Compound fractures

The tyre battle in 1997 is but the latest of a war that’s been raging since the ’50s. Nigel Roebuck looks at the bald facts

At the 1977 Japanese Grand Prix, one kazuyoshi hoshino qualified 11th. There is no particular reason why this fact should detain us, save that Hoshino’s car, a locally built Kojima with Cosworth DFV power, was running on Bridgestone tyres. It was a one-off event for the Japanese tyre company, but now, 20 years later, Bridgestone is back in Grand Prix racing, and this time it is a full-scale onslaught on Goodyear’s longtime domination. Formula One has itself a tyre war again.

By and large, it cannot be said that the sport welcomes such a thing. Olivier Panis, his Ligier Mugen Honda apparently transformed by Bridgestones from midfield runner to pacesetter, may well feel differently about it, of course, as also will Damon Hill, as and when his Arrows-Yamaha comes on song, but the general feeling in the paddock has always been that tyre wars muddy the overall picture, remove one of the rare common factors, and make car and driver evaluation even more difficult.

What inevitably happens in these circumstances is that tyre development becomes intense, and cornering speeds sharply escalate, obliging the FIA to introduce compensatory rule changes to reduce downforce, or whatever. Changes to the cars are expensive, and therefore unpopular with those who build them.

However, Formula One is a free market (it says here), and Bridgestone wishes to compete in it. On the strength of testing results, it is more than ready, and its presence in 1997, at least will add a welcome wild card to the proceedings, for none of the major teams is contracted to it. That being so, we may well see cars in unusual places on the grid.

Tyre wars are nothing new in Grand Prix racing far from it. Goodyear may have had a virtual monopoly for more than a decade now, but often there has been more than one tyre company’s trucks in a Formula One paddock. In the early ’50s, Pirelli held sway, but in 1955 Enzo Ferrari, always a man with a keen eye for a dollar, was persuaded to run his cars on Belgian Englebert tyres.

Alberto Ascari crashed to his death while testing a Ferrari sports car at Monza in May that year, and Mike Hawthorn always ascribed the apparently unaccountable accident to the Engleberts’ tendency to ‘tuck under’ during hard cornering, letting the wheel rim dig into the track surface.

“They had cotton carcasses, those Engleberts,” Phil Hill recalls, “and they were pretty pliant. Used to get a lot of punctures. They were great in the rain, to the point that you could more or less forget about weather changes, but it always struck me that something great in the wet had to be doing something wrong in the dry…”

That was very much apparent at the Italian Grand Prix of 1956, run on Monza’s combined road and banked track. Maserati and Vanwall, on Pirellis, had no real tyre problems on a circuit with an average speed of 135mph, but the Ferrari drivers suffered terribly on their Engleberts.

Before their home crowd, Eugenio Castellotti and Luigi Musso left everyone behind at the start, but the tyres on both cars lasted precisely four laps.

Pirelli withdrew from Formula One at the end of 1957, and Englebert followed a year later, which left a clear field for Dunlop, which effectively had a monopoly until the arrival, in the mid to late ’60s, of the American companies, Firestone and Goodyear. There was virtual parity among the trio, one sometimes enjoying a temporary advantage over the others, but never more than that.

In terms of ‘wet’ tyres, Dunlop invariably held sway. For the 1968 German GP, conditions at the Nurburgring were as bleak and hostile as ever the track has known, with swirling fog as well as torrential rain. Jackie Stewart, in Ken Tyrrell’s Matra MS10, scored one of his greatest wins that day, finishing an almost unbelievable four minutes ahead of second man Graham Hill. JYS, it must be said, was in a class of his own, but even he would probably concede that his margin of victory owed much to the superiority of his Dunlops.

Some indication of their worth can also be gauged by the Dutch GP that same year; Stewart won again, but in second place also on Dunlops was the factory Matra V12 of Jean-Pierre Beltoise, which never went worth a damn in the dry.

Following Dunlop’s withdrawal, at the end of 1970, it was a straight fight between Goodyear and Firestone in the early ’70s, and the most famous ‘tyre race’ of the period was the Dutch GP of 1971, in which Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari and Pedro Rodriguez’s BRM both on Firestones left the rest behind. For Goodyear, it was a day of stark embarrassment, their first three runners (Beltoise, Hill and rain-master Stewart) finishing ninth, 10th and 11th, each lapped five times.

That season, 1971, was the first in which ‘slick’ tyres appeared. In the mid ’60s, writing in Autocourse, Dunlop’s P D Patterson commented that “It is a well known fact that on a smooth dry surface tread patterns do not increase grip, and in certain cases, because less rubber is in contact with the surface, grip may well be reduced.” Mr Patterson added that “It should be realised, of course, that these conditions are reversed in the wet…”

Thirty years on, those remarks come across like pointing out that in the morning it gets light and at night it get dark; with 20/20 hindsight, it seems mere commonsense that the bigger the contact patch of the tyre, the greater its grip, but still the fact remains that race tyres had tread until 1971.

The early days of slicks brought new problems, drivers on Firestones being troubled for quite a while by severe vibrations through fast corners. En route to pole position at Silverstone, indeed, Clay Regazzoni felt he was on the verge of blacking out, so great were the resonances going through his Ferrari. Goodyear found the solution to this problem rather sooner, but of course kept it to themselves. This was a tyre war, after all.

Special tyres for qualifying were, of course, inevitable. Overtaking may have been conspicuously easier then than in these downforce days, but still grid positions were of great importance. At the height of this particular folly, in the mid ’80s, when the most powerful of the turbocharged cars had as much as 1500bhp available for qualifying, a set of qualifiers would give you one quick lap and sometimes not the whole of it.

In the ’70s, their longevity was rather better but, even so, in the South African GP of 1974 Beltoise set some kind of record by running an entire race on them! Ultimately, his BRM on Firestones finished second.

By 1975, though, Firestone was gone, and a period of Goodyear monopoly began, but two years later Michelin arrived, in tandem with the Renault turbo project, and there began as intense a tyre war as Formula One has known. In 1978 Ferrari opted to go with Michelin, and at Rio, only their second race together, Carlos Reutemann’s car waltzed away from the very start.

Goodyear, for the first and so far only time, decided to pull out of Grand Prix racing for 1981, leaving Michelin supplying the bulk of the field, and the lesser teams using either Pirelli or… Avon, courtesy of Mr Ecclestone. Funny, one never thought of Bernie as an Avon Man…

When Goodyear returned after mid season, with Williams and Lotus, it was not initially on a par with Michelin, and Alan Jones, the reigning World Champion, lost no time in communicating this to me at the Osterreichring. As he did so, Frank Williams pleaded with him to say no more, then with me not to print Alan’s remarks. “No, bloody write it!” yelled Jones. “If it gets into print, something might get done about it!” Ah, those halcyon days before political correctness infected Formula One.

The most curious ‘tyre race’ of the period was the Long Beach GP of 1983. By this time many of the major teams had turbo engines, and the primary aim of the tyre companies was to create tyres suited to their needs. At Michelin, the priority was Renault, and this did not suit McLaren, which still had Cosworth V8 power, insufficient to generate enough heat to get the tyres up to their intended working temperature.

At Long Beach, John Watson and Niki Lauda qualified 22nd and 23rd, but in the race on a warmer day they did rather better. After 28 of the 75 laps, they were up to third and fourth, and by lap 45 ran one-two, where they remained to the flag, having lapped as much as two seconds faster than in qualifying. “Don’t ask me to explain it,” beamed Watson afterwards, “because I can’t…”

Qualifying remained the abiding problem of the McLaren-Cosworths that year, however. At Monte Carlo, the next street race on the agenda, Watson and Lauda might perhaps have duplicated their feat at Long Beach, had they had the chance. Once again, they set 22nd and 23rd times in qualifying but at Monaco only the fastest 20 made the grid.

Michelin cancel it a day after 1984, since when the only intrusion into Goodyear’s game has come, spasmodically, from Pirelli. The dominant suppliers of Grand Prix tyres in the ’50s it may have been, but its later ventures into Formula One were generally lacklustre, at best.

Responding, as Ferrari had done with Englebert, to an offer he couldn’t refuse, Bernie Ecclestone put his Brabhams on Pirellis in 1985, which did not sit well with team leader Nelson Piquet. The Brabham-BMW won a single race, in France, but my abiding memory of Piquet that year is from Estoril, where it rained. By lap 29, Piquet called it a day, but not before changing tyres six times! Such was his sense of urgency that during one of the stops he alighted from the Brabham, and retired to his pit to change overalls…

Pirellis were on the victorious Benettons of Gerhard Berger, in Mexico in 1986, and Piquet, at Montreal in 1992. Those wins apart, Goodyear’s run of success has been unbroken. Perhaps now, though, Bridgestone is set to break the mould. No one is betting against it.