Formula 1 faces tyre crisis

Bridgestone’s decision not to re-apply for the exclusive Formula 1 tyre supply contract from 2011 has left the sport in a race to find an alternative candidate – one that can service a full grid in a little over 15 months.

After four years as F1’s sole supplier the company has decided that the huge cost involved no longer justifies the return. The decision was announced just hours after the final race of 2009 in Abu Dhabi.

The FIA and Bernie Ecclestone are keen to persuade Bridgestone to change its mind, but revised commercial arrangements would certainly be required. New FIA president Jean Todt enjoys a close relationship with the Japanese company, and that might tip the balance.

It was in May 2006 that the FIA launched an Invitation to Tender for the three seasons from 2008-10. At the time Bridgestone was locked in a battle with Michelin, but the French manufacturer – already bruised after the previous year’s US GP debacle led to a conflict with Max Mosley – chose not to bid. Bridgestone duly won the tender and in effect began its exclusive arrangement a year early, as Michelin chose not to participate in 2007.

Whoever replaces Bridgestone faces a huge task, especially as it could be some time before the tender process is resolved.

Developing suitable tyres in the time available won’t be easy, given that like Bridgestone the new supplier will be expected to produce four dry tyres (hard to supersoft) plus wets and intermediates. Also, the ban on refuelling from 2010 puts an extra demand on tyres in terms of both car weight and the length of stints.

The R&D process will inevitably involve a lot of testing, which will be expensive. In addition the logistics of supplying and servicing 13 teams, with more races outside Europe than ever before, are complex.

The teams will face a major challenge in adapting their 2011 designs for the new tyres, which inevitably will have different characteristics to the Bridgestones. Teams that switched from Michelin for 2007 had to make significant changes to their cars, and some struggled.

Michelin remains the only logical alternative to Bridgestone, but the reasons for its withdrawal from F1 – the lack of competition – have not changed. However, Mosley is no longer in power and former boss Edouard Michelin, with whom he clashed, died in May 2006.