Pirelli v Bridgestone: Why F1 won’t have another tyre war

The start of the 2005 United States Grand Prix. Indianapolis, June 2005.

The start of the 2005 United States Grand Prix. Indianapolis, June 2005.

With Bridgestone, along with incumbent suppliers Pirelli, believed to be in the running to be the sole provider of Formula 1 tyres from 2025 to 2027, the mention of the Japanese manufacturer evokes memories of an often fierce contest between rival tyre suppliers.

Bridgestone has a history of taking on other manufacturers in elite motorsport. From 2001 to 2006 they were locked in a tense battle for supremacy with Michelin, and before that, they disrupted Goodyear’s Formula 1 dominance in 1997 and 1998.

Formula 1 has had a sole tyre supplier since the 2007 season, and has no intention of moving away from it. Bridgestone’s final four-year stint in the sport was followed by a switch to Pirelli in 2011, who have since had the unenviable task of trying to please drivers, teams, Formula 1, the FIA and fans worldwide – and not always succeeding.

The additional competition won’t fit the current performance agenda

Your stance on whether or not more than one tyre supplier is needed likely depends on what you want to see from the future of Formula 1, but there are several reasons why, perhaps unfortunately, the battle for victory in the FIA’s sole tyre supply tender is probably the closest thing fans will have to any kind of ‘tyre war’ for some time.

The sport is always on the lookout for ways it can improve the show and add extra dynamics to the races, and their current preference for multi-stop races is to increase the strategy variation.

This stems back to the 2010 Canadian GP, when Bridgestone, who had created high-performing and durable tyres which warranted only one pit stop, had a rare off day when the colder temperatures and a resurfaced circuit resulted in higher tyre degradation and multiple pit stops, frequently shuffling the race order.

From there, Formula 1 tasked newcomers Pirelli with creating tyres that degrade at just the right amount to add extra spice to the races, which has happened with varying degrees of success.

Throw another tyre supplier into the mix, then the mission to intentionally limit tyre performance becomes harder, and would likely have to be discarded altogether and mandated through other methods, for example with two mandatory pit stops with each stint using a different compound.

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The double-edged sword of ‘form’ races

At its peaks, the Bridgestone versus Michelin battle added an extra element to race weekend predictions, with that weekend’s tyre ‘favourites’ depending on the temperatures, track surface, chances of rain and the importance of qualifying (Michelin frequently triumphed in one-lap pace on Saturdays).

Looking back slightly further, the variety in podium finishers of the 1997 season was helped by the Bridgestone versus Goodyear contest. The Prost and Arrows teams had races where they hit the front of the field – and almost claimed wins – partly thanks to racing on circuits which suited the Bridgestone tyres.

In contrast to having tyres which enables backmarkers to overperform, teams can be powerless when they’re receiving second-best parts. For example, a rule tweak to the 2005 season caught out Bridgestone, and subsequently reigning champions Ferrari, who were unable to compete with their Michelin rivals.

Is it healthy for the competition to have another factor which could prevent an otherwise-competent team from achieving success? Red Bull were left frustrated when Renault were unable to provide a power unit that could match runaway leaders Mercedes, did a lack of performance parity between suppliers deny the fans greater championship contests during Mercedes’ era of domination?

The added Formula 1 politics

The FIA’s invitation to tender dictates that a supplier must provide the same product to all teams, so logically they would apply the same prerequisite to any additional tyre manufacturer on the grid. However, when you incorporate the battle to be the ‘championship-winning tyre supplier’, then the product is naturally going to be designed around their front-running team(s).

In the most recent tyre war, Bridgestone threw technical support behind Ferrari, whereas Michelin naturally formed close links with whichever team was best placed to topple them at the time, be it Renault, McLaren or Williams. Naturally, the teams lower down the grid are more likely to have issues with a ‘you get what you’re given’ approach.

Whilst politics will forever exist in Formula 1, the intensity is amplified in the heat of competition between rival constructors and manufacturers.

The Michelin and Bridgestone battle featured lobbying and regulation changes, some with little notice at all. Whilst more processes are in place these days to prevent sudden rule tweaks, the noise, bluster and debate will still remain. It may be an extreme, anomalous case, but the controversial 2005 United States GP might have been resolved if every runner on the grid had Michelin tyres.

The sport’s sustainability and cost-cutting goals

In recent years, Formula 1 and the FIA have looked to intensify cost-cutting measures and reduce their environmental impact, such as efforts to streamline the busy calendar, and these efforts have extended to tyre use.

Formula 1 is already experimenting with reducing the number of sets of tyres used in a Grand Prix weekend, for example with the ‘Alternative Tyre Allocation’ seen at the Hungarian GP, and looking to reduce their carbon footprint by removing tyre blankets altogether – although this particular suggestion has been heavily resisted.

With all these incremental gains, suddenly having two tyre suppliers travel from race to race would increase the number of staff and equipment, along with increasing the overall freight and energy costs. One of the cornerstones of the current tyre tender is for the bidders to outline their sustainability strategies. Without drastic measures, this would become a moot criteria if the sport changes tactics to welcome another supplier.

Could Formula 1 create a tyre war again in the future?

With Formula 1 and the FIA trying to make steps to improve ‘the show’, along with tackling the substantial costs involved with competing in the sport, it’s hard to see any moves away from a single tyre supplier at the moment.

Considering that tyre strategies are part of what the sport relies on to create just the right amount of variability, they would have to be sure that the racing is competitive enough in other ways before throwing another potentially decisive factor into the mix.

Even then, the sport would likely have to be in some kind of ‘net zero carbon’ utopia before they consider the additional baggage of another supplier.

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