NEWS FEATURE

Bridgestone goes head to head with Goodyear

In February 1996 the Bridgestone Corporation announced that it would be entering Formula 1 in 1998.

Goodyear's racing bosses did not believe it. They were sure that their Japanese rival was trying to lure them into a false sense of security. Bridgestone would be racing in 1997. It was a wise move by the Americans. The Japanese tyre company began serious testing with the Arrows team in the summer of 1996 and in October confirmed what the Goodyear men had thought all along - there would be a tyre war in 1997.

Bridgestone started out at a disadvantage because Goodyear had cleverly done all its deals with the top teams and so the only ones available for Bridgestone in 1997 were Arrows, Prost, Minardi, Stewart and, originally, Lola. It was not a great selection of teams.

Arrows and Prost were in the process of being restructured, Stewart was new to F1. Minardi had no money as usual and Lola was to collapse after the first race.

All the top teams stayed with Goodyear.

But the 1997 Bridgestones were good. Very good. Some of this was due to the fact that Bridgestone had actually done a lot more work than people thought, having run over 20,000 miles of secret F1 tyre testing in Japan, dating back to the first runs with Paolo Barilla in a modified Reynard car in 1989.

One could argue that perhaps Goodyear underestimated just how good the Bridgestone tyres would be. For five years Goodyear had enjoyed a monopoly in F1 and had been producing identical tyres for all the teams. The pace of development was slow and people forgot that tyres are one of the most important factors in the performance of a racing car. In 1996 Goodyear produced only 10 different kinds of slick tyre and eight different wets.

In 1997 Goodyear development intensified and by the end of the year it had produced 61 different kinds of slick tyres and 22 different kind of wets.

In the early races of 1997 the Goodyear runners continued to win the races but Olivier Panis showed very well on occasion in his Bridgestone-shod Prost. The Frenchman might even have won in Argentina if his car had not failed him.

Sadly for Olivier - and for Bridgestone - his progress was to be halted by a nasty accident in Canada in June. This was a disaster for Olivier and a major setback for Bridgestone.

In the second half of the year it was left to Jarno Trulli, Panis's replacement, to be the lead Bridgestone runner but the Italian admitted that he did not have enough experience to use the tyres to the maximum of their potential.

"Every time the Prost was competitive I proved that I could run with the best. At Hockenheim I finished fourth and scored my first points and at Zeltweg I led the race but it was difficult to develop the car and be consistent and my team-mate Shinji Nakano was as inexperienced as I was.

"The Bridgestone tyres were a trump card," says Trulli. "That was the major reason that I was able to dominate the race in Austria."

Trulli's moment of glory was spoiled when his engine failed.

While Prost struggled after losing Panis, Arrows perked up in the mid-season and in Hungary Damon Hill surprised everyone with an amazing performance in his Arrows-Yamaha. He led for most of the race until slowed in the final laps by a hydraulic problem.

"The Bridgestone tyres were really strong," said team boss Tom Walkinshaw after the race.

Several Goodyear teams had thought seriously about switching to Bridgestone by mid-1997 but Goodyear's legal department in Akron and the fears of legal action in American courts - where damage awards can be absurd - kept everyone loyal to Goodyear.

This year Bridgestone would probably have had another year like 1997 although with Arrows, Prost and Stewart all having a lot of mechanical failures it is unlikely there would have been any wins.

Goodyear's announcement in November last year that it was going to withdraw from Grand Prix racing at the end of 1998 changed all that.

It was a huge tactical blunder and beyond the control of the company's sporting chiefs. Their bosses did not take into account what was going on in the sport. They wanted to save money and decided that F1's high costs were too much. In justifying the decision they blamed costs and the FIA's new tyre regulations for 1998.

"We saw our participation in F1 racing as an investment in research and development to provide Goodyear customers with high-tech products," said Bill Sharp, President of Goodyear's global support operations. "The rule change imposed by the governing body to tyres with grooved treads sets a direction in our development programme of complying with costly new specifications rather than with Goodyear's objective to advance technology to a higher level of performance."

This argument did not make any sense to the man on the street as the development of slick racing tyres is likely to bring much less benefit that research into advanced grooved tyres. It was further undermined by the fact that when Sharp made the statement Goodyear had already invested in new machinery to make the 1998 tyres.

The reality of the situation was that Goodyear knew that at the end of 1998 it would have to become involved in an auction with Bridgestone to sign up Williams and Ferrari. Goodyear's bosses felt the money saved could be used to help the company expand by buying rival tyre companies.

The announcement was badly timed and within a matter of days after the announcement McLaren agreed a deal with Bridgestone. The team had had a long-term Goodyear contract - until the end of 1999 - but as Goodyear was not going to fulfil that contract McLaren felt that legally it was free to look to Bridgestone. Benetton had a similar deal and switched a few weeks later. Goodyear was able to hold on to Ferrari and Williams because their contracts ran out at the end of 1998 and so Goodyear had not broken the agreement.

Bridgestone benefited from the errors of the Goodyear management. Suddenly the Japanese engineers had top teams and top drivers to work with. It was not, however, going to be an easy task.

Things were further complicated by the fact that both Goodyear and Bridgestone had to design completely new tyres for 1998 because of the FIA's decision to introduce grooves into slick tyres.

"Grooved tyres are far more complicated than many believe," says Stu Grant, "and they differ from everything else we produce. There is a lot of technology which goes into devising the shape of a mould and the construction of a tyre to give you the most consistent wear with a grooved tyre."

Both companies were therefore working with new compounds, new materials, new constructions and new mould shapes.

When it comes to tyre testing, the relationship between a driver and his tyre engineers is very important and it takes time for that relationship to grow. Bridgestone suffered a serious setback when Damon Hill decided to leave Arrows to join Jordan - which was using Goodyears. Bridgestone had lost its best tyre tester. The two Benetton drivers were both young and inexperienced and to further confuse matters the team had to redesign its suspension because of the late decision to switch from Goodyear to Bridgestone.

Building a strong relationship between Bridgestone and McLaren was also rather more difficult than had been expected.

"We were a little reserved at the start of the year and that caused some problems of understanding," says Bridgestone's motorsport manager Hirohide Hamashima. "In my opinion in December 1997 Mika Hakkinen was a very good racing driver but he was not good at testing. David Coulthard was a very good test driver. He helped us a lot. Today Mika has become as good a test driver as Damon Hill."

Despite the early problems the Bridgestone-shod McLarens destroyed the opposition in the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, scoring a 1-2 finish and Bridgestone's first F1 victory.

At Goodyear there was disappointment but the company's General Manager of Worldwide Racing Stu Grant made a very valid point.

"The McLaren is obviously an extremely strong package and they are going to be tough to beat," he said. "But from a tyre point of view I am pleased with our performance. We are committed to doing the development necessary to provide our teams with a competitive product this year and to try to win as many races as possible before we go."

Grant and the Goodyear engineers did not believe that the victory in Melbourne had been down the tyres. The McLaren-Mercedes was simply a faster car than the Williams and the Ferrari. The Goodyear engineers felt that the tyres were quite evenly matched.

One factor which confused the situation was the failure of both of the top Goodyear teams to produce really good cars. Ferrari and Williams were both struggling in the early races on the season with the rear suspension of their cars. In both cases these had to be redesigned. In fact Goodyear was making faster progress than the teams and this paid off in Argentina where the American company had a new wide front tyre available. The McLarens were still ahead but Michael Schumacher was much closer.

"It is basically due to the new tyres," he said.

In the race Schumacher forced his way into the lead and the McLarens were beaten. The tyres helped but the victory came in spite of the car. Then it was back to McLaren victories. Ferrari did not win again until the F300 was given a new rear end.

By mid-season things were much more evenly balanced and so Michael Schumacher's driving skills and courage became more of a factor. There is no doubt, however, that at Goodyear there was a much more aggressive development policy, the Bridgestone engineers perhaps feeling - if only subconsciously - that the advantage was such that the gap would not be closed. At Goodyear there was a great deal of frustration about the decision to withdraw. The F1 engineers did not want to be leaving at the end of the year but resolved that if they had to do so they were going to go out of F1 with heads held high.

As the autumn came on Goodyear was clearly at an advantage but then Bridgestone reacted and Hakkinen was able to dominate at the Nurburgring. The stage was set for the final battle - and the most important one - at Suzuka...

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