NEWS FEATURE

Goodyear's final fling

The Goodyear Formula 1 team of engineers had every right to be down-hearted after the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. They had lost the World Championship to their rival Bridgestone - and in the worst possible way, a high-speed tyre failure.

For hours after the race the Goodyear men searched down at the end of the start-finish straight, looking for fragments of Michael Schumacher's blown tyre and as each new piece arrived back in the Goodyear area, the engineers gathered behind one of the containers full of tyres to see if the new bit of torn rubber gave away any clues as to what had happened. As dark was falling they were able to deduce from the rips and the fractures that a piece of wreckage - probably from the incident between Shinji Nakano and Esteban Tuero - had cut through the tyre in an unusual and critical place. This had caused an instant deflation when Schumacher accelerated to a certain speed.

But the knowledge of what had happened was little consolation. It had looked bad on television. There were no big farewell parties for Goodyear on Sunday night. None had been planned and no-one was really in the mood. It was best to just slip away. Many of the Goodyear people have been in F1 for a long time: Tony Shakespeare has been racing since 1976 and team leader Perry Bell has been working on F1 tyres since 1978; lead engineer JJ Taube has been in Goodyear's racing division since 1975. It was hard for them to accept that after 34 years - with only one six-month break during the FISA-FOCA war in 1980-81 - Goodyear was actually leaving F1 racing. The decision to quit - taken in November 1997 - had never made any sense to the racers. It was the corporate politicians and accountants back in Akron, Ohio, who had made the decision.

Early the next morning the engineers were on their way home to the United States and to England. The Goodyear F1 team has always been a mixture of engineers from the United States and from Wolverhampton. They were feeling a little better but they all admitted that the future was uncertain. Only JJ Taube knew what he was going to do.

"I'm retiring," he said. Going home to pay with the three Chevrolet Corvettes which he owns, in addition to a 1932 Ford V8 hot rod, a 7.4-litre pick-up truck and a Harley-Davison motorcycle. JJ's idea of fun is to spend a day painting flames on the side of his Corvettes but he hasn't done much of that since the tyre war began.

Some of the crew had offers of other jobs within Goodyear; or a redundancy package but others had no idea what the future will hold.

"The only thing I have to do right now," said one engineer, "is to write out my expenses..."It was a strange way for Goodyear to end 34 years of success in Formula 1 and there was more than a hint of bitterness towards the Goodyear bosses in Akron. The F1 team had done everything possible to win.

"Perry has been amazing this year," said one of the engineers. "He has worked day and night for months, hoping to turn this thing around. We were hoping that if we could win the World Championship or come close they would change their minds. But they didn't."

But despite the bitterness and the disappointment the Goodyear boys and girl (Janet Melia has been one of the leading track engineers with Goodyear in the 1990s) were leaving F1 with their heads held high - if not for the company, for themselves. They had nearly pulled off an amazing feat and stolen the World Championship from McLaren. The Ferrari F300 - even with Michael Schumacher driving - was never as good a car as the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-13. Everyone knew that - even if the Ferrari PR men tried to convince people otherwise. The tyres had made the difference.

In 1997 the Bridgestone tyres had been a lot better than the Goodyears on several occasions. Olivier Panis and Jarno Trulli showed that in their Prosts and Damon Hill almost produced the surprise of the century when he walked away with the Hungarian GP in his Arrows-Yamaha - only to break down a couple of laps from the finish. Bridgestone might have had the tyres but Goodyear had all the important teams. There were lots of rumours that one of the big teams would leave Goodyear but no-one did. Goodyear contracts are bullet-proof and no-one wanted to risk going to court in the United States for breach of contract because American courts are famous for giving crazy damage awards which might bankrupt a racing team. And so Goodyear was in a very strong position for 1998. Sure, there would be an auction for the big teams at the end of the year but for 1998 Bridgestone was going to have to struggle again with Prost, Arrows, Stewart and Minardi.

And then in November last year Goodyear's top management suddenly threw a spanner into the works by announcing that the company was going to leave Grand Prix racing at the end of 1998. It could not have come at a worse time for the racing team. The announcement enabled McLaren and Benetton to walk away from their contracts. Both had Goodyear deals for 1998 and 1999 and as Goodyear was breaking the contract by refusing to supply tyres in 1999 they were free to do as they pleased. Goodyear could not hold them. It gave Bridgestone an unexpectedly opportunity for success. It was, in the words of one Goodyear F1 team member, "stupid" but the bosses did not care. They had more important things to worry about.

"We begged them to wait and make the announcement later," said one Goodyear man, "but they went right ahead anyway."

The curious thing was that even days after the announcement had been made no-one in F1 really believed that Goodyear would actually leave Grand Prix racing. It made no sense at all.

After years of being the sole tyre supplier in F1 - and receiving very little credit for it - the company was suddenly in the newspapers all over the world. The tyre war was great news for both Goodyear and Bridgestone. Everyone in F1 concluded that there was something else going on. There were soon rumours that Goodyear would be taking over Sumitomo Rubber Industries and switching the F1 tyre programme from Goodyear branding to Dunlop. It was a good idea.

To pull out was so illogical that even the Bridgestone management did not believe that Goodyear would carry through the policy. At the Benetton launch in January in London, Bridgestone's Hiroshi Yasukawa said he expected to be competing against Goodyear in 1999.

The feeling in the paddock changed in the months that followed. While initially it seemed that there was a clever plan it gradually dawned on the F1 world that perhaps Goodyear management had just made a mistake. It made no sense to give up a programme which the company had spent 34 years and millions of dollars in just to save a few million to be used to buy other tyre companies. Goodyear had made a mistake, everyone concluded, and the company President Sam Gibara would have to be convinced to reverse the decision.

This feeling was backed up by the appearance at the San Marino GP at the end of April of Goodyear's Vice-President of Public Relations John Perduyn and his international public relations manager Chris Aked. They spent a great deal of time during the Imola weekend talking to the leading players in F1 and to the media to try to ascertain the feelings in F1 about Goodyear's decision to withdraw. They went back to the United States with their ears burning. The F1 world thought the Goodyear management was crazy!

But changing decisions in big corporations is not easy. Political issues come into play. Goodyear is a highly-decentralized company and the decision to pull out was made after the managing-directors of various national companies around the world agreed that they did not want to fund the F1 programme any longer. Some soon regretted that decision but to change it would have resulted in a major loss of face to the president and to the managing-directors in the various countries. And, of course, their rivals would be there to point out the mistakes they had made. A big corporation is like an oil tanker. Once a decision is made it is very hard to change the course which has been chosen...

And yet in the summer there was still no-one in F1 who really believed that Goodyear was really serious about pulling out. Even Williams and Ferrari were not worried. There was no sign of a switch from either team to Bridgestone and this was taken as a sign that Goodyear had some secret agreement with each team to continue in 1999.

In the course of the summer Gibara came to Europe and met secretly with both Williams and Ferrari and there were rumours of talks between the Goodyear boss and Bernie Ecclestone.

Eventually Bridgestone began to get edgy. Was Goodyear really staying? The Japanese tyre men needed to make important decisions and Goodyear was still apparently not making up its mind. Or least that was the impression. Down at Goodyear they said the same thing: "As far as we know the decision has not changed. We are pulling out at the end of the year" but the hopes lingered on until the end of August.

Shortly before the Belgian GP Goodyear confirmed to the managements of Williams and Ferrari that it would not be changing its mind.

With no future the Goodyear F1 engineers took a deep breath and went for it. They were going to win the World Championship - if it was humanly possible...

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