TIRES: BRIDGESTONE

Name: Bridgestone

Shojiro and Tokujiro Ishibashi inherited a small family-run clothing company in 1906 on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. In order to expand the business they began making traditional Japanese footwear. It was not until the 1920s that they began to put rubber soles on the shoes but this led them to expand into other rubber products, notably tires.

In 1931 they played around with the English translation of their name - "ishi" means stone and "bashi" means bridge - and they came up with a new name for the company: Bridgestone. Expansion in the 1930s was enormous as Japan boomed and expanded its empire in Asia. This led to war and Bridgestone was lucky not to lose its factories in the bombing of Japan by the Americans.

As soon as the war ended Bridgestone started rebuilding, initially making bicycles - a booming industry at the time - but in the early 1950s the company entered into a technical agreement with Goodyear and began to make tires once again. The Japanese car boom of the 1970s turned Bridgestone into a vast company and in the early 1980s it began to expand worldwide. In 1983 it bought a Firestone factory in Tennessee and five years later outbid Pirelli to buy the entire Firestone company for $2.6 billion.

Harvey Firestone became interested in the tire industry while working as a salesman for his uncle's buggy-building company. He opened a tire-selling business in Chicago in 1896 and four years later established the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. In 1906 Firestone did a deal to become the principal tire supplier to the Ford Motor Company and with the Model T Ford quickly becoming the best-selling car in the world, Firestone prospered. As the car industry boomed, Firestone had to look for more sources of rubber and in the 1920s leased one million acres in Liberia for rubber plantations. He also established a nationwide chain of Firestone sales and service outlets. By the end of the 1930s the Firestone company was supplying 25% of the tires which were being used in the US.

After World War II Firestone began to look at the possibilities of synthetic rubber and began to diversify into other businesses, supplying automotive parts. It also bought smaller tire companies such as Seiberling and Dayton Tire.

The company opened an European research center in Brentford, Middlesex, in 1966 and entered Grand Prix racing with Ferrari, Lotus and McLaren. In the course of the six years that followed Firestone won 49 Grand Prix victories and three World Championships (1968-70-72).

In the 1980s the company was forced to restructure and it became a target for takeover with Bridgestone and Pirelli fighting over the company. The Japanese won and when General Motors dropped the company as a supplier, the company expanded its auto service center network and even used these to sell rival tire products.

The company has continued to expand internationally buying smaller tire companies in the United States, in Latin America and in Asia. The Firestone division has struggled with union problems but has become profitable in recent years.

Bridgestone is a major player in specialist tires, with sales in the airline business and in the heavy equipment sector. The company is also involved in sporting goods and building materials, including roofing, industrial textiles, conveyor belts, fabrics, hoses and even bicycles.

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

The company 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 tires 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 Marchfactory car driven by Thierry Boutsen. The tires proved to be quicker than Pirelli and American M&H tires and Lees won the title. That same season Bridgestone F3 tires were raced on occasion in the European F3 series with dramatic success.

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

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 continued to dominate 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.

In the late 1980s the company entered touring car racing in Europe with 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.

The company had long wanted to enter Grand Prix racing but the Firestone takeover meant that no money was available for the program. In 1989 the company began testing F1-spec tires and it continued until mid 1994. In 1996 the company announced it would be entering F1 with the Arrows team. After some impressive performances in 1997 top teams McLaren and Benetton switched to Bridgestone in 1998 and the Japanese company won its first World Championship with Mika Hakkinen.

At the end of 1998 Goodyear withdrew from F1 leaving Bridgestone as the sole supplier in Grand Prix racing. That situation continued until 2001 when Michelin re-entered the sport but Bridgestone has remained the dominant force to date thanks to its strong relationship with Ferrari

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