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Benetton jumps to Bridgestone

THERE have been rumors that Benetton would switch to Bridgestone for some months and last week the Enstone-based team confirmed that it will switch from Goodyear to begin "a long-term relationship" with the Japanese tire company. "Tires are the critical element to success and it is a very important decision for us," said Benetton's David Richards. "Bridgestone have been competitive in everything they have been involved in and they have gone on to win. We hope to give them their first win this season."

Benetton had been under contract to Goodyear until the end of 1999 but as the American tiremaker has said that it will not be supplying tires for the 1999 season, the contract is no longer valid and Benetton's David Richards said that he saw no point in continuing with Goodyear in 1998.

It is curious, therefore, that there has been no sign of movement to Bridgestone from Williams and Ferrari - Goodyear's top teams - and the implication is clearly that Goodyear has no intention of pulling out at the end of the year but used the announcement of a pull-out as a way of off loading some of the teams it supplies onto Bridgestone, without having to break any contracts.

It is perhaps significant that during a recent trip to Slovenia to conclude a deal for Goodyear to buy the Sava tire company Goodyear's chairman Sam Gibara is believed to have had secret talks with both Williams and Ferrari.

Certainly the Bridgestone management does not believe that Goodyear will be pulling out. At the Benetton launch Hiroshi╩Yasukawa, Bridgestone's F1 boss, said he expects to be competing against Goodyear in 1999.

Yasukawa said that there will not be any further teams in the Bridgestone camp this year - there had been rumors about Jordan. Bridgestone is now supplying McLaren, Benetton, Prost, Arrows, Stewart and Minardi, leaving Goodyear with Williams, Ferrari, Jordan, Sauber and Tyrrell.

According to Yasukawa the Bridgestone deal with Benetton was not discussed seriously until the beginning of this month and negotiations were concluded the night before Benetton launched the new B198 for its sponsors. A second launch for the media took place on Thursday. The new car, which has been designed by a team of engineers led by Nick Wirth, under the technical directorship of Pat Symonds, has already been tested in Spain with drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander╩Wurz driving. The team said it will have a test driver later in the year but at the moment all the track time is needed to give Fisichella and Wurz as much running as possible before the start of the season.

The Benetton sponsorship package is slightly different from last year with a much tidier package of sponsors. More space has been given to the team's title sponsor Mild Seven and the intention is clearly to convince Japan Tobacco - which owns the Mild Seven brand - to sign a new contract for the future. The current deal finishes at the end of this year and the Japanese are known to have been disappointed with the results achieved since the departure of Michael Schumacher. Richards and his marketing team - led by David Warren - are aiming to give Mild Seven a better deal than was the case in the old Benetton regime, headed by Flavio Briatore. Gone from the car are Gillette, Kickers and the Italian tile company PI Sa, while the deals with Agip, Akai and the Austrian telecom company A1 all have less space than previously, giving Mild Seven a much bigger impact. The Mecachrome engine remains unbadged.

While there is plenty of optimism at Benetton and a stable staff under Operations Director Joan Villadelprat, the team is having trouble with its dramatic new windtunnel. The project which was announced in April 1996 was due to be finished within 13 months but problems have led to considerable delays and the calibration of the tunnel will not now begin until May, which will mean that the tunnel will not be in use until the summer at the earliest, which will be 15 or 16 months behind schedule.

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