US Grand Prix illustrates divisions in F1

A dispute in which 14 cars boycotted the United States Grand Prix was about tyre safety.

updated: February 25, 2007 10:52 IST
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A dispute in which 14 cars boycotted the United States Grand Prix was about tyre safety. But it was also part of a larger, bitter battle to see who controls Formula One. Fielding only six of 20 cars on Sunday underlined how the sport is fractured with a breakaway series looming in 2008. It also damaged F1 in the United States, where the sport has a scant following compared to its wide popularity in Europe, Asia and South America. "There are going to be a lot of people in Formula One turned away from the sport because of this," Red Bull driver David Coulthard said. "I feel terrible. I have a sick feeling in my stomach. I am embarrassed to be a part of this." The French sports daily L'Equipe was blunt in its Monday headline: "Formule Zero." Ferrari's seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher won the race, but the headline in Cologne, Germany - near Schumacher's birthplace - was unflattering: "Schumacher wins scandal-race in the USA," said the Cologne Rundschau newspaper. Divided camps Formula One is starkly divided. In one camp is Max Mosley, the president of motor-racing's world governing body - the FIA. He is joined by F1's multibillionaire commercial director Bernie Ecclestone, and Ferrari - the sport's most powerful team. In the other are the nine remaining teams, and key Formula One manufacturers BMW, Mercedes and Renault. The group is considering running a breakaway series in 2008, and also has the support of Japan's two manufacturers in F1 - Toyota and Honda. After two Michelin tyres failed in Friday practice sessions - one causing a wreck that prevented Toyota's Ralf Schumacher from competing - Michelin said its tyres were unsafe for Indianapolis. Debate over rules Michelin wanted a chicane installed going into turn 13, slowing the cars and sparing the tyres. Nine of the 10 teams backed the French company. But Mosley and Ferrari were opposed. Seven of F1's 10 teams use Michelin tyres, with Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi running on Bridgestone. "Formula One is a sporting contest," the FIA said in a statement." It must operate under clear rules. These cannot be negotiated each time a competitor brings the wrong equipment to a race. The Bridgestone teams had suitable tyres. They did not need to slow down. "Rather than boycott the race, the Michelin teams should have agreed to run at reduced speed in turn 13," the FIA added. "As it is, by refusing to run ... they have damaged themselves and the sport." However, Ecclestone seemed at odds with Mosley on this issue. Responding to an e-mail from AP, Ecclestone called what happened "stupid." Mosley has been playing hardball with the nine renegade teams, and the five manufacturers, ever since they boycotted meetings called by him in January and April to discuss regulations for the 2008 season. Minardi team owner Paul Stoddart, who serves as spokesman for the nine teams, has called for Mosley to resign. Ecclestone's former lawyer and friend, Mosley has been accused of being dictatorial. Stoddart has called for "more transparency in how F1 is run, a precise regulatory process and a stable and consistent way the rules are applied." The teams also want a bigger cut. Formula One teams have complained that Ecclestone shares too little of the sport's commercial rights income, which was estimated at USD 800 million in 2003. Teams receive about 23 per cent. Ecclestone has amassed a fortune estimated at USD 3.7 billion in three decades of running F1. Mixed reactions Most acknowledge a chicane could have been built quickly. But Mosley and Ferrari, which had not won a race all season, chose not to. "It's embarrassing, but if you had 14 cars within 20 laps with tyres blown and the risk of hurting the public, then that would have been more embarrassing," said Sauber driver Jacques Villeneuve. "Could a chicane have been built? Oh yeah, definitely. That would have been very easy, but Ferrari didn't want to. With the chicane, the tyres would have been safe." Asked if he'd ever seen a similar situation, Villeneuve replied: "Never." Former F1 driver Sterling Moss put it bluntly. "Look, this is show business, we're not just talking about F1," he said. "Millions and millions of people are being let down, and all it required was a chicane." Michelin defends decision Michelin defended itself. "We are absolutely not embarrassed about our decision, although we do have regrets for the fans of Formula One and for the racing drivers of course," Frederic Henry-Biabaud, Michelin's deputy director of competition, said yesterday. "Imagine what would have happened in the United States if there was an accident," he added. "What would have been the reaction if we'd allowed the drivers to race and something bad happened?" Joie Chitwood, CEO and president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, called it a dark day. "Obviously, we are as disappointed over this event as anything that we've had in our history," he said. Asked how it would affect F1's future in the US, he replied: "I would say it is a major setback." (AP)