What started out as a technical problem for one tire company here at the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix blew up into a catastrophic F1 public relations pandemic that could very well kill the U.S. event.
Fans immediately wanted to know if they were going to get their money back, not whether F1 was coming back.
It is every businessman’s nightmare to have so many things go wrong in public all at once, and it will
be interesting-maybe even instructive-to see if and how cooler heads prevail. Indianapolis Motor Speedway offiicials’ stern but hopeful rhetoric last week showed they weren’t going to knee jerk and throw the baby out with the bathwater. That’s good, sound PR, and it may be a harbinger that the race is not yet off the 2006 schedule.
Whatever was going on in the highly charged, highlevel Formula One discussions leading up to the decision to park 14 of the 20 starting cars, the customer was plainly forgotten while the big kids wrestled in the sandbox.
Given that, a) there isn’t a lot of interest in F1 here to start with and, b) America is the largest single commercial market for most F1 sponsors, this was not a great place for F1 to have a family fight.
Then again, if there is a power struggle going on in Formula One-and it must be a monster if it can ignore 100,000 fans, a worldwide television audience, and dozens of multimillion-dollar corporate relationships-America is the safest place for a coup d’etat.
Largely, we’re thankful, the fans just walked away that Sunday. Elsewhere in the world-and I’m thinking of the places where soccer riots are common and Formula One is a source of infinite passion and pride-a 14-car F1 pull-off could have sparked a nightmare of destruction and injury.
Here at Indy, with most of the crowd dressed in Pranc
ing Horse red, it sure helped in keeping the relative peace that Ferrari was running on Bridgestones.
F1 organizes its world-class, well-run events to its own liking. No surprise there. But the organization doesn’t differentiate its approach to a race, whether it’s being held in Malaysia or at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Given that IMS successfully runs the world’s two largest races-the Indianapolis 500 and the Allstate Brickyard 400-it’s been a difficult relationship for the Speedway because F1 demands total control.
To their credit, the IMS leaders-Tony George, Joie Chitwood, Mel Harder, even the IRL’s Brian Barnhart-maintained their poise and stood at the ready on Father’s Day morning in the F1 paddock willing to help however they could.
Alas, Formula One could not be saved from itself.
So what happened?
Michelin made a horrendous technical mistake in bringing a bad tire to Indianapolis. The ensuing all-skate meetings to come up with a solution touched off cataclysmic political fireworks among Formula One team owners, constructors, the FIA (Federation Internationale d’Autosport) sanctioning body and F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Management.
It’s ironic, really. Michelin did the right thing and publicly admitted its mistake in the interest of safety. The FIA did the right thing and stuck to its rule book. Somehow these two overtly honorable actions led to disaster. Put that in your PR crisis file.
In the end, of course, none of this mattered to race fans who went to the track to see a good race and instead were sucker-punched and made victims in a shower of inconsideration by F1.
Formula One has a history of wounding itself on U.S. soil, so it won’t be inconsistent if Indy’s USGP does, in fact, become history. After five good years at IMS, it’s apparent there’s now an internal dark star sucking the light out of Formula One. Its gravity was obvious on race day.
An apology would be a great next step for F1, but first someone has to accept responsibility.