That Bridgestone has chosen to exit Formula 1 when its sole supplier contract expires at the end of 2010 is no surprise, for any benefits provided by the three-year contract are more than offset by the whole raft of negatives inherent in any such situation, which have in turn been compounded by the recent wholesale defections from motorsport's premier category.
When Bridgestone entered the sport in 1997 (initially with the likes of Arrows and the nascent Stewart team) it was in competition with Goodyear, which company had for so long ruled the F1 roost that it was able to squash Bridgestone's request for low profile rubber.
Oliver Panis (Prost JS45 Mugen-Honda) finished 3rd in the 1997 Brazilian Grand Prix on Bridgestone tyres © LAT
Whatever, within two years Bridgestone had taken both drivers and constructors' titles in conjunction with Mika Hakkinen and McLaren, with Goodyear simultaneously giving notice that it was departing F1 at the end of 1998, having voiced its opposition to the introduction of grooved tyres as a means of restricting car performance by reducing cornering speeds and increasing braking distances.
In 1999, Bridgestone first experienced life as a sole supplier, but that period lasted just two years, for Michelin joined in for the 2001 season - to the benefit of both companies regardless of actual race results, for once again the talk was of tyres. That period featured an explosion in motor manufacturer interest in the sport, to the advantage of the tyre companies, who could not only showcase their wares in the most high-profile of all motorsports, but engage in business-to-business strategies with their major customers in the F1 paddock.
It is no secret Michelin's period in the sport was an unhappy one, not least due to the very public embarrassment at Indianapolis in 2005, but also due to the 2003 rules 'clarification', where the FIA's method of measuring tyre width was amended to the detriment of the French company, contributing to the defeat of Williams-BMW/Juan Pablo Montoya/Michelin in the championship by the Ferrari/Michael Schumacher/Bridgestone combination.
Thus Michelin fled F1 at the end of 2006, having already decided not to tender for the 2008-2010 sole supplier contract on offer on the basis that Michelin craved competition and beating only itself on controlled tyres was of absolutely no interest to the company. Thus, although Bridgestone won the contact (against zero competition despite suggestions at the time that Korean and German companies were keen to join the fray), the company became de facto sole supplier for the 2007 season.
However, back to the present and Bridgestone.
While on the face of it a sole supplier situation would appear to tick all the boxes - a win-win grand prix programme in partnership with all drivers and teams at a bargain-basement price without all the pressures of constant development - the reality is precisely the opposite.
Despite partnering every winner, the fact is that the victories provided the tyre company with vastly diminished 'bragging' rights, for in the process of the winning the grands prix the company had also shod every loser. Then, where Bridgestone had been used to 'tyre talk' during post-qualifying and race press conferences, under the sole arrangement tyres were seldom referred to, and then usually only when drivers experienced problems.
Just consider this year's post-race comments, where drivers spoke of graining, others of 'battling' on prime or option compounds, and others of failing to heat their tyres. Some endorsement of Bridgestone's multi-million investment in the sport...
Bridgestone tyres are prepared for a Grand Prix © XPB
With manufacturers leaving the sport en masse - and after the exits of Honda, BMW and Toyota, there is already talk that one or both remaining 'grandees' is considering similar - Bridgestone's B2B opportunities in the paddock have been seriously reduced, as has the value of hospitality in the Paddock Club.
Where once Bridgestone enjoyed the kudos of success with seven or eight highly-respected car companies, for 2010 these have been replaced by two Red Bull-owned teams, Force India powered by rented Mercedes units, a Williams operation without works engine support and four 'no-name' independents. Exactly what their road car purchases amount to per annum is unknown (and of little interest), but surely it does not exceed 0.0001% of the annual off-take of BMW, Honda and Toyota.
The departure of the manufacturers means peripheral activities in the public areas will decrease even more - think the demise of BMW's Pit Lane Park and Toyota's massive merchandising stands - resulting in reduced general public attractions, which in turn reduces engagement opportunities with both primary and secondary customers.
Then there is the very real problem of 'dumbed' down tyres running antiquated dimensions, the compounds and specifications of which are fixed up to three months ahead of use and nominated regardless of actual weather conditions, resulting in a situation where the tyres are woefully unsuited to prevailing conditions.
So, while Bridgestone may have found adequate justification to tender for the sole supplier contract, just two seasons into the deal it has found sufficient reasons to withdraw totally from Formula 1 come the end of next season.
Already thought has turned to which company could be interested in replacing Bridgestone. While Goodyear is an obvious candidate, the company has not been given the easiest of rides by the US economy recently, so is unlikely to submit the documents.
Given that recently-elected FIA president Jean Todt was, as Ferrari's sporting director, the driving force behind the 2003 rules 'clarification', relations between the Frenchman and the French rubber company are believed to be seriously strained, certainly if comments by the company's staff over the years are anything to go by, making Michelin (and its associated brands) an unlikely party.
In any event, the company's policy about competing in F1 in order to measure its products against the best opposition, and developing its tyres accordingly, is unlikely to have changed substantially since 2006.
Nelson Piquet (Benetton B191 Ford) took the final Pirelli win in the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal © LAT
Pirelli? Consider that within two days of this week's Bridgestone announcement a spokesperson for the company, which is sole supplier to the FIA's World Rally Championship, was unable to guarantee Pirelli's future in the WRC after the current contract expires (as per the Bridgestone contract) at end-2010.
Thus the company is unlikely to step up to the F1 plate in the near future, particularly given that the successful tender would have just over 12 months in which to develop a full programme - encompassing tyre design, development and production, logistics and marketing programmes - and Pirelli has existing WRC commitments during that time.
Then there are the other 'established' companies such as Dunlop and Continental, neither of whom showed any interest last time around and are unlikely to do so, particularly after Bridgestone's experience.
All of which leaves the Korean manufacturers, primarily Kumho and Hankook, with the latter, as the seventh-largest tyre company in the world, being the most likely candidate. The company already has a smattering of original equipment contracts (notably with Toyota...) but, more importantly, is not currently committed to global motorsport and can thus dedicate a season to an F1 tyre and logistics/marketing programme. Whether that comes to pass though, is another matter.
Certainly, with Korea's inaugural grand prix scheduled for October 2010 the timing is right (and ripe) for such an entry, although whether the race will come to pass is, again, another matter, for FOTA had not, as at last weekend, received a response to a letter written to F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone requesting commercial justification for the race.
However, time is running out for both the FIA and any supply hopeful(s), for, unlike Bridgestone, the successful tender is bound to be an f1 newcomer and will thus have to develop the entire structure from scratch - in 12 months.
However, the change of supplier is good news, for at long last F1 can break free from the shackles of that ghastly 65 per cent aspect ratio which has beset the sport since the early 90s. But, as detailed here, that is another story.
* * *
The Japanese companies came into Formula 1 in short succession, and departed in the same fashion. In fact, F1 is not the only discipline so affected, as World Rally and MotoGP fans can attest. There is an equal dearth of Japanese products in the FIA's third championship, namely the World Touring Car Championship, while there is no discernible representation in any of the global sportscar championships.
The Honda RA108 burns in parc ferme following its last race at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix © LAT
So, why has the world's leading car-building nation fallen out of love with motorsport? What went wrong where and when?
That the Japanese are a proud nation goes without saying, and the constant failure by Honda and Toyota to score victories in F1 must have been a major embarrassment to the companies - as it was for Subaru and Suzuki in WRC - but forget not that when Sochiro Honda made his first foray into international motorcycle racing he was all but laughed off the Isle of Man. He certainly had the last laugh...
So, what then has caused this exodus? Ironically, Casio's Sebastian Vettel watch launch during the Belgian Grand Prix may provide the answer: the German endorsed a cutting edge solar-powered, radio-controlled time piece which is arguably way ahead of anything else on the market, having an analogue chronograph accurate to one-fifth of a second. And, it is Japanese...
Reach for a Japanese camcorder and a multitude of features leap out at you; ditto a microwave or computer. The list of innovative Japanese products is virtually endless, yet in the (supposedly) high-tech world of motor racing innovation is all but frowned upon, and promptly banned when it rears its head.
Thus the company which made a commercial success of hybrid drive shuns the technology in F1 simply as it considers KERS to be crude and without advantage, while frozen engine specifications mean Honda - the world's largest engine manufacturer, with 15m units produced annually - was prohibited from developing anything other than a fixed centre-of-gravity, 90º 2400cc V8, with even the width of gears in the transmission being regulated.
Such prescriptions stifled creativity and just as a highly intelligent child is soon bored by repetitive tasks - usually resulting in failure - so this lack of freedom frustrated many a Japanese innovator over the years.
Imagine being a tyre engineer and being told that the only freedom in the job is a choice between two compounds, regardless of weather conditions or track temperature; imagine being a engineering graduate and knowing that state-of-art engines may not be developed for three years, or that your boxer-4 is due to be outlawed in favour of a world engine.
In the 80s, Honda's F1 budget was its research and development budget and vice-versa; when technology was stifled through rev limits and other specifications the company could no longer justify R+D spend, so ceded the project to marketing. Once the suits ran through the numbers they found it difficult to justify F1 and when the economy changed, so did the mood towards the sport - particularly when their budgets were effectively sponsoring a capitalist venture house. That started the avalanche.
The Toyota TF109 © LAT
Yes, by and large the Japanese companies failed in the sport of late, but such was their previous record of success and innovation that it is difficult to believe that the latest generation of Japanese engineers are suddenly abject failures where their forefathers were paragons of success.
Could it just be that motorsport has failed the younger generation and that Japanese are just the first to feel the effects? After all, that most engineering-led of all German companies, namely BMW, also found F1 to be incompatible with its long-term technological future.
When the world's pre-eminent car (and motorcycle) building nation decides that motorsport no longer offers value for money - for ultimately that is the fundamental reason behind their exits - then surely motorsport across the boards needs to take a long inward look at their associated business models.
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