Bridgestone announced last year it will stop supplying F1 tyres at the end of 2010.
On the face of it, replacing them might not seem like the most pressing problem FIA president Jean Todt has to deal with.
But F1 teams will be pressing ahead with their 2011 car designs soon and for that they’ll need to know what tyres they’re going to be using. And finding a replacement for Bridgestone – or convincing them to stay – may not be easy.
Bridgestone announced its withdrawal from the sport the day after the last race of 2009. It issued a press release which rather vaguely said it desired “further intensive development of innovative technologies and strategic products”.
Inevitably, one has to wonder whether Bridgestone might be talked back from this position and might just be angling for a cheaper deal for the next three-year contract.
With up to three new teams on the grid this year and two more races on the calendar, both of them ‘flyaways’, Bridgestone face an expensive 2010.
But the FIA have gone some way towards mitigating that by reducing the numbers of tyre available to teams. Last year each driver had 14 sets of dry tyres to use per Grand Prix weekend. That has been reduced to 11 (the allocation of wet and intermediate tyres remains unchanged at four and three respectively).
Had the tyre allocation remained the same in 2010, Bridgestone have to have supplied 5,187 sets of tyres throughout the season – 45% more than last year (excluding testing). The reduction in allocation means they only need to supply 4,446.
That’s still almost 1,000 more tyres than they provided in 2009. But if US F1 and Campos fail to materialise, and Stefan GP don’t win a place, Bridgestone will only need to bring 3,762 sets. That’s just 212 more than they did in 2009, and in return they gain exposure in Canada and South Korea.
Will that be enough to tempt them to stay?
In the past few days rumours have gained pace that Bridgestone’s former F1 rival Michelin could return to the sport to take their place. The rumours seem credible because Michelin are one of few tyre manufacturers likely to have the data necessary to manufacture F1-standard rubber and the infrastructure to fly thousands of sets of tyres around the world.
Michelin left F1 in 2006 on a high after winning back-to-back world championships with Renault. But their time in the sport was beset by controversy.
In 2003 their tyres were abruptly ruled illegal late in the season, forcing a re-design which scuppered the championship chances of Michelin-shod front-runners Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams) and Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren).
They suffered a drubbing at the hands of Bridgestone in 2004 but bounced back in 2005 when new rules banned tyre changes during pit stops. The French company’s product won every race – bar the infamous debacle in Indianapolis.
We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the Indianapolis episode automatically rules Michelin ineligible to be F1′s sole tyre supplier. Different tyre suppliers have faced similar problems in the past including some at the same circuit. NASCAR’s race on the Indianapolis oval in 2008 was ruined by repeated Goodyear tyre failures.
NASCAR at least managed to have some sort of race thanks to co-operation between Goodyear and the championship organisers. A similar compromise was not found at Indianapolis in 2005 – not least because Ferrari’s team principal Jean Todt, eager to capitalise on the team’s only chance to win a race that year, wanted no concessions made to their rivals.
It now falls to Todt in his capacity as FIA president to broker a deal with his countrymen. Hopefully that Indianapolis episode is water under the bridge to all concerned.
Some will ask, why have a single tyre supplier at all? Why not let teams arrange their own deals with tyre suppliers and allow them to develop newer and faster compounds.
In short, why not bring back the tyre war?
Tony Dodgins has argued for this in Autosport (link, subscription required) but I disagree. F1 cannot afford the consequences of a new tyre war.
Tyre technology is fixed at the moment – bring back the tyre war and lap times will be slashed by whole seconds per lap. The FIA will have to find new ways of keeping speeds under control. I think limiting the tyre specification is preferable to further constraints on car design and engine performance.
Bring back the tyre war and we’ll go back to the days of tyre manufacturers developing rubber specifically for whichever team can pay the most. No-one wants a return to the one-sided domination of a single team we saw in 2001, 2002 and 2004.
F1 car performance has become increasingly close in recent seasons, thanks in no small part to the end of the tyre war. Bring it back and the gap between the teams will increase once more.
As well as impairing the competition, resuming the tyre war will force costs up. Nothing racks up testing mileage like developing new tyres. Even with a single tyre supplier the FIA has seen fit to beef up restrictions on simulated tyre testing in the 2010 rules. Imagine the lengths they’ll go to if tyre technology is freed up again.
In an ideal world F1 could have free development in every area of car technology – engines, aerodynamics, tyres, the lot. But costs and speeds have to be kept in check because the sport cannot be allowed to spend itself into oblivion or compromise safety.
A return to the tyre war isn’t the answer. A new tyre supplier – or a new deal with the old one – is.
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Images (C) Bridgestone, Renault/LAT