dismissed quickly when Michelin reported that the Barcelona tyres would offer no improvement on the Indy tyres.
The second solution, proposed by the FIA, of a speed limit to ensure a 'safe speed' in Turn 13, was deemed equally impractical. Apparently, the drivers cannot be trusted to adhere to speed limits.
The third FIA solution, that the Michelin cars take to the pitlane each lap, was obviously unsafe and was rejected out of hand by the teams. That left the sole solution proposed by the Michelin teams, and one on which they were unprepared to negotiate or compromise - the erection of a temporary chicane to slow down their cars (and the Bridgestone runners) for Turn 13.
Even dismissing the consideration that the FIA could have been placed in a parlous legal position if somebody had been hurt by an accident at the new chicane, it defies belief that nine Formula One teams could consider this to be an equitable solution. Handicapping those teams who have met the minimum requirements for participation, in order to accommodate those teams who haven't, is patently absurd. It makes a mockery of the rules and openly favours incompetence over professionalism.
The Michelin teams' pat answer, that they were prepared to forego all Championship points, was designed to justify letting them race. If anything, it was even more reason to exclude the Michelin cars outright.
The allocation of Championship points is a vital check and balance to help ensure that drivers act responsibly on the track. Certainly, there are rules governing driver conduct. However, it is not always possible for the race officials to see inside a driver's head, and differentiate the honest 'racing incident' mistake from the cynical professional foul. So the prospect that a driver will probably hurt his own Championship chances and lose points by causing an accident becomes a vital mechanism to regulate behaviour.
The net result is that racing cannot afford a situation where some drivers are racing with due caution because they have points to lose, while other drivers are given the freedom to drive as aggressively as they choose - because they can't earn points even if they win. It is entirely contrary to the whole concept of competitive racing.
The sport recognises this and accommodates it in the rules. When a driver (or team) is suspended or excluded for any reason, he is not allowed to participate for the duration of that punishment. In 1994, Michael Schumacher was not given the option of racing but not earning points during his two-race suspension. Earlier this season, BAR were not given the option of racing but not scoring points during their two-race suspension. The reason is very simple - they would have had nothing to lose, and could have been as cavalier as they liked, possibly ruining the race of another driver or team.
Even if the drivers all behave impeccably, it is common for cars to collide unintentionally. When both drivers are in the race for points, it's an inevitable consequence of competition. When only one is racing legitimately for points, it's unacceptable. Cars that have nothing to lose have no business being on the circuit.
The counter-argument is that suspensions and bans apply to cheats, the Michelin teams had not cheated and thus did not deserve to be treated as such. That is entirely irrelevant. What is at issue is not the reason why a team or teams have been excluded, but rather the consequences of allowing teams to race when they have nothing to lose.
The Michelin teams had effectively been excluded because they failed to meet the minimum requirements. They acknowledged this tacitly, by offering to race for no points. Their motive for racing was not to earn Championship points, but to 'put on a show for the fans'.
It is reasonable that, in the interests of the rules and sporting integrity, the Bridgestone runners should have contested the race without having to deal with potential Michelin spoilers who had nothing to lose (and everything to gain if they could contribute to the retirement of a Bridgestone runner). It is equally reasonable that, in the interests of entertainment and market economics, the Michelin runners should have been given an opportunity to put on a show. What is surprising is the apparently unanimous agreement that both these opposing goals had to be accommodated on the track simultaneously.
Was it not possible to allow the Bridgestone runners to contest the official race, to paint a chicane at Turn 13 during the podium ceremony, and to then open the circuit to the Michelin runners for a 20 or 30 lap mini-GP afterwards? It would not have given the fans the satisfaction of a full and normal GP, but it would have granted the Michelin teams their wish to go out and put on a show for the fans.
Naturally, this option does not consider the multitude of legal ramifications that the FIA might have faced if there had been an injury or death following a hasty alteration to the track. However, those consequences were surely consistent, whether the Michelin cars took to the circuit during the official GP or for an 'unofficial' mini-GP afterwards.
Ultimately, the 2005 United States GP will be remembered as a race in which genuine professional sporting integrity could not be reconciled with commercial and entertainment interests. From the time that it became apparent that Michelin had supplied defective tyres, it was always going to be a damage limitation exercise.
F1, as a whole, did not apply very effective damage limitation on Sunday. Yet, there is also a positive aspect. The sport had two choices - the 1968 US Masters option (of enforcing the rules and disappointing the fans) or the professional wrestling option (throwing out the rule book and bowing to the demands of mass entertainment). They chose the lesser of two evils.
Despite the doomsayers' predictions, professional golf did not die following the de Vicenzo incident. On the contrary, it grew - exponentially. There have been many other sports where bitterly disappointed fans have written the obituary following a scandal or major disappointment. The Ben Johnson disqualification at the Olympics and the Chicago White Sox match fixing scandal in baseball were just two of the more prominent examples.
Yet, in each case, these sports recovered and thrived. F1 will too. The sport might be nursing a headache for a while. But, in the fashion of Mark Twain, reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.