Interview

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Jeremy Ferguson, talking about tyres with a Dunlop devotion

I do not know what secret ingredient binds the denizens of Dunlop’s competition division to that company, but whatever the mixture comprises, it is remarkably effective, Once employed on the north side of B Block, a gigantic hangar shrouded only by Fort Dunlop’s Satanic bulk, the familiar faces seem content to stay for the remainder of their working lives.

During the last four years their manager has been a man who symbolises this Dunlop devotion, a loyalty that is not reflected in sentiment, but by the fact that competition people tend to think of Jeremy Ferguson and Dunlop in the same breath. He is painfully honest about his division and the problems that they must face, some of them perfect reproductions of the difficulties the main company are also encountering. There is no need for doom and gloom, for the competition side has a remarkable growth record over those four years, but when you are surrounded by Leyland plant and labour pickets the unease felt by much of today’s working population cannot be ignored.

Facts: the Dunlop Competition Centre comprises 23 staff, exactly the number when Jeremy first arrived to look after the needs of rally customers in 1967. Today they handle over £1 million of business centred around the sale and service support of 75,000 competition covers every year. The business principally covers car racing and rallying, plus motorcycle racing. Currently they are exploring the extension of their motorcycle business, having successfully marketed a rear cover for speedway use, and they are still working on off-road moto cross applications for their tyres. Their latest brainwave is the import of Japanese Kart rubber! As Jeremy says, “we’re always on the look out for new ways to increase our business.”

To get the inevitable hoary old chestnut out of the way I pounced on this comment by saying, “does that mean there’s now room again for Dunlop in Formula One? After all your tyres went really well in the final Japanese round of the championship last year, so is it time to stage a comeback?”

Ferguson winced at the thought of Goodyear’s problems while saying, “well, let’s put it this way. I would not want to be in Goodyear’s (winged) shoes with a monopoly. I mean they just have everything to lose when there are problems with the covers, and nobody to drum up support inside the company for competition, as there is no organised opposition. Having said that I must say we really were delighted, and surprised, by the performance Dunlop Japan put in at Mount Fuji. I mean, we think they were about one notch off on compounds, but their man still qualified fourth quickest in the dry, and put up a stormer of a race in the wet. I think this shows one basic truth: there’s been little, if any progress since Firestone and ourselves departed from the scene, and I think that performance really proved it. All the sticky-tyre-qualifying technology has gone right out of the window now.

“However, even with that booster to morale I do not think our basic plan in competition has changed. That is to work closely with manufacturers of touring cars yes, even a Group 5 Porsche Turbo is a touring car (more about that later J. W.) in their competition programmes. This means the public can see our equipment fitted to a recognisable shape, in most cases, or one that is tied, as in Porsche’s case with their Group 6 sports car, with a reputable manufacturer of road cars. So the real answer is that I cannot see Dunlop ever wanting to go back into F1,” Ferguson finished.

However, there is a little word that could make a difference, in the writer’s opinion, and that word is Michelin. The French company are respected by all their rivals in the industry now, virtually everyone now having to switch to the steel braced radial concept, in which the giant Gallic family concern have the best part of 30 years practical and sales experience. Michelin arc presently scrapping tooth and nail with Dunlop in the bike competition business, and they are already potent suppliers of competition covers in saloon cars in European competition, and various Renault-Alpine projects. There is, of course, a distinct chance of Michelin appearing in Formula One on the new Renault-Alpine turbo. The writer can only conjecture that the spectacle of Michelin in F1 could tempt Fort Dunlop back into the F1 fray, but it is a very remote chance, as there is still the argument that modern F1 holds no relevance to production car customers.

Our next topic concerned the proposed London-Australia Marathon to be held in September this year. First I asked Ferguson’s opinion of these arduous road races and he made some extremely valid points. “The fundamental thing to remember is that we are never going to get the impact of that first 1968 event again. that gained tremendous coverage, and was a thoroughly worthwhile exercise for us, especially with nine of the first ten equipped with our covers.

“I think there’s always going to be room for this kind of modern adventure but we must have at least a year’s notice of the organiser’s intentions. Now we’re in the situation that, in four months’ time, there is going to be a full-scale Marathon with an enormous Australian mileage.. I feel that the event should be happening now, yes right now, when the Queen is in Australia, there’s centenary cricket going on, and all the British press are already settled into the country. If it had finished now then we could have had decent coverage.

“However, our situation is plain. If Ford are to make a serious works effort (it was only rumour at press time, but there was talk that Ford had attracted sufficient sponsorship to run their four car Safari team of Escorts on this marathon) then we will be with them, giving 110 per cent support. I’m not keen and I don’t think anyone else is on a personal basis, because we have already allocated,” he grins for a brief respite, “yes we’ve already spent this year’s budget. and I can remember how much it cost In 1968. Today the costs could he quadrupled. I don’t know precisely because we haven’t even seen the regulations. I ask you, how can we plan for an event with out even seeing what sort of ground we have to cover?”

In precise terms the sales of racing tyres have doubled, and the rally side trebled in the last four years. I asked how this could be ? Jeremy felt, “well there have been the usual reasons people give when being interviewed it’s a good product and a good range, but in our case not only have we been able to say this truthfully we have also had it available to sell.

“In this connection, perhaps our biggest breakthrough has been the co-operation we now have with the main plant. For example, we are now fully incorporated within their computer system. This means I can discover, at the push of a button, just what stock we hold, and where it is. I can also find out how our dealers are placed, and how customer orders are progressing.”

What Ferguson does not add, and is unlikely to talk about in public at all, is his role in making sure that any of this occurred at all. Between jobs within the competition department, Jeremy spent two years as the personal assistant to Geoffrey Wheater, who is now on the main Dunlop board with responsibilities for all Dunlop’s European operations, including Pirelli. Reading between the lines, Ferguson must have spent considerable energy in securing co-operation between the specialist demands of competitions and the main factory. This is even more apparent because Ferguson also retains an active interest and an “insider” view on the tyre business in general, rather than talking avidly just about compounds and wear rates in competition.

I asked what had been the most significant technical event since he had been in charge? Ferguson replied carefully, “I think we have to say the introduction of the A2 rally tyre. Everything else we have done has been the result of logical development. Like the 16 and 19 in. diameter tyres we have used in racing for touring cars. All of that came as a result of the Capris and so on: they went from 13 in. diameters to 15 in., and the rest followed, particularly when you take into account the lower and lower profile tyres that we could offer.

“With the A2 it was different. We went completely against the stream of logical thought, offering in effect a low profile racing tyre for use in the forests. We have to be careful not to get drawn too far down the British development path, for UK rallying is most appositely described as ‘forest racing,’ That description is nearly correct, and you can find your company pursuing a development path that is really only suitable to this country. The A2 has a place in Europe, but I still cannot see it as a 100 per cent answer for a complete event in Europe.

“We have now ensured that the A2 is usable on the road by obtaining DoT recognition. That sounds simple, but it means that the tyre has had to move from its simple rallycross-winning background (Escort protagonist John Taylor should take a bow at this point) to include, within the same basic idea, stronger sidewalls, a harder compound and a generally sturdier construction to ensure that it can comply with the careless rigours of everyday motoring.”

While the A2 cover is presently restricted to A60 H13 and B50 H15 sizes only, the rest of the Dunlop rally range comprises a truly fascinating bunch. Prices begin at £13.15 for an SP Super in 10 in. Mini dimensions and escalate to £40 a cover, or more, for the A2 range. Within that range there are nine different types of tyre offered for sale to the public. Seeing them all together shows the amazing diversification that still exists between manufacturers today. On the one hand you have the Scandinavian, or SAAB approach, based around tall, thin, snow tyres of 15 in. diameter, while companies like Ford may well run either 195/70 MS Mk2 “chunkies”, or the same section in A2 forest racing wear.

While Mr Ferguson could unhesitatingly point to the road adaption of the previously demon tweak A2 to the realms of normality, via the fact that his wife was out at that moment floating the family barge round on such covers, there is one rally that offers no such generalities. That is the Safari tyre of which Jeremy says, “outwardly there’s an MS Mk.2, but underneath there have to be larger differences. Remember what the tyres are going to cope with, and it’s unique. The average speed for the total event is something over 6o m.p.h., and the tarmac sections, on which you will often need fuel, are over 70 m.p.h. averages. Now look at the kind of heat you get in Africa, and the requirement to put up a good performance over tarmac and loose surface, and you begin to see our problem.

“In fact the Safari tyres are unique ones. They have to be capable of running continuously at 125 m.p.h. In the past you might have achieved this by making the tyre grip-less over the loose. Now the event is so much more competitive, that you dare not let anyone go out without the very best in grip, wear and tarmac speed resistance, all of them virtually totally opposed qualities.

The cream on top of the Dunlop programme this year includes two Porsche factory assaults, in Group 5 form with the 935 and Group 6, where the 936 will contest Le Mans only. Despite the fact that Porsche have gone from Goodyear to Dunlop on the 936, and there is the first chance in a long while for Dunlop to equip a Le Mans winner, the other programme that must dominate Dunlop thinking at present is the Leyland Cars Jaguar for the Group 2 European Touring Car Championship. Prepared by Broadspeed, the 5.4-litre Jaguar coupes are a truly weighty problem for the tyre manufacturer, for they have to run over Europe’s faster tracks (long since abandoned, or not even considered by the GP circus) for up to 6 hours. Since a 5-litre plus Jaguar should have at least 500 horsepower, and massive amount of torque, one can appreciate that Dunlop have had to build up tyres with very rigid carcase construction indeed. While the Porsches have settled for 16 in diameter front wheels and 19 in. diameter rears, the Jaguars will use 19 in. diameters all round. This had meant the preparation of two entirely new covers, measuring nearly 15 in wide at the rear and slightly less up front, available in either wet or dry tread patterns; there are also still differences in compound from front to rear to consider. even if the Jaguars do not show as well as expected, and with the current industrial troubles at Leyland, even a sporting enthusiast must wonder if the company will be able to maintain their competition programme at its present highly encouraging level, Dunlop are still ahead. The Birmingham-based team will also be looking after the needs of what look to be the Jaguars’ chief opponents, the well-proven BMW CSLs to be run by Luigi and Alpina this season.

Summing up the position in Britain Ferguson said, “we have the RAC-approved monopolies in FF1600 and 2000, plus 2000 Sports. In Europe we have a separate VW deal to look after Super Vee. We are developing, or have developed, suitable tyres for Formula Atlantic and Formula Three. With the latter we were almost there this year (Goodyear secured the British monopoly approval) and we’re going to carry on trying to get this one . . . Especially in Italy where the F3 boys can still run our stuff and give us a continuous development programme. Obviously, with our Leyland ties, both sides are disappointed that Goodyear have to be run on the Unipart Marches it is the only programme where we are not with Leyland this season, but there’s nothing we can do about it until the F3 cars run outside Britain.”

Finally I asked what improvements he could imagine the organising bodies could make to improve the competition tyre manufacturer’s lot. A crisp reply was immediately forthcoming, “first, I would like common regulations on studs, the length, number and type between all three major winter rallies. Secondly, we hear rumours that a rim width proposal is about to be made for rally cars … I think they should consult all the interested competition tyre manufacturers before this is done. Otherwise we will have another drop-of-the-hat decision to regret.” J.W.

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