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Pirelli Enters Bidding War for F1 Tire Contract

Tire maker Pirelli has joined the competition to replace Bridgestone as designated tire supplier for Formula 1 in 2011 and beyond.  At the end of the 2009 season, Bridgestone announced that they would no longer continue as spec tire provider for the series.  Thus far, no replacement has been announced.  It’s no secret that Michelin and Cooper-Avon have made tentative bids to replace Bridgestone, and now Pirelli has entered the contest as well.

The competition for the tire contract has raised some interesting issues, however.  Michelin has made a bid on a conditional basis.  They’re interested in seeing a more direct benefits from their F1 efforts cascade to their production tires, and their other racing tires.  Formula 1 tires are unique because of their high profile, and Michelin would like to see the 13 inch rims that are currenntly used on F1 tires replaced by 18 inch rims.  This would make their work on F1 tires more relevant to their tire development for other venues.

Changing rim diameter wouldn’t necessarily change the ride height of the cars, but it would change the dimensions of the tire sidewalls significantly, which would affect the overall car suspension enormously.  The suspension on Formula 1 cars is extremely rigid, and effectively most suspension comes from the flex in the sidewalls of the tires, rather than from the carbon fiber suspension arms.  Naturally, reducing the sidewalls by 2.5 inches would force a redesign of the overall suspension system.

Michelin have also stated that they would prefer to provide tires in a competitive situation, as they have in the past.  In other words, they’re hoping for a tire war.  There would be two benefits here: Michelin would not be required to produce tires for the entire field; and the ongoing competition would force them to make progressive upgrades on an ongoing basis.  In a non-competitive  environment, the technology is more apt to remain static.  Note that Bridgestone has already produced all of the tires to be used for half of the 2010 season, and has designated the tire compounds to be used at each race.

Of course, having a single tire provider was part of Max Mosley’s plan to reduce Formula 1 team budgets.  A tire war wold complicate this scheme by forcing teams to devote more time and resources to the evaluation of different tire compounds.

Another important factor to consider is the in-season testing ban.  The ban was another measure introduced to hold down costs.  Under the old rules, during the tire war years, as much as 50% of all in-season testing was tire testing.  How tire development would proceed without testing is anyone’s guess.

The only real in-season testing that occurs now is on race weekends, during the three free practice sessions on Fridays and Saturdays.  But these sessions are relatively brief, and the teams are generally focused on setting up their cars for qualifying and the race. There is also a restriction on the number of tires that they have available during each race weekend, so this too might limit what sort of tire testing could be accomplished.

Another issue to consider is cost.  As Williams technical director Sam Michaels told Reuters recently, “Avon’s a lot cheaper [than Michelin] but it’s a less proven product although they’ve done plenty of highly competitive tyres.  They are a bigger unknown than Michelin because Michelin did it (in F1) very recently. But there is a significant difference in cost and you are probably talking over three times the difference in cost to the teams. So that’s what’s being debated at the moment.”

The general hope is that the issue will be decided by the time the teams meet in Barcelona next weekend for the Spanish Grand Prix.  McLaren boss Martrin Whitmarsh recently told Autosport, “I hope it will be sorted by Spain. We will see. At least we look like we are going to have some tyres next year.”

However, subsequent to the remarks made by Willams and Whitmarsh, Pirelli released the following statement: “Pirelli communicates its decision to present a technical and commercial offer for supply of tyres to all the teams in the Formula 1 world championship. The company plans to present the bid to FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) and FOA (Formula One Administration Limited) by 9 May, the date of the next Formula 1 Grand Prix to be held in Spain.”

So this is apt to complicate the tentative plan to reach a final decision in Barcelona. Perhaps the real tire war will exist in a conference room, rather than on the track.

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