INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – One by one, 14 Formula One cars ducked off the race track and parked in a unified protest over safety concerns at the United States Grand Prix.

From their seats in the grandstands, the few American fans of the globe-trotting racing series watched in wide-eyed disbelief as just six cars started Sunday’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The drivers were embarrassed.

The fans were disgusted.

Any chance F-1 had of capturing the American audience was crippled.

“I feel terrible. I have a sick feeling in my stomach,” David Coulthard said after pulling out of the race. “I am embarrassed to be a part of this. The reality is that mature adults were not able to come to a resolution that would have allowed us to put on the show that everybody wants to see in Formula One.

“It is a very sad day for this sport. I am so, so sorry for what we’ve done.”

Michael Schumacher bested five other cars on the track to win his first event of the season. It was his third consecutive victory in the U.S. Grand Prix and fourth in the six years it has been held at Indy.

But it will forever be tainted. He was booed on the podium, the traditional champagne celebration was canceled, and the public address announcer implored the few remaining fans in attendance to stop throwing things.

“Bit of a strange Grand Prix,” Schumacher said. “Not the right way to win my first one this year.”

The event was in jeopardy from the start because Michelin advised the seven teams it supplies that its tires were not safe to race through the high banked final turn at Indy.

The world’s largest tiremaker worked endlessly with the teams to try to persuade the FIA, the series governing body, to make allowances that would ensure the 14 drivers using Michelins would be safe.

The FIA wouldn’t ease its rule that forbids teams to change tires after qualifying.

And it absolutely refused to consider installing a chicane in turn 13 to slow the speeds.

So Michelin advised its teams not to compete after a lengthy morning meeting between the seven team bosses, F-1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA. At one point, all 20 drivers were summoned to the meeting.

In the end, nine teams decided they would not race without the chicane. Ferrari, which fields cars for Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, was the lone holdout.

The nine teams even agreed to race for no points, as long as the obstacle was added to the course, in an effort to ensure the race was completed.

But when the chicane was not erected, the Michelin teams decided to withdraw from the event.

Already lined up on pit road, they all completed the warmup lap. Then they pulled off and parked, climbing out of their cars at the same time the remaining six drivers started the race. The cars that did compete all race on Bridgestone tires.

“I am really sorry for the USA fans because they came here to support us and see our show,” pole-sitter Jarno Trulli said. “The decision for us not to race is sad, but we were in danger.”

The crowd was stunned when the 14 cars pulled off, with fans pointing and gawking as they tried to figure out what was going on.

Fans booed and some threw water bottles on the track in disgust.

After just 10 laps, many spectators began heading for the exits.

There were reports of thousands of fans showing up at the ticket office demanding refunds, and that police had been called to keep the peace.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George didn’t immediately respond to an interview request by The Associated Press. Instead, he issued a statement urging fans to direct their frustration to Michelin, the FIA and F-1’s management. The statement provided e-mail addresses for all three.

This event already draws just a fraction of what other races here do. Less than 100,000 come to this race, compared to a crowd in excess of 300,000 for the Indianapolis 500.

Sunday’s debacle will do nothing to improve that.

“Quite frankly, the fans got cheated,” Ecclestone said.

Scott Brombacher, a fan from California, said he was disgusted as he left.

“I love Formula One … it just aggravates me,” Brombacher said. “I spent a lot of money and took a week off from work to come out here. To have all this happen at the last minute is just disgusting.”

Now the future of the series in the U.S. hangs in jeopardy. This is the rare country that has not embraced the world’s top racing series, and teams have been working hard to tap into the lucrative market.

All seven teams that pulled out of the race signed a single statement apologizing for the debacle.

“We are totally aware that the USA is an important market for Formula One and there is an obligation for Formula One to promote itself in a positive and professional manner,” it said. “It is sad that we couldn’t showcase Formula One in the manner we would have liked today.”

Among those refusing to race were world championship points leader Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, who trails him in the standings by 22 points.

Alonso is F-1’s biggest threat this season to end Schumacher’s five-year reign as world champion. But when he and the other contenders pulled out of the event, it opened the door for seven-time world champion Schumacher to climb back into the race.

Schumacher entered the event 35 points behind Alonso, but cut the deficit to 25 with the victory – well within striking distance with 10 events left this season.

The tire problems began on Friday when Ralf Schumacher crashed in the final turn at Indy after one of his Michelin’s failed on his Toyota. Although he wasn’t seriously injured, medical personnel refused to clear him to race.

Ricardo Zonta, his teammate, also wrecked because of a tire failure.

Michelin said it was unable to determine why its tires weren’t sturdy, and asked the FIA if it could ship in a new batch of rubber from its France warehouse.

The FIA said no, and warned teams they would be heavily penalized if they changed their tires.

So the teams tried instead for a chicane to make the turn slower. The turn has been a concern since last season, when Ralf Schumacher was seriously injured in an accident in the same spot.

When that was rebuffed, the teams claimed they had no choice but to pull out of the event.

“We did everything we could along with nine other teams to find a solution to this problem,” McLaren-Mercedes boss Ron Dennis said. “It is a bad day, but a clear demonstration of the difficulties the teams constantly have with finding solutions to problems.”

AP-ES-06-19-05 1743EDT


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