NEWS FEATURE

Bridgestone in F1

The Bridgestone Corporation enters Grand Prix racing this season, supplying tyres to the Arrows, Ligier, Minardi, Stewart and Lola teams. It will be the Japanese company's first involvement in Formula 1 but all the signs are that the world's biggest tyre seller will be very competitive with Goodyear, which has dominated Grand Prix racing for the last 10 years.

Michelin, Bridgestone and Goodyear dominate the world tyre markets and since Bridgestone's $2.6bn takeover of Firestone in 1988 the Japanese rubber company has moved ahead of its rivals in terms of sales. Annual turnover is now $14.5 bn and last year the company made profits of $800m. It is among Japan's biggest companies - it is bigger than Japanese Airlines and the Kirin Brewery for example - and employs 90,000 people around the world. It has 39 tyre factories and 46 non-tyre factories which produce a variety of products including automotive parts, bicycles, golf balls, golf clubs, fabrics, conveyor belts, industrial textiles, roofing, hoses and building materials.

It has research and development centers in Akron, Ohio (Goodyear's home town), at Castel Romano, outside Rome, Italy and at Kodaira in Japan. There are also two test Bridgestone test tracks at Kuroiso (to the north of Tokyo) and at Shibetsu on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido.

The company may not have been involved in Grand Prix racing before but it has a strong tradition in motor sport, dating back to the first races in Japan in 1963. It started competing in Japan's top single-seater series (which has been known as Formula 2000, Formula 2, Formula 3000 and now Formula Nippon) when that was first established in 1973 and has proved to be the dominant force, despite being involved in a lively three-way battle with Sumitomo Rubber Industries (which has produced Dunlop tyres in Japan since 1984) and Yokohama.

In 1976 Bridgestone drove Goodyear out of the international karting markets with Martin Hines and Mike Wilson leading the way. Before long Bridgestone dominated the karting world - and still does.

At the start of the 1980s Bridgestone adopted a more international approach both in business and in the sport. In 1981 it entered European Formula 2 racing, supplying the two Ralt-Hondas of Geoff Lees and Mike Thackwell and the top March factory car driven by Thierry Boutsen. The tyres proved to be quicker than Pirelli and American M&H tyres and Lees won the title. That same season Bridgestone F3 tyres were raced on occasion in the European F3 series with dramatic success. Mike White stunned the opposition with a victory first time out in the factory March at Donington Park in April and Roberto Moreno won at Silverstone in June in a Barron Racing Ralt. Bridgestone had planned to make a big splash in the Monaco Formula 3 race but the factory March team failed to arrive for the event and last-minute deals for Paolo Barilla, Thierry Tassin and Enzo Coloni meant that they were ill-prepared for the event.

Michelin entered European F2 in 1982 and for the next four seasons the two companies fought a tyre war in F2 and then F3000. In 1986, however, the FIA decided that F3000 should be a one-tyre formula and awarded the contract to Avon.

Bridgestone continued to make the odd foray into European F3 races, Stefano Modena winning the European F3 Cup at Imola in 1986 in streaming rain and in 1991 Jorg Muller began a strong of successes in the Monaco F3 race winning unexpectedly in his Malte Bongers Racing Reynard. Bridgestone would win the next three Monaco races with Marco Werner, Giancarlo Pacchioni and Giancarlo Fisichella.

In the 1980s and early 1990s Bridgestone dominated F2 and F3000 in Japan, winning six titles with Satoru Nakajima, three with Kazuyoshi Hoshino and a variety of others including one for Ukyo Katayama and another for Aguri Suzuki. The company remained in Europe, dominating kart racing and entered Australian racing in the mid-1980s with the high profile Mobil Holden Dealer Team and its star driver, national hero Peter Brock. When Brock brought his Holden Commodores to Spa for the 24 Hours in 1986 Bridgestone came too.

The next foray into mainstream European racing came in 1991 when Bridgestone popped up at the Monaco Formula 3 race when German Jorg Muller was the unexpected winner in his Malte Bongers Racing Reynard. That same year Bridgestone signed an exclusive contract to supply Hans-Werner Aufrecht's AMG Motorsport in the German Touring Car Championship. This led to Klaus Ludwig winning the 1992 title, a feat he repeated in 1994 and to a third title in 1995 with Bernd Schneider. Also in 1991 Bridgestone worked with Tom Walkinshaw for the first time, supplying tyres for the Jaguar XJR-15 million dollar challenge - won by Armin Hahne.

The company has always intended to enter Grand Prix racing but this has been delayed. The Firestone takeover meant that expensive sporting programmes had to be cut back and then there was the recession and a round of price-cutting in the tyre industry which meant that costs had to stay low.

As early as 1981 Bridgestone's motorsport manager Hiroshi Yasakawa was being asked about the company's F1 plans. He said that Bridgestone was planning to enter Grand Prix racing "in the near future", although he added that the company had a lot to learn before attempting F1.

That ambition was not forgotten and in 1989 the company quietly began testing F1-spec tyres. The first tests were carried out in secrecy in Japan using a little-known Reynard F1 prototype car, fitted with an experimental Mugen V8 F1 engine. The car was driven by Paolo Barilla although the initial tests covered only 375 miles. The following year Christian Danner took over the car and then the company acquired a Tyrrell 018. This was fitted with a Mugen engine and tested by Volker Weidler. That year Bridgestone completed 2500 miles of testing.

In 1991 Weidler and Johnny Herbert continued the work with the 018 and later with a new Tyrrell-Honda 020, which was acquired in mid-season. The pair covered 3500 miles. The 020 would serve as Bridgestone's test car for 1992, 1993 and half of 1994 and it would cover a further 6200 miles in the hands of Aguri Suzuki, Weidler, Mauro Martini and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Goodyear and Pirelli tyre engineers became aware that Bridgestone was watching F1 tyre development very closely.

The long-awaited official announcement of Bridgestone's arrival in F1 came in March last year when the company said it would enter Grand Prix racing in 1998. Testing in Europe and Japan began in June and it was quickly clear that Bridgestone was sufficiently prepared to enter F1 a year earlier than announced, although this would not be confirmed until October when Tadakazu Harada, executive vice-president of Bridgestone, said that "we have decided to move our F1 entry ahead by one year following rapid progress in our tyre development, production and distribution network".

The testing schedule in recent months has been very heavy, running out of an industrial unit in Birmingham, which used to service the ITC tyre supply. In recent weeks, however, work has finished on a brand new motorsport headquarters in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire and the new Bridgestone F1 team has been moving into the facility.

Yasukawa remains the head of all Bridgestone Motorsport activities and is based in Tokyo, although he will have an office at High Wycombe. The team will be run by manager Naotaka Horio, with logistics being overseen by Peter Grzelinski, a Briton with Polish ancestry, who was in charge of M&H tyre operations in the early 1980s but has been working with Bridgestone for some years. He has recruited a team of British tyre fitters and will organize the transportation of tyres to and from events. Press relations will be handled by another Briton James Penrose who has worked for helmet company Arai in recent years but was previously employed by Team Lotus.

The Bridgestone F1 technical team comes under the control of the Motor Sport Tyre Development Department at Kodaira, which is headed by Masafumi Yoshihara. He oversees the compound development and tyre design teams in Japan and the British operation, which will be headed by Hirohide Hamashima, who has been working in recent seasons with the Firestone Indycar programme in America. His team of engineers are all Japanese and there will be one attached to each team using Bridgestone tyres.

Testing times do not always give a very clear indication of what is going to happen when the racing starts, but there is no doubt that the arrival of Bridgestone will add a new dimension to F1 - which has been dominated for so long by Goodyear.

Bridgestone's leading team will be Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows operation and Tom believes very strongly that the Japanese tyres will help him to turn the team into a winning team.

"At half the races there will be little or nothing to choose between the Goodyears and the Bridgestones. At the other half I believe that there will be a performance advantage one way or the other. So if we are reliable we will be in a position to exploit that tyre advantage when it swings our way.

"There are two superb companies in terms of technology and product competing with each other in one of the most competitive environments. Goodyear has been doing it for decades and very few people have been able to beat them. Bridgestone have come in and taken them on in Indycar racing and if you look at Indycars there is very little to choose between them. It swings one way or the other. You will repeat that in F1..."

In other words: Watch out Goodyear, Bridgestone is coming!

Follow grandprixdotcom on Twitter
Print Feature