Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Wednesday, February 26, 1997

Heat Is On in Formula One's Tire War

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Bridgestone officially announced four new conquests Tuesday in Formula One racing's tire war. The Japanese tire maker entered the sport in October with just one customer, the hapless Arrows team. Now, it has five.

Last November on the Suzuka track in Japan, a few weeks after the last Grand Prix, the new world champion - Damon Hill - climbed into a battered old model Ligier that Bridgestone had borrowed for a test drive.

That drive shocked the sport.

Hill bettered by more than two seconds the lap times that Olivier Panis, driving the most up-to-date Ligier, had set on the same track a few weeks earlier during qualification for the Japanese Grand Prix.

Hill, who despite his title is still not considered the fastest driver around, undoubtedly felt more secure about his move to Arrows. The team has not won a race in its 19-year existence, but it has become Bridgestone's laboratory team.

The company's technicians are attached to the team as they try to develop the tire. Hill's times helped attract other teams. So far, two other traditional second-division teams, Minardi and Prost (formerly Ligier) - as well as Stewart, a newcomer, and Lola, which is returning - have confirmed that they, too, will use Bridgestone tires.

Goodyear has been the only tire in Formula One racing since Pirelli left in 1991.

But some drivers have expressed doubts about the tires. Michael Schumacher, twice the world champion, set the tone in November when he reportedly said: ''I would like to see Goodyear work harder. They have had no competition for a while and they have become a little lazy.''

During the winter, Goodyear began intensifying its efforts on tire development with the seven Formula One teams committed to using its tires. In fact, Schumacher was summoned from his winter vacation to make test drives.

The German driver has reason to be nervous. Last week, Alain Prost's new team - with Panis at the wheel of its Bridgestone-equipped car - shaved nearly three seconds from Schumacher's 1996 pole-position time on the Magny-Cours track in France. Three seconds can mean the difference between the front row or the last row on the grid.

The team, which was called Ligier until Prost bought it this month, had not won a Grand Prix since 1981, before its lucky victory at Monaco last year.

Gerhard Berger, who races for Benetton, Schumacher's old team, said: ''I am very worried about Bridgestone. There are some races, particularly if it's wet, when they will be very strong.''

Hirohide Hamashima, Bridgestone Motorsports' technical director, said no one should be overly optimistic.

''Goodyear has been using a monopoly tire up until now,'' he said. ''I think they'll be using a new tire next season.''

The French sports daily L'Equipe reported last Friday that on Benetton's last day of testing last week in Portugal it used new Goodyear tires that ''look strangely like - Bridgestones. More corpulent sidewalls, shinier, and blacker.''

Dermot Bambridge, the public relations manager for Goodyear's Formula One Racing, said the company expected to make further improvements during the season.

''We haven't just sat still with a standard tire since 1992,'' Bambridge said. ''Development has gone on. Part of the reason we're involved in Formula One is not just to get the publicity, but also to help develop tires, which spin off into passenger car tires. So we need to learn things. It's not a question of suddenly saying, 'Oh heck, what are we going to do now? We've been left behind.'''

Bridgestone has been working on its Formula One tire since 1989. It broke Goodyear's 20-year monopoly in Indy-style racing in 1995, under the Firestone name, and immediately shaved a second and a half off lap times. Last year cars using Bridgestone tires won 13 of 19 races between the CART and IRL Indy-style championships.

The company had planned to enter Formula One in 1998, but accelerated its schedule partly because of the good Indy results, and partly because of a Formula One rules change that will outlaw slick tires, the type of tire it knows from U.S. racing, beginning in 1998.

Slicks - smooth, treadless tires - have been the norm since 1970, but Formula One officials hope races on treaded tires will allow more overtaking. By coming in now, Bridgestone can gain a year's experience in Formula One before trying to learn about racing at high speeds with treaded tires.

Bridgestone's move into Formula One is part of a clear business strategy. The world leader in tires sales decided it needed more of the European market, where Formula One racing has a high profile.

Chris Williams, a Prost spokesman, played down the importance of the tires.

''We're happy to be with Bridgestone,'' he said. ''But we're trying to not let people lose sight of the fact that we've worked very hard on our car, that we've got a new engine as well. It's not just the tires. It's the whole formula together.''

What makes Bridgestone's tires faster - particularly on wet track?

''That's top secret,'' Hamashima said.

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