The Team that Proved Money Doesn't Buy Wins
How Toyota spent hundreds millions and still got nothing out of F1
When Toyota announced their plans to join Formula 1 in 1999, the question wasn't if, but when they would start winning. After all, they were one of the biggest road car manufacturers in the world.
On paper, Toyota F1 was an operation that had it all had it all – a huge budget, accomplished personnel and superb facilities. But while there were three pole positions and 13 podium finishes, not once in 139 grands prix did Toyota win a race from 2002-2009, let alone challenge for a championship.
Despite many changes in personnel, drivers and regulations during its time in F1, Toyota was a consistent underachiever and they never finished higher than fourth in the standings; a feat they managed just once over eight years. The only positive was the livery.
Toyota's F1 project was one of the biggest failures in the history in Grand Prix racing, and there are a plethora of reasons why.
Image from @wearetherace
There's no doubt that Toyota underestimated F1, and this for any start-up team is a crucial error. That's why nowadays we have huge entry fees, so only those who are serious about entering the pinnacle of motorsport can join. It keeps out the likes of Andrea Moda, Lola, Footwork, Spyker and... Toyota.
Toyota enjoyed success in the WRC during the 1990s and produced the GT-One sportscar that almost managed Le Mans glory, it being unquestionably both quick and iconic. So it was therefore natural Toyota would turn its attention to F1. But this was at a time when F1 teams were rapidly expanding in size and technical know-how, and by coming in as a full works team - producing both car and engine - immediately Toyota faced a double challenge.
As any new team will tell you, it's a great deal easier simply buying an already-established engine than pouring the time and energy into making, developing and testing a whole new one.
I'm sure Mercedes would say the same:
And yes, there were some that looked at lot worse. At least this one went fast.
Perhaps it was bullishness from their newfound motorsport success, or maybe inexperience, but either way Toyota ignored this and pursued this dead-end.
Image sourced from @wearetherace
Their problems were made worse when the FIA made the switch from V12 to V10 engines; Toyota had already invested a gigantic £11M into a V12 iteration - and back in those days £11M was a good sum to start up a whole team.
This was the 'official' reason they moved back their entry into F1 from 2001 and 2002, but realistically they were never going to make the cut by then given their underestimation of the sport.
Instead they spent 2001 rigorously testing, with a new HQ in the Paul Ricard circuit (yes, the one with the stupid lines) with the TF101 - a car down on both power and downforce after three whole years of development. 20,000KM of mileage wasn't enough.
The struggles led to the departure of technical director Andre de Cortanze and the recruitment of Gustav Brunner from Minardi to replace him. Brunner was highly-rated as a designer, but not considered ideal technical director material for a team that required strong leadership.
Gustav Brunner looking absolutely thrilled to be working for a team that's not Minardi (image from motorsport.com)
Their first season was dubbed as a 'learning year', but it was dismal nonetheless with the team collecting a mere two points. So in true Racing Point fashion they moved to developing the TF103, a car heavily inspired by 2002 Ferrari in which Michael Schumacher collected a podium at every round.
They at least recognised that the staff headcount needed a dramatic increase, again displaying Toyota's initial underestimation of F1.
Courtesy of @wearetherace
Another thing you should never do as a team is blame the team itself. Mercedes are a perfect example of how the moral side of an F1 outfit should be run; a 'no finger pointing' approach helps create the team that utterly dominates our modern era, but Toyota seemed to miss this trick.
During the early testing programme, Mika Salo and Allan McNish were told by a member of the Toyota board who was observing that they weren’t braking as late as the quicker cars – obviously failing to recognise the sheer lack of downforce the car had.
While it never had a genuine superstar driver – despite trying to sign Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso – it ran plenty of good drivers. Jarno Trulli, Olivier Panis and Ralf Schumacher were all race winners after all. Toyota simply failed to take responsibility.
None of them did a perfect job, but this mindset proved disruptive and a distraction from getting to the heart of the problem. Salo and McNish were both sacked after their first season, even though the car they had to contend with was dismal. Da Matta was the next victim; being axed in the middle of 2004 despite having impressed during his rookie season in 2003 – his main crime being criticising the car in public which is something every driver does throughout their career.
Again, from @wearetherace. They have nice pictures, ok?!
For Toyota, its cars winning in F1 wasn’t enough. It had to win with the 'Toyota Way', essentially a complex corporate and philosophical ideology that may have worked with their road car project, but one that didn't sit well with F1. This sport is all about adapting to challenges which is something that Toyota either didn't know, or more likely wanted to ignore. This was regularly criticised by members of the team, and like any good dictatorship they were 'silenced' (fired, not killed).
Their decision making was way too slow, with personnel who thrived elsewhere feeling considerably constrained with this approach. Ultimately, if you are working in a highly-specialised sphere like F1, you need to be willing to allow the flexibility to work in the best way possible. Toyota never permitted this freedom, also curbing the flashes of individual brilliance any team must harness to win.
And this lack of freedom reflected in the chassis and engine, big time.
Things started to improve with the signing of the highly rated Mike Gascoyne - 2005 was their best ever season - but as soon as things started to go south in 2006 he was sacked. Throughout his time there he faced resistance for not doing things ‘The Toyota Way’, his more confrontational style didn’t sit well with the culture and so he was always going to be vulnerable if results weren’t good enough.
Perhaps the main reason of their poor 2006 is the decision to switch from Michelin to Bridgestone, against the will of the technical department. The FT106 was very much a development of its successful predecessor, and again Toyota's failure to adapt to the new tyres - that were moulded around Ferrari anyway - proved a challenge.
Toyota had a goal of beating Ferrari in 2006, and it's fair to say this was far off their reality for the season.
Perhaps most baffling, Toyota later failed even to pursue a clear opportunity to speak to Ross Brawn, who had by then left Ferrari, instead allowing him to join Honda as team principal ahead of the 2008 season and lay the foundations for Brawn GP’s title success and the dominance that followed for Mercedes.
Toyota's woes were compounded by the fact they were based in the UK and that most of the decisions had to be made all the way back in Japan. A considerable time lag contributed to the team's inefficiency so not a lot could be done in a short time frame, and this is vital in F1.
The failure to realise that aerodynamics was overwhelmingly the most important battleground in F1 carried on throughout much of Toyota’s time in F1. As we know today, aero can mean the difference between first and last, and it actually is - Mercedes are the fastest in the field while Williams (with the same engine) are plum last.
You'd think being only the second team to spot the double diffuser and an innovative front wing, things would be better for them in 2009. But they messed it up.
Toyota started the 2009 season with a very real shot at finally taking a breakthrough victory. Three podium finishes in the first four races should have been better, and when it locked out the front row in Bahrain and ran first and second with Glock and Trulli a strategic error of moving onto the harder tyre at the first pitstops cost Toyota a possible shot at victory. As it had been for some years, this was still a team that seemed inexperienced despite a fairly long tenure in the sport. This was the kind of mistake you would expect Haas to make. Or Ferrari.
At Spa, Toyota had probably its biggest missed opportunity. Trulli started second and was almost fastest in qualifying before an electrical problem slowed his start and he picked up front-wing damage in Turn 1. Without that, there was every chance of a straightforward victory.
This prompted a mini-revival, with second places at Singapore for Glock and – in a stunning drive – Trulli at Suzuka. But this wasn’t enough to save Toyota in F1. Economic crisis or not, a win and a stronger season could have persuaded Toyota to keep going but this didn't materialise, and they finally withdrew at the end of 2009.
The TF110 was promised to be a great car, but I think by now we know it probably wasn't going to be
We'll never know though, Toyota were just too sh*t. 🤷♂️
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