Toyota has had its fair share of success in motor racing. The company's official motorsport division is now called Toyota Motorsport GmbH but it can trace its roots back as far as 1971 to the Toyota Team Europe outfit. The team claimed four...
Toyota has had its fair share of success in motor racing. The company's official motorsport division is now called Toyota Motorsport GmbH but it can trace its roots back as far as 1971 to the Toyota Team Europe outfit. The team claimed four World Rally Championship drivers' titles in the 90s, two with Carlos Sainz and one each with Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol.
Thet then came close to Le Mans victories in 1998 and 1999 with their GT One car. The GT1 class Toyotas, powered by a V8 engine, were really on the pace in 1999, only being denied victory due to recurring tyre problems.
Since focusing its attention to Formula One, though, the mighty Japanese automotive giant has struggled to gain success. Despite gaining a point in their first F1 race, the Toyota F1 team have not yet won a grand prix. The best result so far are a couple of second-place finishes during the 2005 season, eventually finishing fourth in the World Constructors' Championship with 88 points.
After aborting its entry in 2001 the team started racing in 2002. By starting the team from scratch, Toyota had a lot of catching up to do, but after six seasons they still aren't there yet.
Driver Jarno Trulli, whilst talking to Autosprint magazine, admitted that he is not expecting to be a front runner in 2008. "Let's make this clear: in this situation, not only the Ferraris will be unmatchable for us, but also the McLarens. So, talking about getting some podiums is completely unrealistic," the Italian said.
After their high point season in 2005 where Trulli scored well with a couple of 2nd places, the team have been slipping down the standings. In 2006 the best result was a 3rd place in Australia, courtesy of Trulli's then teammate Ralf Schumacher. In 2008 things were even worse, the best either driver managed was sixth.
Trulli believes the 2008 car is better though: "Compared to 2007 the car has improved a lot in overall reliability and in the performance on worn tyres, which had been our main problem," he said. "Considering the problems BMW seem to suffer, maybe for us there's the chance of getting close to the second level teams like Renault, BMW and Williams, but it's impossible to do more than that."
Trulli came to Toyota from the Renault F1 team as a winning driver in the pinacle open-wheel series and thus far in testing the car alongside the current World Championship team is adamant that the Toyota TF108 is no match for the Ferrari.
"Looking at the behaviour of the Ferraris on the track is obviously depressing. They can brake wherever they want to but most of all they can accelerate wherever they want to, while I always have to be careful with getting on the power, which is not managed by traction control anymore," said Trulli.
The Toyota team line is somewhat more positive. Pascal Vasselon, Toyota's senior manager chassis commented, "We are happy with the progress we have made with the TF108. It has been very obvious from the first test that the TF108 is a different animal compared to the TF107, with much better stability and an all-around much better basis to work on."
He continued, "Our drivers feel a lot more confident in the car and they are able to push more. We have found that set-up work is much more straightforward and it is much easier to make progress in that area."
Vasselon was a tyre man with Michelin for many years, he took over his new role when Mike Gascoyne departed from Toyota. He believes the car is much improved, the teams aim to get better stability and drivability out of the package has been achieved.
Commenting on the recent test sessions Vasselon said, "... taking into account estimated fuel loads, you will see that at the moment the gap reflects a performance gain for the TF108 compared to last year.
"Of course there is still a gap, it is not good enough, and we are constantly striving to close it, but compared to this time last year I believe we are much closer to the cars at the front of the grid."
The testing season continues and Vasselon expects to get more from the car: "There is still plenty of performance left to come from this car before we race for the first time.
"We have new parts coming through continuously but the biggest upgrade to the package will come just before the Australian Grand Prix."
The changes in the pipeline involve a different front wing, barge boards and tuning vanes. There will also be new brake and suspension components. "It will be different but you will not see a big visible change, it is a combination of detail changes which we believe will have a positive impact," added Vasselon.
After the split with Ralf Schumacher, new driver Timo Glock will be partnering Trulli for 2008.
Commenting on the performance of the young German driver Vasselon said, "Timo has been immediately up to speed and immediately contributed to the development of the car.
"What we get with Timo is the advantage of a young driver without the disadvantage of a lack of experience. His racing and F1 experience is very good and he has been able to contribute a lot."
It would appear that Vasselon too is being realistic about the teams chances this year. In a recent interview with Grandprix.com he does admit "we should aim to achieve what BMW Sauber achieved in 2007, which was to be the best of the rest. It would not be realistic to talk of fighting for the title this year but we want significant improvement."
So while the Toyota is expected to have a lot of improvements, it is clear they will not be on par with the front runners. Last year the team had a total of 13 points which was the team's lowest tally since 2004. This year the team is hoping to jump to be the best of the rest (outside of the top runners), but with the bold pre-season promises from last year being unfulfilled, we shall have to wait to see.