Bridgestone’s marketing department started 2007 with an unusual problem. For the first time in several years they were going to be the sole Grand Prix tyre manufacturer, and whilst it looks good to have ‘Official tyre supplier to Formula One’ on a billboard it also comes with a downside. Without any competition, the only time people are going to be talking about tyres is when one of them fails and that isn’t good publicity.

At least Bridgestone had a plan. From 2001 they have been the sole tyre supplier to the Champ Car series through their Firestone brand. In an effort to keep people talking positively about tyres they were able to impose a rule last year forcing all drivers to use two different compounds during the race. By doing so, the tyres became in integral part of the strategy and were never far from the spotlight.

Bridgestone was hoping a similar rule could be introduced into F1, and as a result they successfully lobbied the FIA to force all teams to run two compounds during the races in 2007. The idea was that this would liven up the racing and keep the word ‘Bridgestone’ in people’s minds.

Well, their strategy sure worked. Tyres were the talk of the town in Melbourne this weekend as the new rule kept fans second-guessing.

It didn’t keep the teams second-guessing though as everyone decided to run the softer of the two compounds at the end of the race. The thinking is that by the end of the Grand Prix, the majority of positions have been decided and most drivers will be cruising to the finish. A bit of extra tyre wear in these circumstances isn’t going to hurt as much as it does at the start.

Only Massa, Barrichello and Heidfeld started on the ‘option’ tyre. At first it looked like the softer compound was making a huge difference for both Barrichello and Heidfeld who were far quicker than their teammates. However, looks can be deceptive. Heidfeld only had 14 laps of fuel on board and fell behind Kubica later on. Rubens pace against Button was fairly consistent and he dominated Jenson the whole race, wether he was on soft rubber or not.

Even though the teams knew what was going on, the TV audience stayed glued to their screens trying to pick that special white dot during the pitstops. Tyre war or not, they were a real talking point all race.

It was a pretty good result for Bridgestone. The company fitted 1800 tyres over the course of the weekend and only one driver experienced any significant problems. Scott Speed’s front tyres developed leaks during the race and when one of those turned into a full-blown puncture he shot off the road at turn 11. The fact that both of his fronts had this issue and no one else on the grid did, would seem to indicate this was a Torro Rosso problem rather than a Bridgestone construction problem. Bridgestone have said as much themselves.

Not only was there plenty of tyre talk in Melbourne, but the round black things also scored plenty of attention during pre-season testing.

When Bridgestone were announced as the sole tyre supplier for 2007, there was a bit of grumbling that this would favour Ferrari who has enjoyed a close association with the Japanese company. Since 2002 Bridgestone’s tyres have been specifically built for Ferrari who have been their only championship contender. With the exception of a freak win at Brazil in 2003 for Jordan , Ferrari is the only team to have won on Japanese rubber in the last 5 years

Bridgestone were keen to quash any Ferrari favouritism talks and immediately responded by telling the F1 world their tyres would be totally new for everyone. They wouldn’t have any relation to their 2006 rubber and neither would they be based on the harder 2005 long-life tyres. It would be new for all the teams and Ferrari would gain no advantage.

It all seemed fair enough until Ferrari launched their new car, and then a few grumbles re-emerged.

Ferrari’s new challenger is vastly different to their last car, which dominated the end of the 2006 season. It features brand new front suspension and most significantly it has a longer wheelbase. When the team presented the F2007 to the world, many of their rivals figured they had made a mistake. Their 2006 machine was very handy, so why would you fix something that isn’t broken?

Former F1 designer, Gary Anderson, had this to say about Ferrari’s design

“Moving the front wheels forward when Bridgestone has produced a tyre that seems to have problems at the rear doesn’t immediately make any sense. I don’t understand where Ferrari is going with this direction. Maybe you’re seeing the lack of Ross Brawn’s direction, maybe the design team is having a bit of a thrash around and not quite seeing the bigger picture.”

A few of the teams felt the same way, and the general consensus was that Ferrari had got it wrong.

However, the rumour mill eventually got cranking and a few people suggested that Ferrari knew something no one else did. Bridgestone hadn’t based their tyres on their 05 or 06 specifications, but the gossip was they had instead used their 2004 rubber to develop the new control tyre. Ferrari, of course, had plenty of success in 2004 with Bridgestone winning 15 of the 18 races.

If the rumour is true and Bridgestone have used their 2004 tyres to develop this year’s rubber, and Ferrari has specifically designed their cars to suit, it would certainly hand them a massive advantage.

Wether this is true or not is a totally different argument. The rumour has only scored a few quiet web postings and none of the teams have publicly voiced their concerns. It was probably just a bit of hearsay to keep the pre-season interesting.

What isn’t just hearsay is Ferrari’s pace in Melbourne. They were dominant all weekend and never looked like being beaten. They were easily class of the field, but how much of that was down to tyres?

Raikkonen’s race pace was impressive, but if you are after a true indication of what the Ferrari is capable of you’re better off looking elsewhere. Kimi was cruising for most of the grand prix and was taking it so easy he slipped off the road because he wasn’t concentrating.

Despite this his fastest lap was still a full second ahead of Alonso’s. Very nice indeed.

Just as impressive was Kimi’s performance on Friday. Even though Massa ended up higher on the timesheets it was Raikkonen who struck fear into his rivals. Towards the end of the second practice session he was held up at the end of a hot lap by none other than Fernando Alonso. He continued to circulate behind Alonso until the chequered flag came out ending the session.

On his way back to the pits, Kimi set the fastest first and second sectors of the day and again he showed the F1 field what he was capable of. He had done a similar thing during the wet morning session, pitting after setting the fastest first and second sector times. Never mind Massa, Kimi was the one to beat.

Still, it’s hard to attribute any of this directly to tyres.

Or is it?

Felipe Massa ran 29 laps on the soft rubber. This was a pretty big effort considering Mark Webber noted after practice the soft tyres were graining quickly, and none of the teams has seen this during testing. Running half a race distance on these would be very difficult and Alexander Wurz was the only other person to try the same. Had Coulthard not gone close to taking off Wurz’s fingers we might have been able to compare how the Williams and Ferrari handled the long distance.

It is worth nothing that Massa set his fastest time on the final lap before his pitstop. Yes, he would have had little fuel on board, but his soft tyres would also have been their most ragged. Ferrari clearly had that problem sorted.

Perhaps they had a little help.

Lets see what they say about the tyres in Malaysia .

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