A number of stories emerged over the European Grand Prix weekend that suggested Toyota is poised to pull out of Formula One at the end of this year. The company’s board of directors have always viewed their F1 program as a marketing exercise and like any promotion it has a use-by date. It now appears that date might not be far away.
Toyota entered Formula One in 2002 after campaigns in the WRC and at Le Mans. The manufacturer started with big ambitions and scored a sensational point on debut, but has largely failed to deliver. In seven years Toyota has not won a single race. Three fuel assisted pole positions and three fastest laps are all the company has alongside its name in the record books.
Head office in Japan is increasingly running out of patience.
Rumours about a potential Toyota withdrawal began in earnest during the offseason when Honda’s management pulled the plug on their own F1 program. One of the reasons that Toyota originally started in the sport was to compete against their great Japanese rival, so Honda’s exit had an instant, albeit minor, impact on the value of their investment.
Also around the same time, the Toyota Motor Company announced that it would register its first ever annual operating loss, a significant milestone for the world’s largest carmaker. Cost cutting is very much on the agenda and spendthrift activities like motorsport are an easy target for savings.
The pressure on Toyota’s commitment to F1 was evident at the team’s 2009 season launch. Motorsport President, John Howett, said “we need a strong season. If we have a weak season we have no future. Whether we have to win is difficult to say, but I think we feel we have to win”.
Howett’s words highlighted the delicate state of Toyota’s place in Formula One at the start of this year.
Further reports have since emerged in the wake of BMW’s shock exit that indicate Toyota could be on the way out as well.
The most significant of those details came from Japan. It is now public knowledge that Toyota’s board of directors have not approved the F1 team’s budget for the next twelve months, and will not meet to confirm their spending until November. That is a huge signal that Toyota is not committed to Formula One in the long term.
Not only does it cast a shadow over the team’s future, but it will also have a significant impact on their 2010 preparations.
John Howett admitted that he is “expecting severe pressure on budget” but that might be a best case scenario. The team might find themselves with no budget at all.
In addition to this, Toyota has withdrawn its support from the Japanese Grand Prix. The manufacturer invested millions into Fuji Speedway in an effort to prize the race away from Suzuka, but after electing to share the event earlier this year, Toyota has now decided to abandon any plans to host the race again. The Grand Prix will stay at Suzuka, and whilst this does not directly impact Toyota’s Formula One team, it is a sign that the company is reducing its F1 investment.
Comments made by Jarno Trulli over the Valencia weekend also suggested the team’s future is far from certain. He said “If you look back over the last year it is a disaster. Honda has pulled out, BMW has pulled out, and probably they will not be the only ones.” For one of Toyota’s own drivers to suggest that another carmaker could soon exit F1 is a big deal because there aren’t that many manufacturers left that he could be talking about.
Interestingly, Jarno said that the talks about his contract have broken down, but that money is not an issue. Could a commitment from the team be a problem instead?
It is also worth noting that Williams are now seeking to end their engine agreement with Toyota in favour of a new deal, likely with Renault.
Williams signed on to become Toyota’s chief customer in the hope of forging a close strategic alliance with the manufacturer. It wasn’t just a simple customer deal like the one they had with Cosworth, but was intended to last Williams long into the future. There was even talk of a reverse takeover or merger with the Toyota factory team, and Kazuki Nakajima was promoted to strengthen ties with Japan.
Williams have now abandoned that strategic view so they clearly don’t think it’s a worthwhile option for the future. This does not mean that Frank Williams knows something we don’t, and that Toyota are about to leave, but it shows that people in F1 are preparing for them to do so.
The fact that Toyota are waiting until November to make a decision will be unnerving for the team’s staff because 2009 has been especially disappointing.
This season has probably been the worst for Toyota in Formula One, not in terms of points scored, but in terms of failed potential.
Toyota started the year with one of the quickest cars in the field. They were among the first to start playing with trick diffusers and that provided them with a big advantage over the others that didn’t. They arrived in Melbourne with Brawn as their main rivals, and Jarno Trulli was quick enough to finish third after starting from the pitlane. The team also took a strong podium in Malaysia after qualifying on the front row, but the third race of the year was the one really that got away.
Toyota should have won the Bahrain Grand Prix. It was there for the taking. They had the fastest car all weekend, locked out the front row, and set the fastest lap of the race. However, they blew it by putting the prime tyres on Jarno Trulli’s car in the middle of the race when everyone else went for the options. He could have beaten Jenson Button had Toyota made the right call on strategy, and it would have been a certainty if they had pre-arranged a little help from Timo Glock.
Instead, Toyota missed a golden opportunity.
At the very next race in Monaco, Trulli and Glock had the slowest car of them all qualified dead last. The best result since then has been a fourth place in Turkey.
By comparison Toyota’s early season rivals, Brawn and Red Bull, are now fighting for the World Championship.
Toyota’s F1 team have given themselves every chance of being competitive throughout 2009 but it has all come to nothing. Their potential is a long way ahead of their results.
As if underlining that point, Timo Glock set the fastest lap of the race in Valencia. Whilst he did so near the end of the race on fresh tyres, it shows the car has speed but its drivers and engineers are not getting the most out of it.
Toyota now has seven years of F1 experience, so if they can’t get the mix right now perhaps they never will.
That sentiment will surely be on the mind of the Toyota Motor Company’s senior management when they meet in November. They might dish out a out more than just pressure on budget.