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Hard Going For Toyota Formula One

by Larry Roberts

June 17, 2001

There's three things that you can say about Toyota Motorsports and its approach to racing: it's tenacious, it's patient and it's in the game to win.

These factors were evident when that Japanese company entered into CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) Champ Car racing, the preeminent American single-seater racing venue. When Toyota got into the Champ Car business in 1996, it had all the technical accouterments to match Honda, Ford and Mercedes in building a competitive narrow-angle specially- constructed, turbocharged V8 engine of something in the neighborhood of 700-plus horsepower.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a very tough neighborhood and it was several years before Toyota produced a winner. Unlike Ford and Mercedes, who bought the existing engine-building businesses Cosworth and Ilmor, Toyota followed the example of Honda and started with not only a clean sheet of paper but a new shop complex as well.

And now Toyota is entering into a new level of racing complexity and is fielding a team of international Grand Prix cars in the 2002 Formula One season. And while it isn't starting off in as catastrophic a manner as when it entered Champ Car competition, it has recently learned that it isn't going to be easy to get to the top.

Until now, the Toyota team has been doing its development on a "mule" car at the Paul Ricard track in France. But since Paul Ricard is not the scene of an international Formula One race, it was necessary for Toyota to get some "real world" experience on a Grand Prix circuit. Unfortunately, the results were not good.

Toyota chose the Imola circuit in Italy, site of the 2001 San Marino Grand prix last April. The winner of that race was Ralf Schumacher in a BMW-powered Williams. The pole position was established by David Coultard in a McLaren with a fastest lap of 1:23.054 but after 136 laps, the best that Toyota test driver Allan McNish could do was almost seven seconds slower. At speeds of over 180 mph for the leaders, the Toyota would have been a uneventful backmarker.

As an example of how close Formula One racing is, at a recent test session for the British Grand Prix at the Silverstone track in England, the difference between that fast-time set by Oliver Panis in his BAR-Honda and second-fastest Mika Hakkinen in his McLaren-Mercedes was three-tenths of a second. The slowest car and nineteenth-fastest qualifier was Giancarlo Fisichella in his Benetton-Renault at a bit more than five seconds off the mark.

With competition as close as this, Toyota has its work cut out for it to make its Formula One team a winner. As we've noted, Toyota has a lot of things going for it but there's one more attribute that Toyota has that will no doubt weigh in its favor.

It has plenty of money.