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Bridgestone to enter F1 in 1998.

AS predicted in these pages in August last year, the world's biggest tire company, Bridgestone-Firestone, is planning to enter Formula One in 1998. The news was announced in Japan last week.

Goodyear currently enjoys a monopoly in Grand Prix racing, but the American tire maker has been expecting a challenge in F1 from Bridgestone and from Michelin.

Bridgestone has not previously been involved in F1, although Firestone enjoyed a successful involvement between 1966 and 1972, scoring 49 GP wins with such teams as Lotus, McLaren and Ferrari. The company won the World Championship in 1968-70-72 operating from a base in Brentford, England. After Goodyear pulled out of F1 in 1980 in protest at the FISA-FOCA war, several F1 teams approached Bridgestone asking for a tire supply. They failed to convince the management in Japan, although Bridgestone did enter European racing in 1981. The company won the European F2 Championship first time out, but in 1982 Michelin entered F2 and beat the Japanese. For the next four seasons the companies were F2 and later F3000 rivals. In 1986 the FIA decided that F3000 should be a one-tire formula. The contract was awarded to Avon.

In 1988, Bridgestone outbid Pirelli to buy the Firestone company for $2.6 billion and cut back on sporting programs to pay for the acquisition. Recession and price-cutting in 1990 made life difficult for all the big tire companies, but Bridgestone's long-term aim of an involvement in F1 was not forgotten. An F1 tire testing program was started in 1989, using old F1 Tyrrells driven by drivers such as Christian Danner, Aguri Suzuki, Volker Weidler and Mika Salo. The company has also been supplying tires for the mysterious factory Honda F1 car which has been testing quietly for the last three years. Bridgestone is expected to test tires in Europe this summer with F3000 teams, and we hear that an approach has already been made to the French Apomatox outfit.

Bridgestone says that it is planning to supply four teams - as the current regulations demand. With Honda expecting to return to F1 in 1998 it is logical that Bridgestone will be involved. Bridgestone followed Honda into F2 in 1981 and did likewise in Indycar racing: Honda entering in 1994 with Rahal/Hogan, and Bridgestone-Firestone joining the series last year.

Another likely team is Stewart Grand Prix. Jackie Stewart has enjoyed important links with Bridgestone in the past as an advisor and we have heard rumors that a deal is already done.

The Bridgestone announcement will almost certainly precipitate a similar announcement from Michelin - its bitter rival in the world tire market. Michelin has been working on a highly-secret F1 project in recent months at the company's Etude Development Course in Clermont-Ferrand.

Michelin entered F1 with Renault in mid-1977 and scored 59 GP wins between 1978-84, winning three World Championships in 1979-83-84. In 1989 it bought Uniroyal Goodrich for $1.5bn in an effort to keep pace with Bridgestone's growth. The resulting cutbacks have meant that the French company has kept a low profile in the sport in recent years.

Now it seems the commercial fight is moving into F1 and a three-way tire war between Goodyear, Bridgestone and Michelin is a serious possibility. This would be a nightmare for the FIA, because rapid tire development will very quickly bring down lap times in F1 and wipe out the safety work of recent years. The governing body will either have to make dramatic changes to the technical regulations to slow the cars still further, or drive out the tire companies by adopting a single tire supplier. This is unlikely to be accepted by the bigger teams - because they are looking for a performance advantage over their rivals.

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