F1’s exclusive tyre supplier Bridgestone has made a surprise announcement it will quit the sport at the end of the 2010 season.
This means F1 will have a new tyre supplier from 2011, but there’s no indication yet the FIA may allow the resumption of the ‘tyre war’ by letting in more than one supplier.
A history of controversy
Bridgestone have been in F1 since 1997 and, for better or worse, have had a considerable influence on the sport and its rules.
In 1998 they supported the unpopular move to grooved tyres. Rival manufacturer Goodyear quit the sport after a 24-year stint because they didn’t want the change.
That left Bridgestone as the de facto exclusive tyre supplier in 1999 and 2000, before Michelin returned to the sport in 2001.
The rivalry between the two led to controversy, notably in 2003 when Bridgestone and Ferrari successfully lobbied the FIA to change its rules to make Michelin’s tyres illegal late in the season.
In 2005 the FIA banned tyre changes during races, requiring the cars to run an entire Grand Prix on a single set of tyres. Michelin dominated the championship, winning every race – with one infamous exception. At Indianapolis they suffered a spate of tyre failures and their teams had to withdrew as the FIA refused to make any concessions to allow their teams to race. Just the six Bridgestone-shod cars contested the ‘race’.
The FIA later announced it wished to end the tyre war and bring in an exclusive tyre supplier. Michelin declared they did not want to be in the sport without a rival manufacturer to compete against and did not put in a tender for supply. They pulled out of the sport at the end of 2006 having won both of the last two championships with Renault.
That left Bridgestone as the only tyre supplier in 2007, and they began the first year of their three-year exclusive contract in 2008. This year the FIA finally ditched grooved tyres, and Bridgestone’s current deal expires at the end of 2010.
In the meantime Bridgestone encouraged the FIA to bring in rules requiring the drivers to use two different tyre compounds in each race. The rule came in for some criticism earlier this year as it forced drivers to use unsuitable tyres in some races. They used the green stripes intended to mark the different compounds to promote their “Make Tyres Green” initiative.
Why did Bridgestone quit?
Announcing the decision Bridgestone Motorsport’s director Hiroshi Yasukawa said:
The decision made by the board of directors comes after considerable and lengthy evaluations and has been based on the company’s need to redirect its resources towards further intensive development of innovative technologies.
In short, they no longer felt the marketing benefit of being in F1 was worth the cost involved in supplying the tyres. With up to four more teams in F1 next year, they are facing a 40% increase in their annual supply demand, and it’s doubtful they were going to get 40% more exposure in exchange for it. And that’s before one considers the additional cost of an extra two races.
The economics of tyre supply increasingly seems to favour having more than one supplier and bringing back the tyre war. But doing that would create a new problem as the governing body would no longer be able to use tyre compounds to limit cornering speeds.
The exclusive tyre suply is therefore likely to stay. But whoever pitches for the tender to supply F1 tyres from 2011, they will want a much better deal than Bridgestone had.