Motor-racing: Wheel to wheel combat

David Tremayne welcomes the tyre wars which give the sport a new edge
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The Independent Online
It's a simple tradition in Formula One: tyres are "round, black and boring", end of story. As Goodyear discovered back in 1986 when the explosion of one of their products cost Nigel Mansell the world championship, the only time they are news is when they go wrong. But this year the subject of tyres has thrown the sport a much- needed talking point to sustain interest at a time when races were in danger of becoming predictable. A Williams-Renault would win, you just had to guess which driver.

Now, that may all change thanks to a declaration of war on the former monopoly holder Goodyear by the Japanese giants Bridgestone, who will enjoy the added bonus of having the world champion Damon Hill racing on their products. Indeed, as far as Hill is concerned, Bridgestone are a potential trump card that could help him vault his TWR Arrows Yamaha past many more-fancied runners.

Pre-season hyperbole? Possibly not, for the French driver Olivier Panis has been setting remarkably fast lap times in the Prost (formerly Ligier) throughout the winter, and Goodyear and their runners have been paying very close attention. When Bridgestone took on Goodyear in the CART series for Indianapolis-type cars in America, the results were explosive.

"Our target this year is to make sure that we have the right structure to support Formula One," Hirohide Hamashima, Bridgestone's manager of international motorsports, said. "We must make sure that we have the right logistics and service as well as performance. If we perform reasonably at each grand prix, we shall be very happy."

Not exactly overly-optimistic stuff, for that is the Japanese way. Mention what everyone else is talking about - the likelihood of victory - and Hamashima laughs coyly and concedes: "Yes. that would be nice!" But below the surface Bridgestone are very confident.

If they are maintaining a diplomatic silence, others are doing the talking for them. "I think the Bridgestones are great," Hill said. He tried the tyres at Suzuka at the end of last season on an elderly Ligier, and set a time which would have been good enough for fourth place on the grid for last year's Japanese GP. "There is every chance that Goodyear could end up with some red faces," Hill added.

Goodyear have so far contented themselves with intensive development, and their UK racing manager, Tony Shakespeare, said: "We are just going to do what we have to, and will continue making the best products we can to keep winning."

After all the hype the tyre situation will become a great deal clearer when reality imposes itself in Melbourne next week. Goodyear have only raced there once before, as the Grand Prix switched to the venue from Adelaide last year, so Bridgestone will be at less of a disadvantage on their debut.

Hill's team boss, Tom Walkinshaw, is ebullient about Arrows' prospects with Bridgestone. "I believe that in 50 per cent of the races there will be little or nothing to choose," he says, "and that in the other 50 per cent there will be quite a dramatic performance advantage swing." With the field split evenly between the rivals, that could throw up surprises.

A tyre war is often a tedious screen that obscures the true pecking order but right now, for Formula One, it is a godsend.