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200 Grands Prix and counting - Bridgestone relive the landmarks 21 Aug 2008

Bridgestone's 200th Grand Prix anniversary. Hiroshi Yasukawa, Director of Motorsport  Bridgestone at the 1998 Australian Grand Prix. © Bridgestone Bridgestone's 200th Grand Prix anniversary. 2002 French Grand Prix. © Bridgestone Bridgestone's 200th Grand Prix anniversary. Ferrari's Michael Schumacher at the 2001 Hungarian Grand Prix. © Bridgestone Bridgestone's 200th Grand Prix anniversary. Oliver Panis celebrates his podium for Prost at the 1997 Brazilian Grand Prix. © Bridgestone Bridgestone's 200th Grand Prix anniversary. McLaren's Mika Hakkinen celebrates his win at the 1998 Australian Grand Prix. © Bridgestone

The European Grand Prix in Valencia will mark the 200th Grand Prix since Bridgestone’s full time Formula One entry as a tyre supplier in 1997. The Japanese company will celebrate this momentous milestone over the course of the weekend but on track it will be business as usual for Formula One’s official tyre supplier.

Had Bridgestone not followed its original plan however, they would not be celebrating race number 200 this season. Indeed, the Japanese company’s first season of racing should really have been one of testing and developing tyres away from the media glare, but so good were the results from Bridgestone’s initial running of their prototype tyres in 1996 that the decision was made to enter one season early.

“We had been looking at Formula One for a number of years but in 1996 we started the project for entering the sport,” explains Hiroshi Yasukawa, Director of Bridgestone Motorsport. “With the permission of Bernie Ecclestone we started testing with Tom Walkinshaw in 1996 and our first driver was Aguri Suzuki. Soon after, Damon Hill - the reigning champion - worked with us.”

Because this testing went so well, the entry date was brought forward. “We had no office or warehouse in the UK when the decision was made to enter a year early, and this put the pressure on, but we signed five teams for the 1997 season and achieved very good results for our first year of Formula One.”

There certainly weren’t many regrets. Despite going head to head with Goodyear, a tyre manufacturer with a long history in the sport, points were scored in the very first race by Bridgestone runner Olivier Panis, driving for the Prost team. Podiums were not far off either. The five teams that started the season using Bridgestone tyres - Prost, Arrows, Stewart Ford, Minardi and Lola - were not acknowledged as being the usual front-runners. Despite this, three second places were notched up during the course of the year, from Rubens Barrichello in Monaco, Panis in Spain and Damon Hill in Hungary.

Indeed, Hill’s Hungary performance goes down in motor racing folklore. The Englishman, driving for the unfancied Arrows team, qualified on the second row in Hungary, and then overtook Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari in the race. Arrows had never won a Grand Prix, and it looked like Hill was set for victory, until a technical problem meant Hill lost the lead to Jacques Villeneuve. Nevertheless, it was the first time a Bridgestone-shod car had led a Grand Prix since entering its first full season.

So was Hungary a case of Bridgestone getting its sums right? Hirohide Hamashima, Director of Bridgestone Motorsport tyre development, reckons that although the Bridgestone performance in their first season was good, in this race it was flattered by a wrong tyre choice from their rival.

“In our first season our tyres were performing better than expected,” says Hamashima. “However we were somewhat flattered in Hungary, as our strong performance also owes something to our former competitor. The Hungaroring requires a soft tyre, but our rival had gone perhaps too soft and they were suffering from blistering in the heat of the race. This was a valuable lesson for us, and it was satisfying to finish in second place even though our tyres were so close to being on the winning car of a Grand Prix for the first time.”

The next season did see the first victory, and pole position, on Bridgestone tyres, with McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen winning the season opener from the front. Hakkinen went on to win the drivers’ championship and the points that he and team mate David Coulthard scored were sufficient to give McLaren the constructors’ championship.

Bridgestone were the tyres on the winning car for nine Grands Prix that season, and it was the first time a Formula One title had been won on its tyres in only the manufacturer’s second season in the sport. For the third season, however, there would be a major change, after the announcement that Goodyear would leave Formula One, leaving Bridgestone as the sole tyre supplier.

“For me, the 1998 season and the first championship win is my best memory looking back over the 200 races,” says Yasukawa. “However, we then faced a difficult year. At the end of 1998 Goodyear suddenly stopped and in 1999 we were sole suppliers. It was just our third season, and we admittedly did not have enough experience. Suddenly we had to expand our man power, facilities - everything. It was a tough time for us. Fortunately, there were very good people at all the teams and everyone helped each other.”
Indeed, 1999 saw Bridgestone move from supplying six teams to supplying all of the 11 teams in Formula One, which was a big step. Mika Hakkinen won the title in the first season of sole supply by just two points from Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine. The next year, Michael Schumacher took his first drivers’ title for Ferrari, the Italian team’s first in 21 years.

In 2001 there was a return to competition with the return to Formula One racing of French tyre company Michelin. In that year Bridgestone supplied six teams while their new rival supplied five. The competition was hot from the word go.

“It is true that in our first period of being the only tyre supplier in Formula One we did not maintain our level of tyre development,” explains Hamashima, “and the initial performance of Michelin did surprise us so we had to focus ourselves and work harder than before.”

Six seasons of intense rivalry followed. Bridgestone worked closely with all its teams but it was the relationship with Ferrari and Michael Schumacher in this period that produced four drivers’ and four constructors’ titles.

“We have many good memories of our second period of being in a competitive tyre supply situation,” says Yasukawa. “It was certainly a time of intense competition, but through this competition the Bridgestone name became recognised around the world for providing high performance tyres.”

It wasn’t an easy ride however, and a change in regulations for the 2005 season pushed Bridgestone hard. Only one race was won using Bridgestone tyres in this season: the ill-fated US Grand Prix, where only Bridgestone-shod cars were deemed safe to race.
“In 2005 the regulations changed so that tyre changes were no longer allowed,” explains Hamashima. “We did not adapt to this change as well as our rival, and once we were behind it was difficult to catch up.”

In 2006, however, tyre changes were back and Bridgestone was fighting for wins once more with Michael Schumacher claiming the 100th win on Bridgestone tyres at that year’s German Grand Prix in Hockenheim. The title went down to the wire in an epic conclusion in Brazil but Schumacher and Bridgestone narrowly missed out on adding further titles to their tally before another era of competition came to an end.

Michelin withdrew from Formula One racing at the end of the 2006, meaning that for 2007, Bridgestone returned to a position of being the sole supplier. But, from 2008 until 2010 Bridgestone is the official tyre supplier, with its status as the only tyre supplier to Formula One racing mandated by the regulations.

“As we supply all of the competitors in Formula One we have very good relationships with the teams and the motor manufacturers involved, which is very good for us as a company,” explains Yasukawa. “And for the sport, we have seen very good, very close racing with Bridgestone supplying all of the teams.

“It has been an enjoyable 200 races, and the time has gone so quickly. I hope Bridgestone will enjoy another 200 races and more in the future.”