Testing in preparation for the 2003 season gets underway proper next week with Bridgestone finalising the work that will lead to the next generation of Formula 1 tyres.
Three of Bridgestone's teams will be in action from Tuesday at Barcelona and Valencia as drivers return to the cockpit and the teams get their 2003 campaigns underway.
The 2002 season, which saw Michael Schumacher and Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro clinch both world championships on Bridgestone tyres, ended with a major celebration. Michael's victory in the Japanese Grand Prix marked the 70th win on Bridgestone tyres in the company's 100th Formula 1 race since it entered the sport in 1997.
Following the last race in October, Bridgestone's engineers have continued to work on developing tyres for next season, responding quickly to the proposed new tyre regulations that will see major changes to the use of Formula 1 tyres at grands prix next year.
Here, Hisao Suganuma, Bridgestone's Technical Manager, looks back over 2002, explains the development work that has been going on since the summer and gives his views on the new regulations.
How are you and your engineers feeling about getting back on track next week?
Very excited and very upbeat. 2002 was an historic season and ended on such a high with the 70th victory on Bridgestone tyres at the Japanese Grand Prix. In some ways it was a pity that things had to stop there. But the break has allowed us a short rest and now I hope we can pick up where we left off.
What has been happening since the Japanese Grand Prix, both at Bridgestone's Technical Centre in Tokyo and at the UK motorsport base?
While our UK-based engineers who attend races and tests have been able to take a break and recharge their batteries, the engineers based in Japan have continued to work. The important thing was that, immediately after Suzuka, we worked on carefully summarising the season in all aspects, from both the Technical Centre and trackside points of view. This helped each side understand what happened during the season and how development will progress for next year. We also did the same exercise with our teams. This kind of discussion is always helpful because it helps us ensure that we understand the teams' requirements and that they understand how best to use Bridgestone tyres.
Development work for 2003 began even earlier than normal thanks to Michael Schumacher and Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro winning the world championships in the summer. What was the focus of that initial work and how has it moved forward?
We had already started the basis of our development programme prior to the championships being won and we have continued to stick to our own time- line. Even after France and Hungary, there were still many grands prix to go. We knew our competitor was strong so we needed to continue our development for the remaining races. It was important to keep on winning in the second half of the season to maintain our winning record which, I am happy to say, we were able to do. The focus of the development work was on increasing the amount of grip and consistency and we continued to make good progress which has given us confidence for next year.
Since you started developing the 2003 tyres, the regulations have changed. How has that affected development at the Technical Centre?
With regard to dry-weather tyres, our target is still to make to best specification to suit all our teams' cars so in that sense development will not be affected. Regarding wet-weather tyres, however, our recent development work might be affected. To develop good wet tyres, the important thing is the balance between the block stiffness in the pattern and the stiffness of the compound. Now that we can have only one type of wet tyre, we may have to develop a new pattern that is capable of working in a wide range of wet conditions. As a consequence, the compound may have to change too.
Winter testing gets underway next week and, for Bridgestone's teams, will centre on Barcelona, Valencia and Jerez. What do you think of the choice of venues?
Weather conditions and the characteristics of the track are the important issues for winter testing. Too-low temperatures that are too different to what we would expect during the season are no good for our development work. The three Spanish tracks are important test circuits because they provide the various demands on the lateral and inline performance that our tyres experience at the different grand prix tracks. The results we get from these tests are therefore very useful for our future work.
What will be the aim of next week's test?
There are a number of items left over from the previous test that we still need to do some concluding work on. But we also have a lot of work to do as a result of our analysis of last season's performance. Even though we made some large steps forward from 2001 to 2002, there is one area of our performance in particular where I think we can make further improvements.
And what are your targets for the three weeks of testing allowed before Christmas?
By the middle of December I would like to have a basic idea of the spec for next season which would give us a basis on which to work with the teams for their new cars. Basically, I would like to have identified the direction that we need to follow.
Returning to the new regulations, what is your view on the reduction from three specifications of wet weather tyre to just one?
Personally, I would prefer to have at least two types of rain tyre allowed at each event. Reducing the range of rain tyres available to just one specification does have safety implications. Weather conditions are completely unpredictable. Even though the decision on which specification to take to each race will be taken very carefully, in the end the weather may not be as expected and the tyre may not suit the particular conditions we encounter on any given day. In my view, a choice of tyre is necessary but we have to work within the new regulations so this represents another fresh challenge for us.
On the other hand, the new dry-weather tyre rules allow for potentially many specifications at each event. How do envisage the rules working in reality?
The new proposals for dry weather tyres do not alter the number of sets of tyres allowed which will remain at ten sets per driver, but they do allow for a greater number of specifications, ie, two for each team. There is also the possibility that the size, the shape or the construction could be different between teams. Clearly, this means more work for us - more development work and more testing. We will work hard to make the best tyres possible, as we have done in the past. With this approach I believe we will find that the best specifications will suit most, and even all, our cars. It seems the regulations will change so, as always, we will respect the FIA's decision and look for the best possible solution for Bridgestone and our teams. Therefore, good communication between us is even more important so that we understand each other's needs clearly. This will be the key for next season.