Whether or not grand prix racing should go back to the kind of tyre war that existed from 2001 to 2006 is a frequent topic of debate among F1 fans. But, if it one day chose to pursue that path, it would become a major outlier in global motorsport.
These days, you can pretty much count the number of high-level championships, at least on four wheels, that feature any sort of active tyre competition on one hand: the FIA World Endurance Championship (although, from next year, only in the GTE classes), the Nurburgring Endurance Series, and of course SUPER GT.
One common denominator among these three series is that Michelin is involved in all of them, as well as various other series as a spec supplier, including MotoGP and Formula E. But there’s only one championship in which it can routinely measure itself against its old rival Bridgestone, and that’s on its foe’s home turf: Japan.
Despite the fact the French concern only supplies four cars in the 45-strong field, and only two in the top GT500 class, that gives Michelin’s SUPER GT effort a unique importance.
“Bridgestone is our rival – not only in motorsport, but in the global tyre business,” says Hiroaki Odashima, Michelin Japan’s Motorsports Director. “When the Clermont-Ferrand factory was closed due to COVID-19, the first products they produced when they resumed was the GT500 tyre [used by Nissan]. That is the evidence that the priority is here.
“Michelin invests in this championship as its first priority among its motorsport activities. We use the technology from GT500 development in other championships like WEC.”
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
By any conceivable metric – titles, wins, number of cars supplied – there’s no doubt that Bridgestone is the top brand in GT500. Perhaps its dominance of its home championship isn’t a surprise, given that since it withdrew from F1 at the end of 2010 and MotoGP at the end of 2015 its only major commitment on the international stage has been its sole supply of the NTT IndyCar Series via its Firestone brand.
Of its rivals, which also include Yokohama and Dunlop, Michelin is the one that has always provided the closest competition since it returned to the series in 2009.
Before their struggles for supremacy in both F1 and MotoGP in the 2000s, it was actually in Japan in the 1990s that the Bridgestone-Michelin rivalry really took hold, back in the days of the old Super Touring-based Japan Touring Car Championship (JTCC).
“When we started JTCC in 1994, there was Bridgestone, Yokohama, Dunlop, Toyo, Falken, very exciting tyre wars,” recalls Odashima. “Unfortunately, the championship ended after the 1998 season, but in those five years, only Michelin and Bridgestone were champions. That’s how Michelin discovered fighting against Bridgestone.”
After the demise of the JTCC, Michelin joined GT500 in 1999 and would supply the TOM’S Toyota team (which won the title in 1997 on Bridgestones) for five seasons, but enjoyed only limited success before slipping away at the end of 2003, scoring three wins in that time.
Having quit F1 at the end of the 2006 season, Michelin made the decision to go back to Japan in 2007. It spent 2008 testing, and then the following year it supplied just one car, Hasemi Motorsport’s Nissan GT-R, which delivered the firm’s first GT500 win since 2001 when Ronnie Quintarelli and Hironobu Yasuda took the spoils at Sepang.
#3 Hasemi Tomica Ebbro GT-R: Ronnie Quintarelli, Hironobu Yasuda
Photo by: Andy Chan
The next year, Michelin began supplying Nissan’s works NISMO team, but after a winless campaign the ‘red car’ was back on Bridgestones in 2011. Fellow Nissan squad MOLA, racing in GT500 for the first time, instead took over the Michelin deal, and drivers Quintarelli and Masataka Yanagida incredibly beat the factory car to the title by 11 points.
While that meant Michelin achieved its goal of winning the title in the third year of its comeback, it marked Bridgestone’s first-ever championship defeat in GT500, and over the next four seasons three more would follow. MOLA pair Quintarelli and Yanagida triumphed for Michelin again in 2012, before NISMO – now back on Michelins – took back-to-back championships in 2014-15 with Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda driving.
Rui Yamamoto, Bridgestone’s Motorsport Division Manager, recalls of that time: “I arrived in 2014, and it was very frustrating for us. Until the last round we were battling for the championship, but they had more potential than us. The engineers knew it. That gave us the energy to want to win and get the title back from them.
“And then all that energy and not wanting to lose again enabled us to win the championship from 2016-19. [Losing to Michelin] was a big motivation for us.”
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Indeed, from the 2017 rules cycle onwards Bridgestone has re-established itself as the dominant tyre brand, having won 24 of the 29 races held in that time period. Of the remaining five, Michelin has won four – one per season – and Dunlop one, the 2017 Suzuka 1000km. Meanwhile, you have to go back to 2016 for Yokohama’s last victory.
Bridgestone’s numerical superiority of course helps, as it supplies nine cars out of the 15 GT500 runners, but the fact it supplies all three manufacturers in the class also puts it at a major advantage. Michelin’s fortunes by contrast are tied up with those of Nissan, which itself hasn’t done too much winning in the last few seasons with the ageing GT-R platform.
Odashima says: “With Nissan, since we came back here, we have had a good relationship, especially with the NISMO team. And it allows to compare against Bridgestone [used by Team Impul within the Nissan camp], on the same car.
“However, from a sporting point of view, with the race results, we are not happy with the situation. For Nissan, it’s been a difficult time for them with the car. From a tyre point of view, I am confident, but it’s not been enough so far.”
Michelin may only supply Nissan for now, but it did have brief dalliances with Toyota and Honda in the past. And Odashima makes it clear that the firm would like to one day rekindle those relationships to give itself a better chance of besting Bridgestone.
“When we had SARD, in 2011-12, they were among the best Lexus teams, and I still believe our tyre performance helped them do that,” he says. “Also when we had Dome, they were the best Honda [in 2014] and always close to the championship. The teams that took our tyres were often in the best position among that car manufacturer.
#39 Lexus Team Sard Lexus SC430: Juichi Wakisaka, Hiroaki Ishiura
Photo by: Hisao Sakakibara
#18 Weider Modulo Dome Racing Honda HSV-010 GT: Naoki Yamamoto, Frederic Makowiecki
Photo by: SUPER GT
“Our objective is not to have a majority of GT500 cars. Our capacity is probably three or four cars maximum. There is room for more, we are not closing the door. The door is open for other manufacturers. But it’s not our decision unfortunately.”
Bridgestone’s Yamamoto says that supplying nine of the 15 GT500 cars comes with its own challenges, admitting that the optimal number would be “just a couple of cars per manufacturer”. But changing tyre suppliers is a rarer thing that you might think for a series where there are no fewer than four brands from which to take your pick.
Indeed, excluding new teams, the last squad to switch allegiance was NISMO all the way back in 2013, when it swapped its Bridgestones for Michelins the second time.
“The relationship between us and the teams and the car manufacturers is important in Japan, so it’s difficult to make a drastic change,” explains Yamamoto. “Also, historically, Michelin wasn’t here, and most GT500s were using Bridgestone in the past.
“In SUPER GT, [success is about] the collaboration between the manufacturer and tyre. Making a good combination is difficult, testing is very limited, so to change to another manufacturer takes time to adjust the settings of the car. There’s not much opportunity.”
And so, for the time being at least, it seems as if Michelin may well be stuck with just two cars in GT500, both of which are Nissans. But even though the odds are heavily stacked in the favour of Bridgestone, it’s clear that Michelin intends to keep up the fight.
“Japan is a very special market for us, because it’s Bridgestone’s home market,” says Odashima. “It might be a strategy for them to become a single tyre supplier [as happened in F1 and MotoGP], but here they cannot leave, because it’s their home country.”
Bridgestone’s Yamamoto concludes: “Especially this year because of coronavirus, transporting the tyres [from France to Japan], it’s tough for Michelin. After every race, they have to analyse the tyres and create new tyres that will be better, and that takes time. They are putting in a lot of effort in this championship, and we are honoured to battle against them.”
Photo by: Masahide Kamio