How the Japanese firm plan to keep their title crowns
Formula One tyre suppliers Bridgestone had to fight harder than ever in 2003 to prevent rivals Michelin snatching their drivers and constructors titles. Though they retained their advantage in the wet, the Japanese company often struggled to match the pace of their French rivals in the dry.
Ahead of the season opener in Australia, Hirohide Hamashima, Bridgestones Head of Motorsport Tyre Development, and Hisao Suganuma, their Technical Manager, talked to the companys press office about their progress over the off season and the finer points of their planned 2004 campaign.
Hirohide Hamashima: Despite changes to tyre regulations in 2003, nine wins were achieved in sixteen rounds and Michael Schumacher and Ferrari successfully defended their titles. At the beginning of last season, we did not feel we could make wholesale changes to an approach that had produced a triumphant result in 2002, and consequently the development may have been a little bit conservative. But, after the middle of the season, by capitalising on certain features of our tyres, I think we were able to develop them to become competitive for both qualifying and over sprint race distances. Of course, it still cannot be said that more is not required, and further development will continue. It should also be remembered that in the 2003 season, we showed great strength in wet conditions in the Brazilian Grand Prix when Giancarlo
Fisichella won the race in the Jordan. It had been a long time since we saw a private team without a works engine win in Formula One, and we are proud to have supported such a team so well.
Q: How do you make best use of the results of 2003 for this season?
HH: The first task is to improve the grip of the tyres. Although it is important to retain Bridgestone's characteristically stable performance in all conditions, that alone will not be enough to be competitive under the current regulations. Whether in qualifying or when the cars are heavier and full of fuel, tyres must perform well and be quickest whenever the need arises, no matter how brief the opportunity might be. For this purpose, even though stability may be slightly compromised, it is important to develop tyres that grip more effectively. Therefore this season, providing tyres to suit the characteristics of each circuit and being able to select "high performance tyres that show minimum degradation" or "high grip tyres that achieve the quickest time at any opportunity" becomes the technical objective. One other thing: if we can reduce degradation of grip in a hot summer race, I think our tyres will become even more competitive.
Q: Bridgestone is supplying fewer teams this season compared to last. How do you cope with this in terms of collecting information?
HH: Although we are supplying one less team, we have never reduced engineering resources and support in the UK. On the contrary, by increasing manpower relative to the number of teams we have, we have developed a structure that satisfies the demands and needs of the teams we support. Also for this year, Bridgestone support staff will get more closely involved with the teams and with the sharing of information, and we shall be working on the principle of always thinking what we can do in conjunction with them. In other words, we shall be aiming to "work with" rather than "for" the teams. This should ensure that we supply tyres and team support that satisfies each one of them.
Q: What are your aims for the 2004 season?
HH: Of course, it is our aim to defend the championship for the Ferrari team. This will be our priority, although partners like Sauber, Jordan and Minardi are going to want to achieve better results than they did last year. In 2003, in addition to our staff in the field and our engineers in MSUK (Bridgestone Motorsport UK), our colleagues in Japan involved in development and production all did their best, so the title was achieved by the whole company working together. It is important to continue to encourage this kind of cooperation. In 2004, it is clear that the season is going to be even more fiercely competitive than ever before. All our people will therefore be determined to do the best they can by working together again in the same way.
Q: This has been a particularly busy year for you. Tell us a little about your schedule over the past few months.
Hisao Suganuma: Well, I managed to take a short break after the final round in Japan last year but after that it has been non-stop! I spent the first few weeks making some internal organisational changes, which should see us operating more efficiently, and planning our winter test programme. This was when the foundations were laid really. Once that was done, we visited each of the teams, explaining last year's strong and weak points with the tyres. We then explained the test schedule for this winter, going through it with them and making sure they understood it. This was followed by three consecutive weeks of testing before the Christmas test ban. And since the ban lifted we have been testing extremely hard. It's been busy!
Q: When did the test programme for 2004 commence?
HS: I would say our 2004 fundamental studies began half way through the 2003 season.
Q: How many kilometres of running have the Bridgestone teams completed solely in tyre tests?
HS: Our four teams between them have covered approximately 17,000kms just for tyre testing - this is not the total number of kilometres covered by the teams, it is just for tyre testing.
Q: There have been several sporting regulation changes for the 2004 season. Explain how these may affect Bridgestone's programme from a practical point of view?
HS: We need to be more careful with strategies. For example, the permitted increase in pit lane speeds from 80km/h to 100km/h means that we can perhaps expect more multi-stop strategies. What was formerly a two-stop circuit may become a three-stop circuit. And consequently we need to think about the sort of tyre performance we need in those circumstances. With shorter race stints wear durability becomes less important in comparison to speed and grip.
Q: This year, teams have to make their final tyre spec choice by 9am on Saturday (or 1pm if both Friday's sessions were wet). How do you think this will affect the teams and Bridgestone? Does it make the choice more difficult?
HS: This is an interesting change to the regulations but not one that should affect us too much. It should be possible to make your choice by the end of the two, one-hour practice sessions. When we look back at the 2002 season, it was not uncommon to have a clear indication of our tyre choice by the end of Friday.
Q: This year, the FIA has banned launch control. Will this have any significant effects?
HS: Again, this shouldn't be too much of a problem. We are always looking to increase traction performance anyway.
Q: The technical regulations have also changed this year regarding the size of the rear wing. How will this affect the performance of the Bridgestone tyres do you think?
HS: The changes to the rear wings may decrease downforce at the rear of the cars but so far we have not noticed much sliding at the rear on the tyres. This is because teams have tried to counter-act the rear wing size alteration and have designed the cars to generate more downforce mechanically.
Q: Mr Hamashima has already spoken about dry tyre development aims but what developments have Bridgestone made to ensure its wet weather tyre advantage is retained?
HS: Although we were not able to use this advantage very often last year, when we did, the Bridgestone teams benefited enormously. As a result, we can expect our rival to concentrate on this area. We too have been vigilant and have made good all round developments in our wet tyres. Like our dry tyres, we have looked at every aspect of their construction, shape, compound and tread pattern.
Q: There are two new circuits on the calendar this year, Bahrain and Shanghai. How will Bridgestone prepare its tyre specifications for circuits it has no data for?
HS: We shall be considering our tyre choices for these new circuits very carefully with the teams, making use of their circuit simulations. These can assist us with expected speeds and G forces in each area of a circuit and although there is no substitute for testing at the circuit itself, this should be very helpful. We may even be able to draw comparisons with European circuits. And of course we will be looking to find out about the track surfaces. Local weather conditions will also be considered - especially in Bahrain. Sand may be a factor in high winds but we need to know how likely this is. But, I have to say we are very much looking forward to the challenges of Bahrain and Shanghai.
Q: Belgium also returns to the calendar this year. Spa-Francorchamps is a genuine driver's circuit and its track layout must pose some interesting challenges for a tyre manufacturer. Are you looking forward to Spa?
HS: Very much so. It has been a good circuit for us in the past and we intend to make every use of this fact and turn it to our advantage.