Tire Maker Bridgestone has moved into the top slot in the race to acquire Kwik Fit, a $1.5 billion U.K. tire and exhaust chain formerly owned by Ford Motor Company. Bridgestone, the world’s largest tire maker, has teamed up with Mitsubishi Corporation to bid for Kwik-Fit. It has already seen off early interest from French Formula One rival Michelin, the world’s number two tire group, and Wal-Mart, the giant U.S. retailer. But Bridgestone still faces competition from at least five private equity houses, including Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which last year bought ATU, the German automotive parts retailer, in a deal worth $1.25 billion. BC Partners and JPMorgan Partners, which owns IMO Car Wash, have also made bids, as have two teams comprising PAI and Goldman Sachs, and CSFB with Investcorp. The Kwik-Fit auction provides more evidence that trade buyers are increasingly competing with financial buyers. Mark Pacitti, corporate finance partner at Deloitte, said trade buyers were becoming more prevalent. “This is partly because weaker debt markets have reduced the price private equity groups can pay,” he said. “In addition, trade buyers are back on the acquisition trail after a period of consolidation and internal focus.” T&F Informa, the publishing group, this week outbid a string of private equity suitors to snap up IIR Holdings, the conference and training group, for $1.75 billion. Bridgestone executives have been in London since last month working on their bid. “They are taking it very seriously,” said one person close to the auction. The Japanese group has a strong presence in the U.S. through its Firestone unit, but has long been trying to crack the European market and looked at Kwik-Fit the last time it was on sale. Ford, which paid 1 billion for Kwik-Fit in 1999, sold it to private equity group CVC Capital a few years later for 350 million ($450 million), but kept a 19 percent stake.