MAGNY-COURS, France When Mark Webber, along with 13 other drivers, peeled off into pit lane at the end of the formation lap and did not take part in the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis, he felt almost sick to his stomach.
"I was massively embarrassed, really, really embarrassed," he says.
Just under two weeks later, as the F1 teams hang out in the laid-back
atmosphere that surrounds the Magny-Cours paddock, home of the French Grand Prix, the conversation still includes the unfortunate events of the U.S. race that saw only six cars taking part.
Webber, who drives for Williams BMW, says he feels very sorry for the fans at Indianapolis.
"I went to the Australian Grand Prix with my dad when I was young and sat there, and I was furious when one of my favorite drivers retired, let alone not taking the start," he says.
"It would take us 14 hours to drive to Adelaide," Webber says of the annual trip he and his father would take from their hometown of Queanbeyan to Adelaide, which used to host the Australian Grand Prix. "We would watch the race for three days and drive home 14 hours and I'd go to school the next day."
Taking a look back at what happened at Indy, Webber still can't believe
things unfolded as they did.
Michelin said its tires were unsafe for the banked turn 13 and wanted a
chicane installed to slow the cars down. The FIA rejected that plan and
said the cars could go down pit lane each lap or run at a lower speed
through turn 13.
"When we went to the grid, I thought we are going to find a way to race,"
Webber recalls. "I thought: They are going to delay the start; they are
going to try get a chicane. But we should have found a way to drive that
afternoon, maybe not race, but drive with a chicane. All the other proposals
were not really possible for us."
All the Michelin drivers have signed a letter declaring two things: They
didn't believe it was possible to run at consistent reduced speeds through
turn 13, and they were sure they could adapt quickly to a chicane
installed at the last moment.
Webber was one of the drivers who attended meetings with team engineers and others trying to work out a solution to the problem.
"I was pleasantly surprised at how everyone was trying to find a solution,"
he says. "The rest of the time, you are trying to cut each other's throats
and beat each other on the track and do everything we can to gain a small
advantage, and we don't really talk to each other.
"And then we get into a room where we know we are clearly facing huge
adversity, and heard [McLaren's F1 CEO] Martin Whitmarsh, [Renault director
of engineering] Pat Symonds, [Williams technical director] Sam Michael,
Sauber people, BAR people and others all digging in the same direction,
saying, 'We need help; how can we get this together?' Michelin clearly made a mistake at Indy, and they knew that and they had the guts to say that they did."
"It was handled pretty well in terms of the meetings, but the end result was
totally crap," Webber adds.
Webber says he had mixed emotions about not racing.
"I knew that we were going to be the laughingstock, what a joke," he says. "This is the pinnacle, how could this be happening?"
"On the other side, I knew that it was absolutely the right thing to do
because when you get such a powerful letter from Michelin saying, 'Look, guys, you have to respect us because we are not sure what is going on.' It is like getting on an airplane and them saying we are not sure if the wings
will get us there or not."
And there was also the overriding feeling of disbelief.
"I left the track on lap nine of the race," Webber says. "I wanted to
leave because it was so stupid what we did. Driving away from the track, I thought they'd call me and say that the race has been stopped and we are going to start again at 5 o' clock. That was the type of day that it was,
anything could happen, or maybe we would race Monday."
Looking back, Webber is firm in his conviction that, for safety reasons, it
was the correct decision not to race.
"Wrong decisions can be made under pressure, but that did not happen in
Indianapolis," he says.
Webber also applauds Michelin's announcement that it will refund money to ticket holders from this year's race and give away 20,000 tickets to next year's United States Grand Prix.
"It is a very good gesture," he said. "It shows the integrity of
the company. They made a big mistake in one event, and they have paid a
big price for it."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.