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Inside Line: Cooper Finishes First-Ever U.S. A1 Grand Prix Season in Global Spotlight

Cooper Finishes First-Ever U.S. A1 Grand Prix Season in Global Spotlight

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Tom Dattilo, chairman, president and CEO of Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., called it a “global partnership,” in line with Cooper’s focus on the growing worldwide high performance tire market.

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“Years ago, 75% to 80% of the market was broadline,” Dattilo said. “Today, less than 40% is broadline. The market is moving toward high performance, and we are moving with the market.”

Dattilo was talking about Cooper’s three-year term as the official tire supplier to the A1 Grand Prix, and he made his remarks to Tire Review on Mar. 12 during the race’s first-ever U.S. appearance at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif.

Select Cooper tire dealers and journalists were invited by Cooper to watch the landmark race, which began with a 30-minute sprint race and ended with a 60-minute feature race. Dealers also got the chance to meet Team USA, which included Rick Weidinger, owner and CEO; Scott Sharp, director of race operations; and Bryan Herta, driver.

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Cooper’s A1 Grand Prix partnership complements other recent efforts by the company to enhance global recognition of the Cooper brand. Since November, when Cooper unveiled its new corporate image and logo, the company has made strides to gain worldwide exposure. In early February, for example, Cooper finalized its 51% stake in Shandong Chengshan Tire Co., China’s third-largest homegrown tire manufacturer.

Motorsports, too, has played a key role in the tiremaker’s global growth strategy. The company is sponsoring the Need for Speed Formula Drift Championship Series for the third consecutive year and has begun offering a contingency program to Formula D drivers.

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Cooper also serves as the exclusive supplier of race tires to FIA’s F3 series and is the main supplier to the international Formula Ford series. This year, A1 Grand Prix entered Cooper’s motorsports portfolio.

Laguna Seca hosted the second-to-last race of the inaugural season of A1 Grand Prix, billed by race officials as the “World Cup of Motorsport.” The high-powered event – founded by Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum, a member of the ruling family of Dubai – pits nation against nation in a seven-month series that rounds the planet. It all started last September at Brands Hatch in the U.K. and traveled to Germany, Portugal, Australia, Malaysia, Dubai, South Africa, Indonesia, Mexico and the U.S. A1 Grand Prix makes its final stop in Shanghai on Apr. 2.

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Drivers from 25 nations compete for national honor and a $13 million prize fund in open-wheel cars that are identical, except for patriotic paint jobs. To ensure a level playing field and emphasize driver skill rather than vehicle modification, all cars are equipped with 3.4-liter V8 Zytek engines – capable of producing 520 horsepower – mounted on Lola chassis.

And, every car rides on specially designed, Cooper-A1 Grand Prix branded racing radials. Cooper supplies the tires through its Avon Tyres Racing operation based in Melksham, Wiltshire, U.K.

Fitted to 16-inch-wide, 13-inch-diameter racing wheels, the rear tires come in size 370/660R13 and operate at temperatures exceeding 190ºF. Front tires are fitted to 13-inch-diameter, 11.75-inch-wide wheels. When heated with specially designed tire warmers, the surface of the tires becomes gel-like and literally sticks to the track, enhancing grip and cornering ability.

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Only one compound is available at each race, and each team is limited to seven sets of tires – five sets of slicks and two sets of treaded, wet-weather tires – for the entire weekend. During the weekend of Mar. 11-12, drivers saw nearly every weather condition imaginable – pouring rain, snow flurries and sun – so the treaded tires got their fair share of the action.

But the most action – from a marketing standpoint, at least – was doled out to the Cooper brand. The Cooper signage that adorned the 2.238-mile, 11-turn track was seen by millions of spectators, not all of them trackside. More than five total hours of TV coverage – including practice sessions, qualifying stints and the sprint and feature races – aired around the world.

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Though Team Mexico won both the sprint and feature races at Laguna Seca, it was Cooper that took the trophy for brand exposure. Cable’s Outdoor Life Network broadcasted the event throughout the U.S., while Sky Sports covered it in the U.K. The A1 Grand Prix also has broadcasting agreements in the Ukraine, Uruguay, France, Japan, China, Indonesia, Australia, South Africa and the Netherlands.

By the sixth race in the series, each round had attracted an average of 8 million viewers in more than 120 countries, according to a release issued by the A1 Grand Prix. The number of viewers increased 30% since the first round at Brands Hatch. By the end of the season, the organization expects 10 million viewers to tune in to each race.

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That means plenty of exposure for the Findlay, Ohio-based tiremaker. “It’s a wonderful marriage,” Dattilo said of Cooper’s relationship with A1 Grand Prix. “It will be an exciting first year for us.”

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