It isn’t just now that tyre wear is a key factor among the top running cars. Way back in 1997 a tyre war between stalwarts Goodyear and a fledgling Bridgestone turned the Spanish Grand Prix on it’s head. All season up to this point the Goodyear tyre had been the rubber to be on, but a slightly more abrasive surface in Barcelona was out to expose it’s weakness in a thrilling way.
On Saturday afternoon for qualifying it was very much a Goodyear show. The final times in qualifying saw their runners lock out the top eleven places, with Prost’s Oliver Panis being the first Bridgestone shod car in the order. Little was thought about the promising Frenchman as the cars lined up on the grid for the start of the race – indeed it was thought that the race would be a Williams-Renault lockout as Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen finished nearly a second quicker than any of their rivals the previous day.
Double World Champion Michael Schumacher languished down in 7th place with a badly handling Ferrari which made him opt for the spare car come race day, and between Schumacher and the dominant Williams pair were the McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard in 3rd and 5th, and the two Benettons of Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger in 4th and 6th respectively.
Race day saw a far cooler track which would have a profound affect on the performance of the tyres. A mix up at the start delayed the lights going out, as Berger stalled on the grid before the formation lap and Ralf Schumacher’s Peugeot engine did the same after it. A second formation lap allowed the Benetton to take up it’s original spot in 6th, but Ralk had to drop to the back of the field.
The start of the race saw Schumacher make an absolutely lightning getaway, rising to second by the end of the first lap to be behind leader Villeneuve, who shrugged off challenges from David Coulthard and the German with ease, while team-mate Frentzen plummeted down the order after a terrible getaway – no doubt incurring the wrath of the Williams top brass. Schumacher tried diligently to hold onto the Canadian but he blistered his Goodyear tyres, leading to Villeneuve pulling away at a vast rate of knots, sometimes as much as four seconds a lap.
By lap fourteen Jacques was already twenty seconds ahead of the ailing Ferrari. As all this was going on Olivier Panis quietly caught up to the back of the train of cars Schumacher was holding up, with it consisting of Coulthard, Alesi, Hakkinen, Frenzen and Johnny Herbert’s Sauber. The Frenchman was confident on his Bridgestones and was on a two stop strategy, stopping for the first time on lap 25, with only Villeneuve and Alesi the other front runners to adopt a similar tactic.
For a long period Villeneuve looked to have the race under control, but it seemed Panis had other ideas. The Prost car was just ten seconds behind the leading Williams after the second phase of pitstops and was looking after it’s tyres far better. Panis saw an opportunity to take his second career win and began closing Villeneuve down at around 1.5 seconds a lap. Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari became the fly in the ointment during this chase and held Panis up for six laps, handing Villeneuve another ten seconds between them both, and with it the chance of winning. Irvine was given a stop-go penalty for his troubles.
Villeneuve could cruise to victory in the end and denied the crowd a grandstand finish, but Panis, Prost and Bridgestone had impressed fans and experts alike. The Frenchman said after the race that he felt he could push hard every lap thanks to his tyres, while the Goodyear runners throughout the field complained of blistering as they struggled to find the right balance on the abrasive surface.
It was a sign of things to come; later in the year when Damon Hill challenged for victory in his Arrows in Hungary, and Jarno Trulli – ironically replacing an injured Panis at Prost – led 37 laps in Austria. As it was Bridgestone did not win a race in 1997, but the ingredients were all there. The following season saw them dominate with McLaren, who had switched after seeing the Japanese brand’s potential.