The unforgettable action from the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix, where Damon Hill, driving his Bridgestone-fitted Arrows, overtook Michael Schumacher and his Goodyear-shod Ferrari, has become an iconic moment in Formula 1 history. This was during an era known for its thrill-inducing tyre wars, where the combativeness between tyre companies played out on the tracks. However, over the years, the tyre wars have disappeared from the circuits and single-supplier deals are now far more prevalent.
The departure of tyre maker Michelin from F1 at the end of 2006 signaled the end of an era. According to Kees van der Grint, a long-serving Bridgestone engineer, it was a major event in recent motorsport history that led to a vanishing competitive landscape among tyre companies across various motorsport categories. “Some team bosses complained – and were obviously not the team bosses on Bridgestone – that they had the best car but, because they had no control over the tyre, they could not win,” van der Grint recalls. This dissatisfaction, combined with Michelin’s unwillingness to participate in a one-make tyre market, resulted in its exit.
Today, most major international and national race series have single-supplier deals. This has even become the norm in newer racing formats like Formula E, which ran with Michelin since its inception before switching to Hankook for its Gen3 cars. “Definitely we’re not interested in a tyre war. We’re way more interested in sporting equality. Having two sets of tyres, coming from two different manufacturers, could give you three seconds’ advantage. That would go, in my point of view, against the sporting equity of any sporting property,” says Alberto Longo, co-founder of Formula E.
In his view, van der Grint bemoans the decline of tyre wars. He perceives them as an essential part of motorsport competition and believes they added an element of unpredictability to the sport. “I don’t think a tyre competition would damage the show at all,” he contends. However, Marek Nawarecki, FIA director of circuit sport, counters that on-track attractions are just a small part of the whole picture when deciding whether tyre wars should return or not.
Siding with Nawarecki, British Touring Car Championship manager Alan Gow asserts that there are substantial advantages to moving away from tyre wars. With Goodyear being the sole provider until 2026, TOCA (the organising body) can keep rubber costs low. Moreover, single-supplier contracts can contribute significantly to cost savings and towards sustainability by reducing the production of rubber.
Test restrictions in the present day have also made it harder for teams and their partners to create custom tyres like Ferrari and Bridgestone did more than two decades ago. Reflecting upon that period, van der Grint admits it required a significant investment in time and labor.
He brings up how back then the “Ferrari was almost always running three days a week – not throughout the year but a significant amount of time – to fine-tune its tyres. This became an expensive exercise due to tire competition since Michelin was presumably doing the same”.
Once a tyre manufacturer isn’t focused on outperforming a rival, they can concentrate on balancing performance and durability of their product. The exclusive partnership of Goodyear with the LMP2 category in the World Endurance Championship exemplifies this. Mike McGregor, Goodyear’s Endurance programme manager mentions how this singular focus can lead to delivering better performing tyres within wider operational windows and also reduce logistical footprint.
In rallycross events for example, according to coordinator Tim Whittington, high-budget teams were using brand new tyres for almost every heat race, which proved wastefully excessive – “They were doing only 40 or 50 kilometres in an event.”
From a promoter’s perspective, it is also more commercially viable to work with a single tyre supplier. Thomas Voss, ADAC’s motorsport director names marketing and activation benefits that come with a solitary partnership – „It’s much easier to do all the marketing and activation things with one supplier than if you have two or three different.”
Safety, an integral aspect in motor racing, isn’t a strong argument against tyre wars according to van der Grint. Using the example of the Indianapolis incident in 2005 he states “had nothing to do with a tyre war” and was merely a result of Michelin “taking too much risk” with its two competitive specs that weekend. He argues that sustainability and tyre wars could co-exist, provided the “rulemakers write good rules” that highlight sustainability.
He adds that single-supplier deals don’t necessarily lead to increased sustainability, particularly if the tyres are being used primarily for tactical purposes. Citing the existing approach in F1 – where three different compounds are produced and transported every weekend, he termed it as “a waste of energy, a waste of rubber, a waste of resources” that “makes no sense anymore”.
He also argues that it would be beneficial for the tyre manufacturers if they were to compete against each other, just like the chassis and engine manufacturers are currently allowed to do so. He suggests that if the rulemakers want to slow the cars, as an outcome of escalating speeds, grooved tyres can be an effective solution – “it’s not a reason to stop the competition between tyre manufacturers”.
In the current environment, the focus has shifted towards promoting series as forward-thinking, with alternative powertrains taking center stage. Thomas Voss, in-charge of DTM, believes that tyres don’t intrigue most fans – “They don’t see the development in the tyres, they are still black and round since 200 years!”, he jokingly explains.
With the majority of the series now opting for single-suppliers, competitive participation is plunging in open forum competitions. Citing the reasons behind Michelin’s decision to step back from the Japanese series at the end of this season, Michelin‘s motorsport director, Matthieu Bonardel, points out – “To spend money just to beat Bridgestone, Yokohama… it’s fun, but it doesn’t have much value. We are not going to sell more tyres, because Japan is not a big market for us, and we won’t learn things we can use in endurance racing.”
In some series like the World Championship Rallycross, however, open-tyre competition isn’t completely out of picture. This is reiterated by Peter Thul, WRC Promoter’s senior sporting director who endorses tyre competition in the European Rally Championship, as many of its entrants are from national series, making it a different story from WRC’s factory-run cars.
Despite adding an element of uncertainty and variety to F1, it is generally accepted that reintroducing tyre wars to other disciplines wouldn’t necessarily enhance the spectacle. Peter Dumbreck, a seasoned driver with experience in Super GT and Nurburgring 24 Hours, opines that while tyre wars might speed up lap times, it also brings a lot of unnecessary complications.
He confesses that even though it exposed him to a range of experiences as a driver, “I spent too long in underdog teams,” resulting in a mismatch between his performance and results because of the tyres, which he now regards as a regret.
In conclusion, while tyre wars did provide intriguing outcomes and added a degree of excitement to past races, most stakeholders, from organizers to drivers, see the relevance of such competitions fading in the current era of motorsport. Consequently, the likelihood of a return seems bleak.