Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Tumbleweed in Tokyo: Toyota leaves F1 empty-handed - Where did it all go wrong for the Japanese manufacturer?

Published by Stuart Codling

After nine years, and the expenditure of sums that even Toyota’s legion of accountants can probably only guess at, the Toyota Motor Corporation has left a sport that it didn’t really want to be part of in the first place. It might be the world’s largest car manufacturer, but it owes that position less to clever marketing than it does to producing durable, inexpensive motor cars.

TMC was led by the nose in to F1 by its European arm, which was desperate to attract a younger constituency of car buyers by cultivating a racier image. But at board level, Toyota regarded F1 with a level of bemusement. It couldn’t understand why it was pouring so much money into the project, and its own cumbersome internal mechanisms prevented it from making its F1 team a success, or marketing it effectively. It never even got around to producing a range of sporty road cars to bask in the halo of the sporting success it ultimately never achieved.

Historically, Japan was a martial society and this reflects in the way it does business. There is tremendous emphasis on the chain of command. And it’s still trying to cling on to a jobs for life ethic, which is anathema to progress: what you get is a large body of employees who clock in and clock out on time, and who never rock the boat as they cruise serenely towards retirement. No one wants to take responsibility for anything. Everyone ‘manages up’. Vital decisions are delayed as they pass from desk to desk, meandering up the hierarchy.

The official launch of Toyota’s first proper F1 car in December 2001 was a big deal, and I covered the build-up to it with Darren Heath for a feature in the world’s biggest-selling F1 magazine. With a year of testing in the bag, Toyota ought to have come out of the box flying. Instead, Allan McNish, Mika Salo and a host of who-are-they-anyway dignitaries pulled the sheet off a box-sided vehicle that could most charitably have been described as a clone of the Ferrari F1-2000.

What had they been doing all year? Circulating Paul Ricard to no avail in an embarrassingly slow test hack, that’s what. Toyota had already fired one designer (Andre de Cortanze) and replaced him with another (Gustav Brunner, from Minardi). De Cortanze is an odd character. He loathes journalists (he evicted me and several others from the Toyota garage personally at Le Mans in 1999), and, so one of the team told me, he would occasionally kick everyone out of the garage so that he could talk to the car. Brunner? Well, he’s been involved in some good cars, but he’s not Adrian Newey.

So, far from entering F1 like a bullet with a year’s worth of useful experience, Toyota limped on to the grid with a hastily developed ‘blank sheet’ design that achieved very little, apart from nearly killing McNish at Suzuka. By the end of the season, not for the first or last time, the team management decided that a quick fix was required to assuage the bad vibes emanating from Japan. It had become clear that Salo, who had been hired to be the superstar, was merely on cruise-and-collect, interested only in being slightly quicker than McNish – which he would achieve by, say, a tyre pressure adjustment immediately before his final qualifying run.

Canning both drivers continued the trend of ‘managing up’; “It’s not our fault for designing a slow car – it’s theirs for not driving it fast enough.” Over successive years the team would devote increasing resources to managing the expectations of Japan, producing reams of statistics to demonstrate that, yes, actually, they were improving, even if they weren’t actually winning anything.

The hiring of Mike Gascoyne for a ludicrous fee at the end of 2003 was another doomed quick fix. Commuting to Cologne daily via private jet, he joined the team too late to influence the 2004 car, which was another flop. As Gascoyne analysed the working practices of the team, he was shocked by the unscientific methodology of the aero department in particular. Under pressure to produce results, the aerodynamicists were looking for big jumps; but in modern F1, progress is achieved through an accumulation of tiny gains. You can’t find half a second a lap with just one component.

Although performances improved under Gascoyne’s watch, his maverick nature led to conflicts with Japan. Never one to worry about the chain of command if something needed to be done, Gascoyne became increasingly fed up with what he saw as inertia and interference, particularly when it emanated from a time zone eight hours further around the globe. It can be very frustrating when your first act upon reaching the office is to open a series of emails demanding clarification of certain points; and the person who sent them, from whom you require authority to perform various actions, is about to or has already left for the day, so you are forced to spend the rest of your day doing very little. Little wonder that Gascoyne equipped his office with a remote-controlled model tank, which he would fire at any arrivals he didn’t like.

Towards the end of 2005 TMC decreed that because it had reached an OEM deal with Bridgestone to furnish its road cars with tyres, the F1 team must also use Bridgestone rubber. This scuppered the team’s 2006 season even before it started.

The Bridgestone family of tyres had to be run at a much more aggressive camber than the Michelins to arrive at their optimum operating temperature. Toyota’s 2006 car, which had been designed to run on Michelins, lacked the range of adjustment to make the Bridgestones work. Gascoyne duly carried the can, and the team eventually produced a B-spec car with prominent nodules on the nose to accommodate the revised geometry. Still, lacking knowledge of the Bridgestones continued to serve as a handy excuse for the next couple of seasons.

And so, then, to 2009, and another season of irregular flashes of form commingled with long spells of midfield mediocrity. It was inevitable, given the economic circumstances, that Toyota would wield the axe.

This is a company that aimed to have a 15 per cent share of the world’s car market by 2010, but which is now facing the same issues of overcapacity as the American giants it once bestrode. In a world driven by accountants we are all slaves to ROI; and Toyota, that quintessentially accounts-fixated car corporation, could not overlook such a grotesque cocktail of overspend and underperformance forever.