Bridgestone announced this week that it will cease to be the spec-tire provider to MotoGP after the 2015 season. Meanwhile, former major MotoGP tire supplier of the pre-spec era, Michelin, announced it would supply tires to the much-admired Spanish CEV series through 2015. Series regular Kenny Noyes continues to test for Michelin.
Will Michelin return to MotoGP as supplier of spec tires? Might MotoGP revert to “open” tire competition after alternating seasons in which Bridgestone’s offerings appeared to penalize first Honda, then Yamaha? Bridgestone and Michelin are not the only tire makers in this world. Might a new maker in one of the emerging industrial world be tempted to “make its name” by taking on international racing, just as Bridgestone did?
Although each tire maker surely has its secrets, in general, all in the industry know current and future technologies equally, as there is a continual turnover of personnel (this was such a problem in the US in the 1920s that the tire majors agreed not to poach each other’s engineers). Cheng Shin slicks, anyone? Anybody remember those red Barum tires? Maybe just the thing to jazz up tomorrow’s grids!
Every successful tire company invents itself. Bridgestone entered Formula 1 in 1997 and shod the title winner a year later. The company entered 125cc GP in 1991 after finding its way in the All-Japan motorcycle championships. In 2001, Erv Kanemoto was asked to head a 2-rider test team on Honda NSR500s provided by HRC that would test and gather data on all the great tracks. Bridgestone assigned 38 full-time staff to the program. A year later, it entered MotoGP, had a podium in 2003, and in 2004, the impressive Makoto Tamada won Brazil and Japan on the new brand. Pundits that year called cool mornings “Bridgestone weather” because the evolving tires worked best at lower temperatures.
Ducati contracted with Bridgestone in 2005, reasoning that a one-on-one relationship could give the factory team something it could never have from series-leader Michelin: the full attention of a major tire-maker.
Michelin, having gone down a developmental road of ever-more-temperature-specific rubber, was unable to cope with a new rule requiring that all the tires to be used on a given weekend be present before practice—no more “Saturday-night specials” manufactured after practice and shipped in overnight. In 2008, Michelin was in disarray, and for 2009, a spec series was announced. Bridgestone was chosen as sole provider.
Since then, every bike maker had had to adapt his motorcycle to whatever Bridgestone brings—the reverse of the traditional process. New tires can be made overnight (Michelin won championships doing so), but it can take months and perhaps millions to adapt a motorcycle to unfamiliar tires. Why? Because the tires are parts of the motorcycle’s suspension. If the stiffness of the tires is changed, the flexibility of the motorcycle’s chassis may require corresponding changes to restore handling, stability, and resistance to chatter. What happens next? Which of the possibilities will be chosen? The businessmen at Dorna will decide that.