Akio Toyoda might just be today’s equivalent of Enzo Ferrari. Not in terms of character, by all accounts, but in that both can be described as talismanic leaders with a genuine passion for motorsport and a determination to place it at the heart of their firm’s philosophy – which has paid dividends on road and track.
Actually, Toyoda might be even more remarkable: while Ferrari led a specialist sports car firm created to allow him to indulge in his passion, Toyoda is chairman of Toyota, the world’s biggest car manufacturer.
In an age when many bosses see motorsport as a hard to justify promotional cost, it’s a passion for Toyoda. He often competes in the Nürburgring 24 Hours and he refused to approve the GR Supra until he had raced it on the track.
He’s also a real believer in Toyota’s continued participation in motorsport, signing off works entries in both the World Rally Championship and the World Endurance Championship, continuing to fund the expensive TS050 Hybrid in the latter even after other manufacturers had quit.
Toyota has also remained committed to the WEC’s forthcoming new Le Mans Hypercar class, despite years of uncertainty over the rules.
To see how engaged Toyoda is with his firm’s motorsport projects, just read the open letters he issues after major successes. The latest came after Mike Conway, José María López and Kamui Kobayashi wrapped up Toyota’s second straight WEC title by winning the Bahrain 8 Hours – and finished with an amusing jibe at Kobayashi for his failure to pop his podium champagne cork.
Unlike the platitude-filled statements most execs put out after successes, Toyoda’s are bursting with passion. After this year’s Le Mans, much of his congratulatory letter was an apology to Conway, López and Kobayashi for the technical issues that handed victory to the sister TS050 Hybrid driven by Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley.
When Ott Tänak announced his shock switch from Toyota to Hyundai after winning last year’s WRC title, Toyoda said he felt his stated reasons for the switch – a new challenge in a different environment – were “simply amazing” and wished him luck. And when the team dropped Jari-Matti Latvala and Kris Meeke for Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans, Toyoda spent more words thanking his outgoing drivers than welcoming his new ones.
The benefits of Toyoda’s motorsport passion go beyond words: they’re reflected in the showroom, too. The amazing new GR Yaris is the sort of car that a mass-market firm has no business making. Same for the GR Supra, which took Toyoda’s passion and collaboration with BMW to reach reality. And we haven’t even got to the hypercar Toyota is making to enable its next Le Mans racer.
But it’s not just performance cars that are benefiting: the improvements in the latest Yaris and Corolla reflect a firm striving to make great cars rather than simply sell a lot of them. It reflects a motorsport ethos that’s increasingly being imbued throughout Toyota – and that comes from the top.
Essentially, like Ferrari, Toyoda has moulded his firm in his image – and it’s helping Toyota to achieve incredible sporting success and make genuinely exciting road cars.