It wouldn’t be Formula 1 unless we spent most of each and every grand prix weekend earnestly discussing tyres.
Don’t think this is a new phenomenon: whether it’s talk of Pirelli, Michelin, or Bridgestone – or, for those with better memories, Goodyear, Avon, Firestone, Continental, Dunlop, or Englebert – there’s a good chance that, on any given weekend, somebody somewhere in the paddock will have been discussing those mystical black, round things.
It’s perhaps typical of the F1 gossiping classes that far more attention is paid to what grand prix tyres aren’t required to do, than to what they are. To wit, I’m talking about phenomena such as chunking, marbling, degrading, blistering, crumbing, delaminating and, perhaps most infamously, graining.
The clever ones among you will doubtless have already noticed that the above phenomena aren’t commonly experienced when you’re driving your own cars (which, unless I’m very much mistaken, also come equipped with four of those black, round things), so, by now, you’ll understand that what we’re really discussing here is, quite literally, a black art.
Now, seeing as we’re already talking candidly, and strictly between ourselves, I’ll let slip another opinion that invariably comes up whenever people in Formula 1 start discussing tyres: personally, I’ve never understood the point of involving oneself in a tyre supply monopoly, but then what do I know?
Okay, so you’re going to win all the races – well, actually you’re going to provide the rubber-wear on which all the cars in the field will share a winning monopoly.
And that's not quite the same thing.
Whenever people within the F1 business start suggesting that F1 return to a tyre war, the half-baked brigade chirrups, ‘We don’t all have the same engines in F1, so why should the teams be saddled with the same tyre supplier?’ All of which ignores the fact that, by the time the FIA lays down the law on cylinder spacing, height of crankshaft centre-line and just about every other dimension in Proustian detail, what you’ve got left is a ‘spec engine’ in all but name.
Historically, the tyre companies supporting the FIA Formula 1 World Championship have justified their involvement in a variety of different ways. Some judged that it was absolutely crucial to be pitched into a high-technology battle against rival tyre makers. Others justified their involvement on the basis that F1 was a brilliant showcase for their technology, and that was sufficient reason for keeping involved, irrespective of what their opposition was doing. Some did it in an effort to optimise brand awareness (it says here). Others did it simply for the love of racing.
Arguing about the merits of F1 involvement can also be used as a negotiating tool, as McLaren team principal Ron Dennis discovered to his benefit at the end of 1984. Coming off the back of a stupendously successful season in which the Michelin-shod McLaren-TAGs of Niki Lauda and Alain Prost had won 12 of the season’s 16 races, Ron made a discreet approach to Goodyear’s savvy and popular competitions boss Leo Mehl, asking whether it might be possible to arrange a tyre contract with the American giant for 1985. Naturally, Mehl jumped at the chance of signing up the top F1 team of the moment – and a deal, very lucrative for McLaren, was duly arranged.
Shortly afterwards, Michelin announced that they would be quitting F1 at the end of ’84. There were those in the pitlane who believed that Ron had prior notice of the French company’s decision, and had engineered the switch to Goodyear with that in mind. But Dennis was too shrewd an operator to have misled Goodyear, and Leo Mehl too clever to voice any hint of a suspicion. In his view, Ron had simply moved on an inspired hunch, so good for him. As for Mehl himself, he simply looked on happily, content in the knowledge that McLaren was likely to add considerably to his tyre company’s victory tally.
And so it proved!
It’s hard to countenance nowadays, but that ’84 season saw three tyre manufacturers – Goodyear, Michelin and Pirelli – pitched against each other. Michelin’s ’84 withdrawal doubtless had a knock-on effect for Pirelli, which took single victories in 1985 and ’86 before also withdrawing, leaving Goodyear to service the entire field alone
The Akron firm’s lengthy monopoly (which ran from 1987 to ’96) very much planted the idea within the sport that a tyre manufacturer operating in peace-time could arguably achieve as much brand penetration as if it were in a tyre-war.
That wasn’t an idea shared by Bridgestone, who jumped aboard at the start of 1997.
With neat circularity, it’s also worth pointing out that the ever-perspicacious Ron once again saw the writing on the (side-) wall, swiftly engineering a switch from American to Japanese supplier during the winter of ’97. Ron’s hunch once again proved spot-on: the Bridgestone-shod MP4-13 took the first of the Japanese firm’s 175 grand prix victories. Goodyear, meanwhile, chose to withdraw at the end of 1998.
Between 2001 and 2006 Michelin returned to battle Bridgestone, and the concept of tyre-war escalated to almost blitzkrieg-like status. Each manufacturer and their respective customers regularly criss-crossed the circuits of Europe in order to test and evaluate increasingly complex combinations of compound and construction in a bid to eke out a competitive advantage. Grands prix became battlegrounds on which one tyre manufacturer could emerge utterly triumphant or humiliatingly vanquished, with the tiniest of ambient temperature changes often prompting the balance of performance to swing from one manufacturer to the other, so tight was the competition.
Predictably, costs sky-rocketed, sowing the widespread idea that a tyre war was simply unsupportable within the current economic climate. First, Michelin stood down. Bridgestone, too, withdrew at the end of 2010, allowing the sport’s current supplier, Pirelli, to return to a monopoly after a 24-year absence.
Still, the monopoly isn’t seemingly assured, with rumours quietly floating around the paddock that Michelin may once again flex its muscles and choose to return to the fray.
Hmmm… On a personal note, I’d rather like to see another unfettered tyre war erupting across the F1 starting grids. I can go to a Snetterton club meeting if I want to see Formula Ford, but in F1 there should be as few restrictions as possible.
And in my book that means encouraging tyre wars, not stifling them!