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by Larry Roberts

February 26, 1999

The Formula One Grand Prix circuit is without question the most prestigious and well-known form of auto racing in the world. Its worldwide TV audience numbers in the millions for each event, and emerging countries like Brazil lobby the Formula One Administration to make sure that "their" Grand Prix event isn't eliminated from the calender and given to someone else. And being that this kind of universal appeal isn't lost to potential advertisers and sponsors, it isn't surprising that multinational companies want to get in on the action, despite the fact that it costs many millions to become a player.

Recently, two of the biggest and most powerful auto makers in the world, Honda and Toyota, have announced (or at least haven't denied) that they plan to enter into Formula One racing with factory-owned and backed teams of cars and drivers.

Toyota is the latest of the two Japanese giants to express a desire to get into the fray. At a recent press conference in Japan, Toyota head man Hiroshi Okada said that his company would be ready to field a team by 2003, although there's a possibility it would come as much as two years earlier.

Toyota has put together a study team of a half-dozen Formula One "regulars" to spend up to a year just researching what it will take to put together a competitive organization. Toyota is understandably cautious about jumping in without being well-informed and with a well thought-out program in place. Several years ago, the company entered into the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) Champ Car series with unproven purpose-built engines and it has taken until this year for the company to feel it has a chance of at least a few podium (top three) finishes.

But there's a potential roadblock in Toyota's entry into Formula One racing. Late last year, the rules of Grand Prix racing were altered to allow a dozen formal and pre-registered teams to participate. It's thought that this was done to allow Honda to field a team under its own banner. Honda has a long history in Formula One dating back to the early '60s when that company participated with factory-financed race cars and "payroll" drivers, Americans Ronnie Bucknam and Richie Ginther who achieved an outright win in Mexico in '65. Since then, Honda has been an ongoing supplier of racing engines to both Grand Prix and CART teams.

Honda already has a race-ready Formula One team in place and operational for 1999 and have shown considerable promise in recent tests on the track at Jerez, Spain, with Jos Verstappen doing the driving. Verstappen finished out the '98 season driving for the Ford-powered Stewart team, which is headed up by former world champion Jackie Stewart.

Toyota is bound to ask for the 12-team rule to be expanded at least by one but barring this, its only prospect for entry into Formula One is to buy out an existing team, presumably one of the backmarkers. The most likely candidate here is the Ford-powered Minardi Scuderia, a private Italian team that entered Formula One in '85, but has been understandably unsuccessful, being undercapitalized and unsubsidized.

A possible plus or minus in Toyota's acquisition of Minardi is that its Number Two driver is 27-year old Shinji Nakamo, one of two Japanese nationals on the circuit and something of a hero in his homeland. The minus would be that Nakamo doesn't seem to be capable of being a front-runner under the best of circumstances.

The coming few years will be interesting in Formula One. The financial ante is going up and in 2001, the United States will be the site of a Grand Prix race after a long hiatus. When that comes about, both Honda and Toyota will want to be major players in front on an American audience.