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Tire war could narrow grand prix gap

TOP grand prix teams Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes could find themselves coming under intensifying attack from lesser rivals next season as French tire maker Michelin this week fired the opening salvos in a grand prix tire war.

As winter testing got into its stride, the formula one teams have split off into two groups. Ferrari and McLaren, flagships of the Japanese Bridgestone company, have been amongst those testing at the Valencia circuit while Michelin defectors, including Jaguar, Williams, Benetton and Prost are busy lapping the Circuit de Catalunya here at Barcelona, the regular venue for the Spanish grand prix.

"Michelin are extremely serious about their racing program," said Jaguar team leader Eddie Irvine. "The first signs are very promising. I think they have the potential to offer Bridgestone quite a challenge."

The French company certainly has an impeccable formula one pedigree. One of the pioneers in radial tire technology for road use, Michelin was previously involved in formula one from 1978 to 84, they provided the tires on which Jody Scheckter's Ferrari and Niki Lauda's McLaren won the 1979 and 84 world championships respectively.

Irvine's optimism was echoed by Jean Alesi, the Frenchman trying the tires for the first time on his Prost-Peugeot AP03. "I am really extremely impressed," he said. "This is the first time out and already they feel more consistent - and we know everything about the intricacies of testing here."

From a technical standpoint, Benetton chief designer Pat Symonds took a guardedly optimistic view after two days running with Jenson Button and Giancarlo Fisichella.

"The consistency of the Michelins has certainly been promising," said Symonds, "particularly here at Barcelona where we are accustomed to conditions which contribute to considerable variation in tire performance."

Goodyear's withdrawal from formula one at the end of 1998 left Bridgestone with a tire supply monopoly in formula one for the past two seasons. Under these circumstances they have inevitably taken a relatively conservative route in relation to the levels of grip provided by their rubber compounds, durability being the keynote.

However, such conservatism must now be jettisoned as both tire makers pile on the competitive pressure in a battle which is almost certain to see lap speeds increasing dramatically over the next season. In that respect, formula one tire wars can be double-edged swords. On the one hand they sometimes distort and exaggerate the performance advantage of an outside contender, on the other, many regard an advantage gained in this area nothing more than getting their hands on a better engine or a quicker driver.

Jaguar technical director Steve Nichols commented; "sure, the lap times will tumble as tire development accelerates over the next few months. But it certainly can introduce a confusing element into the equation. "Take Benetton, for example. They have a brand new Renault V10 engine next season. If Button and Fisichella start flying, is it the car that has improved, or is their advantage down to the tires?"

Yet despite the enormous amount of effort being focused on tire development, many teams are continuing their efforts to evaluate and assess new young drivers in the hope of discovering the next generation's Michael Schumacher.

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