How do you solve a problem like Toyota?

Toyota launch, pre-season, 2007Are you a passionate, devoted fan of Panasonic Toyota Racing?

Did you heart beat with anticipation during the unveiling of the TF107 last week? Will you tune in to the Australian Grand Prix in eight weeks’ time, praying for an all red-and-white front row?

Probably not. According to last year’s FIA survey Toyota were the least popular team that had been in F1 for longer than a year. Less than 1% of fans pledged their allegiance to the Japanese team – around 900 out of the 91,000 surveyed. Even newcomers Super Aguri fared better.

So why are Toyota so unpopular? Is it simply because they’ve failed to deliver a race win in five years of trying? Is it the drivers? Let’s explore the problem with Toyota.

The Brunner incident

Gustav Brunner, Toyota, 2002Toyota spent 2001 preparing for their first F1 season the following year. But even then they managed to embroil themselves in a dispute over the services of Minardi’s technical director Gustav Brunner, whom Toyota poached in an GBP ???8m deal.

Minardi had barely survived into 2001 and been taken over by Australian Paul Stoddart. The Brunner incident proved the first of many times a furious Stoddart would turn to the F1 press:

It is time that predators like Toyota were stopped from buying Formula One… It’s not what they did it’s the way they did it. They told the press before anyone had the decency to tell me…

[Minardi] is a small team, it’s done amazing things in such a short space of time and some ******** comes along and does this. And when it’s done so blatantly wrongly, against both law and morality, you wonder why you bother getting up and getting involved with a shower of shit when this could happen.

The appearance of a racing Goliath smashing a tiny David operating on a fraction of its budget did not endear Toyota to anyone. Even Ron Dennis of McLaren was moved to criticise the, “fundamentally wrong,” conduct of Brunner and Toyota.

There was some cheer for Minardi, though. On Toyota’s F1 debut the massive new team were beaten to fifth place in the Australian Grand Prix by Mark Webber – in a Minardi – who rebuffed Mika Salo’s advances until the Finn spun.

Sayonara to Salo and McNish

Allan McNish, Mika Salo, Toyota, launch, 2001Allan McNish’s rise to F1 inexplicably stalled early in the 1990s. Mika Salo got his big break as a Ferrari substitute in 1999, but even though he sacrificed a potential first win to Eddie Irvine’s doomed championship bid, in led him only to un-competitive Sauber.

Both, then, were fine choices for Toyota’s first season in Formula One. Experienced hands who deserved a decent crack at the sport with a well-backed team.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way. Neither disgraced themselves in 2002 when Toyota made a solid, if unspectacular, entry into F1.

But both were given the boot late in the year to be replaced by Olivier Panis and Cristiano da Matta – two really very similar drivers who failed to achieve all that much more. There seemed little just cause for Toyota to have written off the Formula One futures of two popular drivers.

Bland

Toyota do themselves no favours with their livery – surely the least imaginative on the entire grid. Of course there is the pressure to conform to the corporate colour scheme, and that does mean there is yet another red-and-white car on the grid.

But could they not at least try to vary the car a little from year to year? I honestly struggle to tell the last three years of Toyotas apart:

Toyota launch 2005 Toyota Launch 2006 Toyota launch 2007

Not only are they boring to behold, but they were behind the relocation of the Japanese Grand Prix from the challenging Suzuka track to the ominously bland-looking Fuji Speedway. If the track turns out to be a gem Toyota could reap the benefit – but it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case.

Are they serious?

Ralf Schumacher, Toyota, launch, 2006, 'victory'Toyota’s approach to F1 lacks conviction.

From the start, they chose to locate their base in Cologne, Germany. Yes, it’s marginally more convenient geographically for getting to European races. But basing themselves outside of Formula One’s ‘motorsport valley’ in Britain deprives them of ready access to the greatest concentration of F1 talent.

When they finally lured a big name designer, Mike Gascoyne, visible results followed in 2005: their first podium and pole positions. But internal political conflicts resulted in the production of the TF106 which struggled last year and led to the firing of Gascoyne.

In Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher they have the least convincing driver line-up in the sport: one, a mercurial Italian who flies when the planets are perfectly aligned, but struggles on the days when he puts the wrong sock on first; and a German who managed to spend more time at Williams than anyone ever – seven years – and yet never win a championship.

Who wants it?

I suspect that the mechanics and race engineers at the heart of Toyota live and breathe the sport like the rest of us, and their six years of defeat hurts them like a winless 2006 no doubt wounded Ron Dennis.

But the existence of Toyota’s F1 team is an exercise in corporate box-checking. Want to maximise exposure to the European, Asian and South American markets? Gotta have an F1 team then. Want the North Americans to see you too? Hey presto, the Toyota Camry makes its NASCAR debut this season.

Nick Heidfeld, Mario Theissen, Jacques Villeneuve, BMW, 2006Yes, all the other manufacturers are in F1 for the same reason. But when you witness the uncompromising resolve of Mario Theissen, squeezing Jacques Villeneuve out of the team, and even now lighting a fire under his racers by letting the test drivers join in on Grands Prix Friday practice, you know he wants to elicit every iota of performance from BMW.

He’s in it to win it. Toyota are there to be seen.

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5 comments on How do you solve a problem like Toyota?

  1. That nails it on the head. I don’t think anyone would mind if they just went around not-winning but there is a definite feeling that they are bad for the sport.

    If you look at history, Toyota Motorsport brought about the demise of IMSA and the end of the original CART. With CART, they struggled, but then paid all the top teams big money to use their engines, won the championship, and then left inexplicably when the series was on its knees. They went to the IRL, where they paid all the top teams big money to use their engines, collected the trophies they wanted, and left with the series on its knees. F1 will be a much tougher nut for them to crack, but trust me, Nascar’s not going to know what hit them.

  2. Then there is what I think is the worst car on sale today, the prius. Honestly, it sacrifices a lot of speed for green-ness and economy. Don’t believe Toyota saying it does 66 MPG. It only does 45 MPG. Therefore, don’t believe Toyota saying they’ll win a race.

  3. Richard Collantine said on 22nd January 2007, 18:14

    It is hard to judge what Toyota’s true motivation is. It is a hugely expensive way of achieving very little in the way of direct success and little in terms of credibility or kudos. There also seems little tie-in between what Toyota are doing on the track and what you see in a showroom. Honda have easily achieved most from F1 of the Japanese manufacturers. Nissan and Mazda dipped their toes into Le Mans with some success but never crossed over into F1 showing they probably have greater capability than Toyota are presently showing.

  4. In response to Kevin’s comment above:

    I disagree with your assertion that ‘Toyota Motorsport brought about the demise of IMSA and the end of the original CART’. Did they spend a TON of money in those endeavors? Absolutely. Who let them? IMSA and CART…and the CART team owners didn’t mind taking every single penny that was offered to them. My point is, you can’t ‘let the inmates run the asylum’ as it were…auto manufacturers are going to involve themselves in motorsports for their selfush motives every time…not just Toyota and this is nothing new. It’s really up to the racing series themselves to legislate how a series is run and ultimately what kind of money is spent.

  5. Good analysis. Essentially, the Toyota F1 team is run by the boardroom – and that’s why it won’t win and will never be popular.

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