It was at a function for the Japan Car of the Year jurors last September that hints started flying about a possible F1 withdrawal. Walking into a large hotel room in central Tokyo, we noticed that the walls were filled with photographs and posters of Toyota’s racing program. But there was not one mention of F1 anywhere. Every poster on the wall was shot at either the Nurburgring or Fuji Speedway and dedicated to the company’s in-house racing team, Gazoo Racing. And not surprisingly, there was a special reference to the LFA and IS-F, not least because CEO, Akio Toyoda, had strapped himself behind the wheels of both cars and competed in the last two 24-hour Nurburgring classics.
As the man himself appeared a few minutes later, a video shot across a big screen in the corner of the room summariaing Gazoo Racing’s efforts for 2009. Then Toyoda went into a passionate speech about how his racing experience helped him to understand what needed to be done to the company’s car line-up to make them more fun to drive and how he would support Toyota’s on-going grassroots racing efforts, especially at Nurburgring. And not one reference to F1.
To have such a high profile bunch of journos in the room and mention nothing about F1 was certainly saying something, without saying it.
But this about-face is exactly what the company had to do. They were hemorrhaging money in F1 and had almost nothing to show for it. Without a succession of strong podium finishes, the demerits of competing in F1 had started to outweigh the merits. There was no doubt that a more grassroots-focused racing programme and more fun road cars that appealed to a wider cross-section of the international motoring public was a healthier path to take.
That’s why you are going to see more competitive versions of the LFA, IS-F and even the Auris appear in Nurburgring races, while cars like the FT-86 and totally redesigned 4WD hybrid MRS will surface in showrooms within the next 3-5 years.
It’s just a pity that they didn’t pull the plug on F1 three or four years ago, because if they had, we could be driving the FT-86 now!