Jarno Trulli’s strong run to fourth place in Malaysia certainly suggests the team is on course for a better season than last year. It even offset the F1 outfit’s disappointing start to the season in Melburne, where Trulli retired and new boy Nico Glock suffered a spectacular end-over-end shunt.
But in Japan – and within Toyota – there seems to be an increasingly prevalent belief that 2008 really is the make-or-break season. Because despite having one of the biggest budgets in the paddock, Toyota’s eight years in Formula One have so far produced the dizzying total of two pole positions, no wins and just 159 points from 106 races.
I recently attended the company’s motorsports conference in Tokyo, where the top brass again expressed confidence for the year ahead. “I strongly hope that that one of our drivers will stand on the top step of the podium this year,” said boss Katsuaki Watanabe. Although his rueful admission that “you probably remember me saying the same thing last year” got a laugh from the audience.
The big question remains that of whether Toyota would really walk away from Formula One if the results don’t arrive. Some people clearly reckon that a clean break is the best approach for the brand, but there’s another long-standing rumour that Toyota just wants one win in F1 before it feels it can walk away, honour intact.
Of course, others still believe that Toyota will persevere, both to use F1’s potential to communicate its brand values (even from the middle of the table) – and also because it can. As the world’s biggest and most profitable car-maker, the firm could afford to continue in motorsport’s highest series indefinitely, despite the losses. But whether Toyota's management culture really fits in with the fast-moving, pirhana club world of F1 is something else again.
But there’s also a growing view that Toyota’s long-term future in the sport might be as an engine supplier. Indeed, the Toyota-powered Williams team is already residing two places higher in the constructors’ championship.
But would such a subsidiary role be compatible with Toyota’s corporate pride? That’s another matter.