When will it happen for Toyota? 06 Oct 2004
This weekend's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka is the home event for the Toyota Formula One team and thousands of the company's employees will be on hand to cheer their efforts. Yet for all that, Toyota's results this year have not reflected the vast sums of money that have been pumped into the team and many will be asking when that investment will start to show a return?
Toyota entered Formula One in 2002 with a considerable fanfare, and Mika Salo managed to score a sixth placed finish in the team's very first race, at Australia. But for the rest of the season the team's fortunes did not improve, managing a grand total of just two championship points and finishing the season in tenth position, just ahead of the bankrupt Arrows. The driver line-up of Salo and Allan McNish were dropped and replaced by Cristiano da Matta, a hot prospect from CART in America, plus French veteran Olivier Panis.
2003 was certainly a better year for the Cologne-based team, it managed to take 16 championship points throughout the season, including a strong performance at the German Grand Prix where the team took fifth and sixth places, but they still finished the season down in eighth place in the Constructors' Championship, behind rivals like Jaguar and Sauber who operate on considerably lower budgets.
And, as the 2004 season draws to a close, Toyota will be looking back on another season of what must be considered underachievement, certainly against the high targets that the team has set for themselves. They are languishing in eighth place in the Constructors' Championship having scored nine points so far this season. Cristiano da Matta has already left the team, although his replacement Ricardo Zonta has made little more of an impression.
But don't write Toyota off just yet. The team is still sitting on one of the biggest budgets in the paddock, and from next year several key developments will be taking place. Most importantly, we'll be seeing the first of the team's cars that has been designed entirely under the direction of the highly rated technical director, Mike Gascoyne (ex- Renault, ex- Jordan, who was reputedly lured by a multi-million dollar pay check.) And we're also going to see a brand new driver line-up from the start of next season, with two proven winners taking over: Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli.
Schumacher has had a terrible season this year, of course - missing six races after he sustained back injuries in a massive crash at the United States Grand Prix. But when he is motivated and in the right car he has proven himself to be a phenomenal driver, with six career victories to date. And although he's always going to be regarded as Michael's younger brother, Ralf is also one of the most experienced drivers on the grid in his own right, with 125 Grand Prix starts under his belt and a Formula One career that goes back to 1997.
Trulli, meanwhile, has also gone a long way towards proving himself this season, taking his Renault to a brilliant maiden victory at the Monaco Grand Prix. Having been long regarded as something of a wasted talent, Trulli's three seasons with Renault have helped him to discover a new maturity to his abilities as a racer. The only question being - can he keep up his progress with Toyota next season?
Another vital part of Toyota's 2005 challenge will come from the continued technical input of Olivier Panis, who despite retiring from racing will still keep a testing role with the team. With his massive experience, Gascoyne's team's technical expertise and the undoubted pace of the two new drivers, 2005 certainly should be Toyota's breakthrough season. It will be fascinating to come back to Suzuka next year and see if it has been.