Sayonara Bridgestone

The end of this season has not been a particularly healthy one for Formula 1. Two major names have left, and another has had an emergency meeting to consider if it should leave too.

First of all, the sole tyre supplier, Bridgestone, has announced that it will quit F1 at the end of 2011 when its current contract ends. This came as a shock. With the spotlight on car manufacturers, it doesn’t seem to have entered anyone’s mind that a company such as Bridgestone, which has been so incredibly loyal to the sport, would consider upping sticks.

I can remember a time when Bridgestone were not in F1, but only just. When I started watching Formula 1 in the mid-1990s, Goodyear was the sole tyre supplier. But Bridgestone entered in 1997, beginning the “tyre war”. When Goodyear left soon afterwards, it was not long until Michelin came in to begin an even fiercer tyre war.

I wasn’t a big fan of the tyre war. Mostly, one tyre was a major advantage over the other, so we were essentially left with two championships — a Bridgestone championship and a Michelin championship. Considering Bridgestone practically tailor-made their tyres to suit Ferrari, this essentially made Ferrari a shoo-in for the championship every year. That was until the 2005 regulations — which banned mid-race tyre changes — handed the advantage to Michelin in a big way.

2005 was the year when the tyre war well and truly jumped the shark. In the quest for the competitive edge, both companies had made their tyres softer and softer. The resurfaced banking at Indianapolis bit, Michelins exploded all over the shop and we were left with a farcical race in which only the six Bridgestone-shod cars competed.

On the back of the problems, the FIA decided that a sole company should supply the tyres for all the teams. The problem with this was that it had the potential to severely reduce the amount of exposure that tyre company got. With no tyre war to talk about, people might not talk about tyres. For this reason, Michelin refused to have any further part in F1.

The upshot was that Bridgestone and the FIA colluded to concoct the maddest new rules and gimmicks in order to contrive some interest in the tyres. One has to paint green lines all over the tyre in a crass attempt to pretend they care about the environment. Of course, the green on the tyres clashes with teams’ liveries, making the scheme not only nonsensical, but also damn ugly.

Teams are also forced to use a sub-optimal tyre compound at some point during the race. While this may have superficially “spiced up” the action, it is artificial. Drivers are critical of it, and Fernando Alonso even said that he would rather race with wet tyres on a dry circuit.

Moreover, there is a sense that Bridgestone may have deliberately made their tyres behave strangely in an attempt to get drivers and teams discussing tyres with the media. Nick Heidfeld has said that the tyres could be “ten times better”. Joe Saward expanded:

The Bridgestones react differently on each car and finding the tricks that make them work is not easy. Some drivers can do it at some tracks and not at others. Even World Championship challenger Jenson Button has struggled with this…

Bridgestone seems to have concluded that it is better to have people talking about the tyres rather than not talking about them – even if a lot of the references are negative.

I rejoiced when it was announced that a “control” tyre was to be brought in. But it has brought the wrong sort of control. I am not too sure that the current dark behaviour is an improvement over the honest competition of the tyre war.

If you have reached the stage where your marketing strategy is to have people make negative comments about your product, it probably is time to call it a day.

In many ways, Bridgestone get a huge amount of brand exposure through their involvement in F1. As noted in this week’s podcast, you simply cannot watch a Grand Prix without learning that Bridgestone supply the tyres. Yet, after thirteen seasons (fifteen by the time they leave), the marginal returns to their investment must surely have diminished to almost zero. And As Keith at F1 Fanatic has pointed out, their costs are set to soar as they now have to supply twelve or thirteen teams rather than ten.

Nonetheless, it is a shock and a surprise that Bridgestone, a company that has stuck with F1 through thick and thin since 1997, has so abruptly pulled the plug. Now the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone will have a big headache trying to find someone to take Bridgestone’s place. With bridges burned with Goodyear and Michelin, and Pirelli uninterested, options seem thin on the ground.

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