DECEMBER 20, 1999

Michelin confirms return to Formula 1

AS we have been suggesting for several months, Michelin is to return to Grand Prix racing.

AS we have been suggesting for several months, Michelin is to return to Grand Prix racing. The French tire company confirmed on Thursday that it will be back in 2001 with the BMW Williams team and will also supply the new Toyota team "at some time before the 2003 season". It is virtually certain that Bridgestone will withdraw its support from some teams and force Michelin to take them on. The rules state that any tire manufacturer must be in a position to supply 60% of the F1 field - eight teams - if called upon to do so.

Michelin's new chief executive Edouard Michelin II said that the company had decided to return to Formula 1 to help it "reinforce its position in Europe and gain recognition and improve our presence in Asia and South America. It will also increase our racing presence in North America. We are convinced that this is a good investment ".

We expect testing to begin in the Spring with the most likely route being for BMW to pass on its testing operation to the French tire company. The Munich-based test team - which is run by Williams personnel - has been in action since May last year, running with Jorg Muller. This group carried out initial testing behind closed doors at the BMW testing facility at Miramas but later moved on to test at the A1 Ring and in Hungary. The team used a 1998 Williams chassis and Michelin's testing would probably be carried out with a 1999 car to avoid complaints from rival teams. Michelin has its own testing facility next to its Centre de Technologies at Ladoux, just north of Clermont Ferrand. This 1250-acre site has 21 miles of different circuits, reproducing all manner of road surface and configuration, but may not have sufficient safety for F1 tests - although the first tests of the Renault Sport F1 car were carried out there in the mid-1970s. There is also a 12,500-acre test facility at Almeria, in southern Spain.

Michelin first entered F1 in 1977 and during the next seven and a half seasons won a total of 59 GP victories. Between 1980 and 1984, however, the company lost a lot of money and was forced to give up its F1 program. After Bridgestone took over Firestone in 1988, Michelin paid $1.5bn for Uniroyal Goodrich in 1990 and after a major restructuring program in 1993 returned to profit in 1995. Since then a return to Formula 1 has been under discussion. The company admits that it has been keeping a close eye on Formula 1 tire development and there is believed to have been an F1 research group working on tires for the last three or four years, although Michelin's actual competition activity has been focussed on sportscar racing, rallying and motorbikes.

"The sport has evolved considerably in the past 15 years," Edouard Michelin II said, "and that is why we are saying we are entering Formula 1, not re-entering it. Automotive technology has changed and tires have changed, too. It's going to be a challenge."

Bridgestone, which has been hoping for another tire company in F1 since Goodyear withdrew at the end of 1998, welcomed the decision and said it was looking forward to a tire war.

The interesting thing now will be whether Goodyear is able to react and make an F1 comeback as well. At the moment that looks unlikely with the company cutting back budgets in an effort to keep down costs and push up the share price. There is no doubt, however, that the Goodyear competition department will be pushing for a return to Grand Prix racing. The only problem is that it may take a change of management at the top of Goodyear to get a change of decision. Having said that, if the Goodyear share price does not go up soon, current chief executive Sam Gibara may be elbowed out of the way.