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The grand prix that Toyota should have won

On this day 11 years ago, Toyota arguably should have been celebrating its first win in Formula 1. But the team instead ended up squandering Jarno Trulli's pole position and one of its last chances to safeguard its future in grand prix racing,

The grand prix that Toyota should have won

At the end of the 2009 season Toyota announced its withdrawal from F1, ending an eight-year adventure that saw a huge amount of money spent, and no wins achieved.

Would even one triumph have encouraged the company’s top bosses to stick with the programme through the global financial crisis that also claimed Honda and BMW? We’ll never know, but on April 26 that year the team came close to getting it right in Bahrain, only to drop the ball, as it seemed to do so often.

Trulli started that race from pole position, and come the race, he also set fastest lap. And yet he ended up crossing the line in third, some way down the road from winner Jenson Button. How could it go so wrong?

The 2009 season began in unusual fashion, thanks in large part to Brawn GP’s successful use of the double diffuser concept. Toyota had also pursued the idea, and from the start of the season the white and red cars were competitive. Despite not having the trick aero configuration, Red Bull Racing was the third big player.

The fascinating aspect was that the three teams fighting for race wins were not used to doing so (with due respect to Ross Brawn), while those more used to racing for victory – McLaren, Ferrari and Renault – were struggling to find performance. Thus it was perhaps was not surprising that things didn’t always work out in terms of decisions.

That said, Toyota had shown an improved grasp of strategy over the previous couple of seasons, and had sometimes gained points from difficult situations.

Button had won the opening two races in Australia and Malaysia for Brawn, while Sebastian Vettel scored RBR’s first success in a wet race in China. Toyota was in the mix, with Trulli and Timo Glock finishing third and fourth in Australia after a rear wing issues led to pitlane starts for both. They matched that result (the other way round) in Malaysia.

There seemed to be so much potential, if only the team could get everything right. Bahrain appeared to be that chance.

Jarno Trulli, Toyota celebrates his pole position in parc ferme

Jarno Trulli, Toyota celebrates his pole position in parc ferme

Photo by: Sutton Images

Toyota had earned two poles back in 2005, with Trulli at Indianapolis when the Michelin runners knew they wouldn’t race and he ran ultra-light, and with Ralf Schumacher at a rain-affected Suzuka.

Bahrain 2009 was the first “proper” pole. Starting fuel loads played a role, and the race would show that an early first stop was planned, but even fuel-corrected the Italian was fastest. His teammate Glock, carrying less fuel, was alongside him on the front row. With both cars up there surely Toyota could convert this into a win?

Vettel qualified third, while Button started fourth for the second race in a row – and that definitely wasn’t where he was predicted to be. In the first couple of races the Brawns were able to run significantly heavier than the opposition, and still claim pole.

This time life was much harder over one lap, in part due to engine temperature issues in the Bahrain heat, a legacy of the hurried packaging of the Mercedes engine into what was a Honda-bred chassis.

At the start Trulli and Glock got away well in front, while Button passed Vettel but briefly lost out to McLaren’s KERS-equipped Lewis Hamilton, before getting back past in some style at the start of the second lap.

Timo Glock, Toyota TF109, Jarno Trulli, Toyota TF109, Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-24 Mercedes, Jenson Button, Brawn GP BGP001 Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing RB5 Renault, head into the first corner

Timo Glock, Toyota TF109, Jarno Trulli, Toyota TF109, Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-24 Mercedes, Jenson Button, Brawn GP BGP001 Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing RB5 Renault, head into the first corner

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“A great move, and making that move stick was very important to me,” said Button. “That meant that I could chase down the Toyotas and I had a clear track. If I was stuck behind him, we would have struggled with temperatures.”

As Button noted, it was important that he didn’t get caught behind someone, so he could control his engine temperatures. Thus he wasn’t too bothered about sitting three seconds back from Glock for the first 11 laps.

The four extra laps of fuel he had over the German, and the three over leader Trulli, were crucial – as was Toyota’s ultimately misguided decision to put both its cars on the prime tyre, which cost them a lot of time over those critical laps.

When Button came out after his lap 15 stop, he had comfortably jumped both of them.

“I thought they were going to do a three-stop race,” he explained. “Because they were struggling they said with brake temps and brake wear on Friday and Saturday. I thought maybe they were sticking [the prime] on to do 12-lap run and then get back onto the option. That wasn’t the case.”

As Button speculated, Toyota had been betting on a three-stop strategy, which would have justified the low fuel loads at the start. But some last-minute concerns over coming out in traffic caused the team to switch to a more common two-stopper, and as part of the change it was decided to use up the prime tyres in that stint. As we all saw, it didn’t work.

“We wanted to open the window for a three-stop, and we were very, very close to being able to do it without hitting traffic,” Toyota engineering boss Pascal Vasselon said after the flag.

“It would have been a good strategy. We were very, very close to being able to follow it. Then when we saw that we were going to hit traffic, we went to a back-up strategy, which on one aspect didn’t work as expected.

“The prime was much worse than expected in the middle of the race. We expected it to be better in the middle than the end of the race, and the opposite happened.”

Jarno Trulli, Toyota

Jarno Trulli, Toyota

Photo by: Sutton Images

As well as struggling for pace himself, Trulli did Button another favour by holding up third-placed Vettel.

“That helped us out enormously,” said Button. “Because obviously Vettel was stuck behind Trulli. If Vettel had got past him, I don’t know what the race outcome would have been, but I think our pace was very, very similar on both tyres.

“When I saw that [Trulli] was eight tenths slower than me and Vettel was stuck behind, I just thought, ‘Wow, this is what we need.’ I pulled away 14-15 seconds on Vettel, but even with that lead, you’re still wary, you’re still not sure exactly the way the race is going to pan out. I was on the radio a lot to my engineers, and working out what was going on.”

Vettel finally got ahead of Trulli at the second stops, but it was too late. He finished some seven seconds behind Button, with the frustrated Toyota driver just behind him.

Being on the option tyre at the end in theory gave Trulli superior performance, but just as Vettel couldn’t get by when the tables were turned and they were on different tyres, the Italian couldn’t do anything about it.

Third place seemed like a poor outcome from pole, while it was even worse for Glock, who had tumbled from second on the grid to a lowly seventh.

“It’s always possible after the race to review the race,” Vasselon rued. “With what developed, we could have been fuelled longer, we would still have made the pole, and the race would have been different, that’s clear.

“The strategy on Saturday was absolutely not geared to be on pole, it was geared to use the tyres in a certain way. And this went not as expected when we were forced to go out of the three-stops at the beginning.

“The target was to use the tyres in a way that was safe to extract the best possible pace of the car. Three stops would have been three times option, and one time prime.

“Then it was different because we had to extend the second stint, and then the prime was the logical choice. Jarno did a very good job. Considering the situation he did the best he could.”

Jarno Trulli, Toyota

Jarno Trulli, Toyota

Photo by: Sutton Images

One strange aspect was that the car weights clearly suggested that Trulli would stop two laps later than his team mate, but in the end, he only eked out one extra lap. Even the team didn’t understand that one.

“That’s one of the things we have to explain," added Vasselon. "We were expecting Jarno to stop one lap later, so that’s one of the things that meant we could not follow the expected strategy. Normally he was expected lap 13.”

It might have made a crucial difference. Had there been a little extra warning from Glock about how bad the car was on the prime, the team could have reacted fast enough to put Trulli onto options, and his race might have been turned out better.

“At the moment it’s still unclear why Timo was struggling a lot more with the prime compared to Jarno,” shrugged Vasselon. “It’s still something to be explained. These little things mean that at the end we ended up on the podium, but not in the position we wanted.

“It’s a struggle to be really positive. Because we should have won this race! We had possibilities to win this race, so we can only be disappointed...”

Jarno Trulli, Toyota celebrates his third position with the team

Jarno Trulli, Toyota celebrates his third position with the team

Photo by: Sutton Images

In the heat of battle, Toyota had made the wrong call. It seemed that the first win was only a matter of time, but it never came. There were to be no more poles, and while Glock would earn a second in Singapore and Trulli would repeat that in Japan, by then the writing as already on the wall, and plans to close the team were in hand.

“Honestly, we were all expecting more from this season,” Trulli said at the end of the year. “Especially after such a very good start, I expected good progress from the team. The problem is this has been a weird season for everyone, not only us.

“You can see how sometimes you are very competitive, and sometimes you are not competitive at all, without knowing why. We started off very well, and after a front row lock-out for Toyota in Bahrain, we were on the last row in Monaco! I can’t find a way to explain it, honestly.

“You cannot imagine that winning car, or at least a car which was in pole position one race before, is then on the last row in Monaco. For me it all sounds a bit strange and weird. I can’t find an explanation that I can tell you, but definitely it’s been a crazy season, both up and down.

“We were basically the second-quickest car at the beginning of the season. You can argue that maybe in Bahrain we could fight for the win, but at the end of the day to win you need to get everything right, and you need to be very competitive in all areas.”

One could speculate that a win in Bahrain could have been the turning point, giving the whole organisation a huge confidence boost as well as convincing the paymasters back in Tokyo that there was light at the end of the tunnel, and that it was worth riding out the financial crisis.

Instead that race was another crucial step on the way to the title for Button, and further proof that the former Honda guys had made the difficult transition from struggling at the back of the field to consistently making the right calls while fighting for wins.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen a chequered flag without a safety car or red lights in front of me!” Button joked after the flag. “It was a great race and a very tough race, a tough weekend, because we haven’t had the pace that we expected.

“Even when you’re in the lead by 10 seconds it’s still not easy, it’s so easy to make a mistake. And the traffic was pretty difficult out there. The cars that are normally at the front weren’t at the front, and we were lapping them. Now they know how it feels…”

Jenson Button, Brawn BGP 001 Mercedes

Jenson Button, Brawn BGP 001 Mercedes

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

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Series Formula 1
Drivers Jarno Trulli
Teams Toyota Racing
Author Adam Cooper
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