JULY 28, 1997
BERNIE ECCLESTONE recently told journalists that he reckons there will be four tire companies involved in F1 by 1999 but some F1 insiders continue to believe that Europe's top tiremaker Michelin cannot afford to wait that long and must enter F1 next year - in order to go head to head with rivals Goodyear and Bridgestone. The world tire market is such that the only real chance for expansion is to buy up smaller tiremakers and to attack the traditional markets of rival companies.
Bridgestone's launch into Europe has been very successful to date and while Goodyear is pushing into the Far East, Michelin has remained relatively quiet. The company's sporting boss Pierre Dupasquier has appeared at a number of F1 races in recent months and has admitted that the French tiremaker is considering a return to F1.
The forthcoming change in the tire regulations makes it logical for Michelin to begin racing in 1998 as the new rules will give tire companies an equal footing at the start of their development of grooved racing tires. The problem is that there do not seem to be any teams available for Michelin. The team which has enjoyed the closest links with Michelin over the years is McLaren but the team is understood to be under a Goodyear contract until the end of 1999 and in unlikely to challenge the deal as Goodyear uses American contracts and there is the danger that a US court might inflict enormous punitive damages against a contract-breaker. No F1 team is willing to risk that. The only team which would not be affected by such a threat is Sauber, because Swiss companies cannot be sued in the American courts. Peter Sauber, however, is not the kind of team owner who walks out of contracts and so the chances of him switching is remote.
The other possibility - and probably the favorite for Michelin - would be an involvement with Alain Prost. The French team is currently using Bridgestone tires and has a deal which is believed to run until the end of 1999. Prost may choose to continue the relationship but he could quite easily, arguing that it was the team's previous owner Flavio Briatore who concluded the deal with Bridgestone and that there is no reason why he should be bound by that. If this argument is to be adopted however it must be done quickly and so the onus is on Michelin to see whether or not it is in a position to have tires ready for 1998. The company has vast F1 experience but undoubtedly if it wants to enter Grand Prix racing in 1998 there will need to be a test program - and that will need to begin soon.
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