How Toyota got it wrong

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Mika Salo tests Toyota's prototype F1 car in 2001
Mika Salo tests Toyota's prototype F1 car in 2001

In the eight years Toyota spent in F1 there was little success and a great number of missed opportunities.

Sport has many examples of teams blessed with an abundance of resources which they proceed to squander. From day one money was no object for Toyota, yet their trio of pole positions and 13 podium finishes – with no wins – must be considered a complete and utter failure.

Toyota’s first board decision to enter F1 was taken in 1998, but it took until 2001 for them to get a working car on the track. Although they originally intended this to be their first season, the team decided it wasn’t sufficiently prepared, so they took their prototype to a range of F1 venues and ran race simulations including pit stops.

Former Ferrari driver Mika Salo was brought in to drive and was paired with a man previously thought to be one of the most promising young talents not to get an F1 driver – Allan McNish.

Driver decisions

The team expected little from their first full season of Formula 1, but the early signs were encouraging. Salo scored a point on their debut at Melbourne, partly thanks to the field being decimated by a huge accident at the first corner.

But in short order we became accustomed to a Toyota trait – they made some utterly baffling decisions, particularly when it came to hiring drivers. Salo and McNish were kicked out at the end of 2002 – in their place came the unremarkable Olivier Panis and Champ Car star Cristiano da Matta.

The sheer size of the team seemed to work against it. Being located in Cologne, Germany, made it difficult to attract experienced staff from other F1 teams, most of which are based in Britain. And when they did lure a big name – such as Mike Gascoyne – he quickly became frustrated by internal politics and left.

Toyota’s corporate culture also worked against the team – Ove Andersson had to step down as team principal in 2003 due to his age.

Probably the worst single decision the team made was hiring Ralf Schumacher on a multi-million dollar salary far in excess of what any other team would pay him. Jokes about whether they thought they’d hired the other Schumacher were impossible to avoid.

The good year

Schumacher got to drive the most competitive car to come out of Cologne, the 2005 TF105, but it was team mate Jarno Trulli who got the most out of the car to begin with, scoring three podiums in the first five races of 2005. This was the high point of Toyota’s time in F1.

Now in its fourth season, some indication of the team’s desperation to score results came as it scored its first two pole positions. Knowing it was doomed not to participate in the 2005 United States Grand Prix because of the Michelin tyre failures a very lightly-fuelled Trulli took pole position at Indianapolis, before joining the other Michelin-shod cars in withdrawing.

At home in Suzuka later that year the team did the same again, this time with Schumacher, who took pole position but came in for fuel seven laps earlier than any of the front runners and finished eighth.

Their vast resources seldom led to anything in the way of innovation and a succession of conventional cars rolled out of Cologne. At one stage accusations were levelled at the team that they had used confidential information from Ferrari to design their cars, but court proceedings brought in Italy were dropped and, unlike the notorious McLaren case, the FIA chose not to investigate.

After the peak of 2005 the team slumped badly during the next two seasons. But there was no let-up in the spending. Last year they were estimated to have a budget of almost $450m, and that was after Schumacher’s wage bill was replaced by Timo Glock’s more modest pay packet.

Toyota blushes were deeper and redder in 2007 when they began supplying engines to Williams and were beaten in the constructors’ championship by their customer team. After that Toyota foisted their up-and-coming but inexperienced rookie Kazuki Nakajima on the team and consequently out-scored Williams in 2008 and 2009.

Missed opportunities

Toyota started 2009 with a car arguably capable of challenging for wins. At Melbourne Trulli and Glock started at the back of the grid following a technical infringement, but still managed to finish third and fourth. They locked out the front row of the grid at Bahrain on light fuel loads – with more realistic strategies they could have qualified similarly well but might have kept Jenson Button behind.

After a competitive start to the season – partly thanks to being one of only three teams running the performance-enhancing ‘double diffusers’ – Toyota’s form varied wildly from track to track. But they never looked like convincing candidates for victory.

It is a truism that the team with the best car in F1 usually wins. But Toyota serve as a reminder that the team with the greatest wealth won’t necessarily build the best car. They spent eight years proving that over and over.

Toyota F1 drivers, 2002 to 2009

Mika Salo (2002)
Allan McNish (2002)
Olivier Panis (2003-5)
Cristiano da Matta (2003-4)
Jarno Trulli (2004-9)
Ricardo Zonta (2004)
Ralf Schumacher (2005-7)
Timo Glock (2008-9)
Kamui Kobayashi (2009)

Toyota F1 results

Races started: 139
Wins: 0
Pole postions: 3
Fastest laps: 3
Points: 278.5
Podiums: 13
Best championship result: 4th (2005)
Laps led: 66

Read more: Toyota quits F1 after eight winless years