RETRO: What was it like to race in F1's most controversial grand prix?

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RETRO: What was it like to race in F1's most controversial grand prix?

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RETRO: What was it like to race in F1's most controversial grand prix?

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YouTube has a video of the podium ceremony from the notorious 2005 United States Grand Prix, and watching it again 15 years on is quite something.

First, out come Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, the Ferrari pair wearing expressions usually reserved for someone contemplating whether to accept the offer of a blindfold. And then Tiago Monteiro arrives and runs through nearly every move in the F1 podium celebration playbook: thumbs-up, wide grin, air punch, double-point down at the team below, followed by more air punches and a blown kiss. He signs off by showering everyone within spray range with Mumm. The Portuguese driver’s unapologetic joy was the only sliver of normality in an otherwise bizarre situation.

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The broad story of that race is well-known: it’s probably the one grand prix from the past two decades that even people who don’t watch F1 can remember. It put F1’s attempts to re-establish a footprint in the United States back a decade. And it was all because of tires.

Here’s a quick recap. Formula 1 had a tire war in 2005 that pitched the Michelins used by the majority of the grid against the Bridgestone-shod Ferraris, Jordans and Minardis. The Michelins had a general reputation for being the more user-friendly of the two, perhaps in part because they were forced to develop a tire that worked for a variety of teams, while 100% of Bridgestone’s competitive hopes were tied to the Scuderia. But when the cars took to the track in Indianapolis, a rapid-fire string of failures at Turn 13 (Turn 1 on the Speedway, but taken in the opposite direction for the F1 road course layout) raised the uncomfortable prospect of Michelin having badly underestimated the loads that the tires would encounter. Bridgestone was also supplying teams in IndyCar through its Firestone brand at the time, so it might have had an edge in that regard.

Tire changes had been banned in F1 that year, and Michelin could only guarantee the safety of its tires for 10 laps. A series of endless meetings, arguments, emails, faxes and gesticulations failed to deliver a compromise: the solutions proposed by Michelin, such as the addition of a chicane, were unpalatable to the FIA, while Bridgestone, which had brought a tire that functioned perfectly well, didn’t see why it should be penalized because of its rival’s mistake.

“We [Jordan] were struggling big-time, all year long,” Monteiro recalls. “And we had our share of problems with tires at other tracks. We had issues at Monza with the Bridgestones – we could hardly finish the race because of the tires delaminating. So we had lots of issues ourselves, and we always tried to finish, and always tried to put on a show. We could not accept the fact that Michelin arrived in Indianapolis with a risky tire, and the best solution they could find was just to stop racing. That was not acceptable to us.”

Prior to the race start, it was widely understood that the Michelin cars would do something, but only those carrying Michelin branding knew exactly what. The entire field formed up on the pre-grid as normal and headed out for the installation lap, and in video clips of the start, the TV commentators speak with mounting disbelief and then disgust as the Michelin cars begin to peel into pitlane. According to Monteiro, the Bridgestone teams were as surprised as everyone else.

And… we’re racing. The smoke is the product of Narain Karthikeyan’s battle to find traction. Image by Motorsport Images

“Everything around going out onto the grid, and even the pre-grid, was regular, so nobody knew exactly what [the Michelin-shod cars] were going to do,” he says. “[Jordan team principal] Colin Kolles was telling us, ‘Guys, we don’t believe they will do a regular race. They might stop for more pitstops than usual, they might come through pitlane, they might slow down in that corner, but something will happen. So there is a real possibility of points.’

“We had not been thinking about that, because we never thought that all of them would stop. We thought that maybe some teams would stop, or slow down in one section. They never told us. There’d been maybe 20 meetings during that weekend, and because they hadn’t been able to find a common agreement (on possible solutions)… they were proposing a chicane, they were proposing cancellation of the whole weekend, they were proposing everyone coming through the pits… there was a lot of things they were proposing, and the Bridgestone teams never accepted it. So they decided not to communicate with us anymore. Until the start, nobody knew what was going to happen.

“When they all came to the grid, we were sure that they were all going to at least start, and then do something careful during the race. Colin told us: ‘There are points available for sure this weekend, so don’t mess it up – we need the points, and we need the money.’

“Of course, there was a lot of pressure because of that. We did the warm-up lap, which [the Michelin teams] did as well, and as soon as their cars starting going into the pits, I hear my engineer over the radio: ‘This car is coming into the pits. OK, this one, too. This one, as well. And this one. OK, they’re all coming in! You stay in your position! Do not come into the pits! Stay in your position! Do not move on the grid. Stop on your position.’

“So that’s what we did. The Ferraris were up near the front, and we left the space and lined up at the back. Until then, I hadn’t realized that there was a podium possibility. I knew there was a points possibility.”

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