In farcical scenes and before a television audience of 400 million, 20 race cars set off on the warm-up lap before 14 then left the track and parked in pit-lane in a protest over tyre safety.
The 120,000 strong crowd were then treated to the sight of a race featuring only six cars – the Ferarris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello; the two Jordan drivers Tiago Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan; and the Minardis of Christijan Albers and Patrick Friesacher took up the remaining places.
Among those sitting in their garages were world championship leader Fernando Alonso and his main rival Kimi Räikkönen.
The irate crowd, who were kept in the dark about what was happening, reacted furiously. Many left the track, demanding a refund. Those who stayed booed and gave the thumbs-down sign, and water bottles were thrown onto the track.
Hundreds gathered around the paddock gates to jeer drivers. Team members and mechanics were advised not to wear uniforms as they left and police were on patrol to keep the peace.
The top three placed drivers – Schumacher, Barrichello and Monteiro – were booed as they headed to the podium.
The traditional champagne celebration was scrapped, and the PA announcer repeatedly implored the remaining fans not to throw debris on the track.
The race was in jeopardy all weekend after Michelin, the world’s largest tyre maker, informed the seven teams it supplies that its tyres weren’t safe for the track.
The FIA, the sport’s governing body, wouldn’t allow Michelin teams to change to a fresh set of tyres and refused a request to place a chicane in the final turn to slow the speeds.
This resulted in the rebel teams refusing to race.
“It was very clear that we were unsafe today and we couldn’t race,” pole sitter Jarno Trulli said. “I’m really sorry for the fans.”
“The long and short of it is we’re not prepared to do the race, from a safety point of view,” said Mark Webber of BMW-Williams. “The drivers, we want to go.”
David Coulthard, whose Red Bull team were among the first to withdraw, said: “This is tragic for Formula One. I can’t find the words to describe the damage this has caused. It calls into question the future of this race.”
In a sport awash with cash, the financial consequences of the ‘non-race’ are beginning to emerge.
Apart from the spectators wanting their money back, sponsors are likely to claim millions in compensation from the teams that did not run.
The sport’s boss Bernie Ecclestone, who may be liable to pay compensation, was livid.
“I am furious with the stupidity,” he said. “Whatever happened, there should have been a compromise.”
“I tried a million things and thought if I got them on the grid we were halfway there, but the teams had other ideas. We were just starting to build a great image in the USA on television and with the fans, and that just went out of the window.”