Bridgestone is leaving F1 at the end of next season. That's a very troubling development for the sport, but not really unexpected given that, since 2007, it has been spending millions just to beat itself. Since then it has existed almost as an F1 charity, gaining only marginal benefit for itself but performing a vital role to the sport.
A little more than a decade ago the European public awareness of Bridgestone was dwarfed by that of Goodyear, Michelin and Dunlop. Now it probably vies with Michelin as the best-known tyre brand of all - and Bridgestone is pretty certain that transformation is a direct result of its F1 programme during that time.
The company entered the fray in 1997 and its performance on the unfancied Prost, Arrows and Stewart made it plain that it immediately had a faster product than Goodyear, the only other supplier. Damon Hill was unlucky not to win in Hungary for Arrows, the Prost of Olivier Panis looked favourite to win Argentina until a hydraulic leak intervened, Panis's stand-in Jarno Trulli led the field in Austria before another mechanical gremlin, Rubens Barrichello took second for Stewart in Monaco. These were not cars that should even have been within sniffing distance of a Williams or Ferrari, so it was no surprise to see McLaren and Benetton making the switch for 1998, nor to see Goodyear - in F1 since 1965 - announce its withdrawal at the end of that year. Performance prevailed; Bridgestone took a massive leap in credibility.
There was no-one happier than Bridgestone in 2001 when Michelin decided to return after a 16-year absence to end the Japanese company's brief monopoly. Happy but nervous - for Michelin was the one company the Bridgestone engineers feared. They were right, and several times that year the French tyres on the Williams were faster, though not on a consistent basis. It was the beginning of a flat-out war between the two companies that lasted for six seasons. The performance swings between them from race to race were massive.
In 2002 and 2004 the Bridgestone-shod Ferraris were hugely dominant, but the general feeling is that they would have been even more so had Michelin not been supplying Williams and McLaren. The tyre-change ban put Bridgestone out of the picture in 2005, but it came back hard in 2006, even if it was with a heavily Michelin-influenced tyre.
At the end of that year Michelin was gone, hounded out of the sport by an unlikely collusion of the teams and the FIA. The teams were struggling to bear the costs of the huge tyre-testing mileages, the governing body wanted a compulsory single supply in order to control lap speeds. Fine, but look where that's led.
It was an obvious mistake then - as this column in October 5 that year pointed out - and hindsight has simply backed that up. No one has yet explained why a test ban and a tyre war are mutually exclusive. They are not. In fact, without extensive testing in between races, the performance swings from one brand to another would be yet more extreme, giving a fantastic element of unpredictability not only from one race to the next, but at different stages of any race weekend.
At the moment the paddock thinking seems to be 'which company will replace Bridgestone?' A far better way of looking at it would be as an opportunity to open it to allcomers once more. You never know, if there was some worthwhile competition and kudos - together with some regulation that extended the necessary mileages of each set, thereby bringing the operating cost down - Bridgestone may even change its mind about leaving.
At the moment, with the abolition of fuel stops and the move back to low-fuel qualifying, there is no mechanism whatsoever for the race order to be significantly different from that of the grid. As such, a tyre war is needed more than ever. F1 should never have surrendered the one it had. It attacked the problem of associated costs from completely the wrong angle just for the sake of an easy life. There's a difference between costs and price. The price has duly arrived.
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