F1’s tyre wars

F1 statisticsPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Tyre manufacturers are vying to replace Bridgestone in 2011
Tyre manufacturers are vying to replace Bridgestone in 2011

The F1 world is waiting to discover what tyres the cars will be running on next year. An announcement is expected soon. As tipped here two weeks ago ago, Cooper has joined Michelin in expressing interest in supplying F1 tyres next year.

But while Michelin enjoyed championship success in both its previous F1 appearances, Cooper has not supplied tyres in F1 before. Its Avon brand has, but it never enjoyed an F1 race win.

Find out more about F1’s tyre wars below.

The tyre wars in numbers

The chart below shows which tyre manufacturers have won races in the world championship:

Tyre suppliers who won world championship races
Tyre suppliers who won world championship races (click to enlarge)

The Goodyear generation

Goodyear became F1's most successful tyre supplier in 1976
Goodyear became F1's most successful tyre supplier in 1976

Tyre technology in F1 really took off with the advent of slick tyres, first used at the Spanish Grand Prix in 1971.

The arrival of American tyre manufacturers Goodyear and Firestone squeezed out Dunlop, who had enjoyed several years as the dominant force. But soon after that Firestone were gone too.

By the mid-seventies a set of Goodyears was the thing to have, but that began to change when Michelin first entered the sport in 1977.

They supplied tyres to the new Renault team, which is best remembered for introducing 1.5-litre turbo engines. But with them came another innovation, courtesy of Michelin: the radial tyre.

By the early eighties Goodyear saw the writing on the wall and committed to producing radial tyres. Michelin enjoyed the peak of its success in 1984 with McLaren – and then abruptly quit the sport.

Pirelli bow out

Nelson Piquet scored the last win for Pirelli at Montreal in 1991
Nelson Piquet scored the last win for Pirelli at Montreal in 1991

That left just Goodyear and Pirelli to supply the entire grid. Well, almost: Toleman, having fallen out with both companies at various stages, couldn’t get a tyre deal until it bought a contract with Pirelli off a rival team.

Goodyear resumed their position of near-total dominance: the only race a Pirelli car won in 1985 was at a swelteringly hot Paul Ricard. Having done all their pre-season testing at Kyalami in South Africa their tyres were good in extremely hot conditions and useless everywhere else.

Pirelli gave up at the end of 1991, having beaten Goodyear just three times in 210 races since 1985. They are rumoured to be considering another F1 comeback, but there were similar rumours in 2006.

Bridgestone arrived to end Goodyear’s monopoly in 1997. At the end of the year the FIA banned slicks, imposing the use of grooved tyres to reduce cornering speeds. Uninteresting in pursuing what it saw as a technological dead-end, Goodyear left F1 at the end of 1998.

It brought to a close 45 years of uninterrupted participation in F1, in which it had won at least one race every year since 1965. Goodyear tyres have still won more than twice as many races as any other constructor, despite them now being absent from the sport for more than a decade. There is no indication as yet they might be interested in a return.

Bridgestone vs Michelin

Michelin tyres on Alonso's Renault after the 2006 Japanese Grand Prix
Michelin tyres on Alonso's Renault after the 2006 Japanese Grand Prix

After Goodyear’s departure Bridgestone didn’t remain the sole tyre supplier for long as Michelin returned in 2001. And they were quickly back to winning ways – a Michelin-shod Williams won the fourth round of the season at Imola.

Perhaps alarmed at Michelin’s immediate success, Bridgestone reacted by pursuing a uniquely close technical collaboration with Ferrari in 2002, despite also supplying several other teams that year. Bridgestone technicians went to work at Maranello and their Ferrari counterparts headed to Japan, all in the pursuit of a superior combination of tyre dynamics and suspension configuration.

The results were devastating. Ferrari’s F2002 was almost untouchable – Michael Schumacher finished every race on the podium in 2002.

When Michelin hit back in 2003 they had their first of two bruising clashes with the FIA. Late in 2003 a change in the tyre rules forced Michelin to change their tyre construction, handing the initiative to Bridgestone, who following the rules change won 18 of the next 21 races.

Another change to the tyre rules came in 2005, forcing teams to run the entire race without changing tyres, and this resulted in Michelin enjoying a near-perfect season.

The only race they failed to win was in Indianapolis, where they discovered their tyres couldn’t run through the unique, fast, banked turn 13. While the FIA refused to accept a compromise solution that would have allowed the Michelin teams to participate, the race was contested by just the Bridgestone teams, which by now numbered just Ferrari plus Jordan and Minardi.

The FIA reversed the ‘no tyre change’ rule for 2006 but for the second year running the championships went to a Michelin-shod team and driver. But with the sport’s governing body preparing to introduce a single tyre supplier from 2008, Michelin left once more, and Bridgestone has been F1’s single tyre supplier from 2007.

A new tyre war?

Michelin’s two previous appearances in F1 show they aren’t interested in making up the numbers in any sense: not as a single supplier for the entire grid, and not as runner-up to someone else.

It’s true that Avon are the only manufacturer to have supplied tyres in F1 but never won a race – but I don’t think that’s an especially telling statistics. Their only two appearances came on a handful of occasions in the fifties, and as supplier to a few back-of-the-grid teams in the early eighties.

For F1, there are clear dangers in going back to a tyre war. It could push costs up to unacceptable levels, especially for the new teams.

And it would almost certainly increase the performance difference between the cars. As we saw with Bridgestone in the early 2000s, if one tyre manufacture finds an easier route to success by collaborating closely with one team at the expense of all the others, then we’re in for a very one-sided championship.

Tyres in F1

Images (C) Bridgestone/Ercole Colombo, Ford, Ford, Renault/LAT