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Toyota Troubles

Toyota’s F1 team strike me as being the antithesis of Minardi in its heyday; whereas little Minardi oozed passion in abundance (and, at times, it was all they had), Toyota seem a passionless bunch, not quite sure of what they are supposed to be doing in F1. They have everything that Minardi never had – money, top designers, experienced team members, highly-rated drivers – yet they consistently under-achieve. I must conclude that they will never become a competitive team until they find passion somewhere, somehow.

Jarno

Jarno Trulli in Malaysia

Take Ralf Schumacher’s latest comments to the press, for instance. There seems no annoyance at the criticism leveled at his lackluster performances this year, merely a tired assurance that, when the car comes good, so will he. It does not even seem to occur to him that it’s the same old story we have heard repeated so often before.

Can you imagine Webber or Alonso in the same situation? They would not be holding back any caustic comments or accepting the status quo. Passion forces the unguarded statement from a man, ensures that occasionally he will stick his foot in his mouth.

Ralf’s statements are as bland and vague as if he had already proved his worth as the most highly-paid driver in F1; the reality is that we are still unconvinced of his talent. And the fact that Jarno Trulli is getting the best from the car while Ralf manages to fumble every race must raise questions in anyone’s mind. But not Ralf’s, apparently.

I detect rather more dissatisfaction in Jarno but he is too nice a guy to let much of it show. He is also perhaps more realistic than Ralf in assessing his own value in the F1 market – he knows that, if he fails to make a go of it at Toyota, the job offers will be thin on the ground thereafter. So he soldiers on, doing his best, and hoping that the team will eventually get it right.

Looking at the rest of the team, it is hard to say where this passionless attitude comes from. Pascal Vasselon, the senior chassis manager, is one of the most sensible people in F1 and is always worth listening to. Perhaps if he were more extreme, less realistic, we might see the flashes of emotion that mark the truly exceptional characters we have known in the sport.

And the car itself is a model of careful development, building upon what has gone before. What a pity that F1 is the one arena where that is not sufficient, where it is bold experimentation that can offer a chance of success, just as it also risks an embarrassing failure (just ask Honda).

It may well be that Toyota have found their level: always in with a chance of points but never a front runner. As the saga proceeds this season, it becomes ever more apparent that Toyota’s best chance remains to give up on the corporate team and put all their efforts into a small outfit that has the necessary ingredient of passion.

And that means Williams, of course…

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The Toyota Enigma

Why can’t Toyota win? So asks “Colenzo” in the BBC Motorsport forum and he then goes on to put the blame on a lack of expertise amongst the team’s personnel. Which may have something to do with it, although I have a lot of respect for their senior chassis manager, Pascal Vasselon.

Toyota

Jarno in the Toyota

Toyota have been involved in F1 for several years now and the combined experience and knowledge of the team should be as extensive as Honda’s or BMW’s, for instance. Yet still they fail to convince.

Money is not the problem; the budget is supposed to be one of the largest in F1 and rumor has it that Ralf Schumacher is now one of the best paid drivers. So what is Toyota doing wrong?

The answer may lie in the very fact that Ralf drives for them. Not that he is the root cause of their failures but more that his continued presence, and Trulli’s for that matter, indicates a certain lack of imagination in the team’s management. After a flurry of driver changes when they entered F1 (and they sacked some pretty good ones), Toyota has inexplicably settled for their present driver line-up.

Ralf has always benefited from the secondhand aura of his elder brother; at any moment, we still expect that the Schumacher magic will blossom in him and he will prove unstoppable. The trouble is, it hasn’t happened and I doubt now that it ever will. Ralf has driven for some very good teams in his career and yet his results have been uniformly disappointing. Yes, we have blamed car failures, bad luck and too high expectations for his performances but, in fact, he has been given far more decent chances than most drivers get. If his name wasn’t Schumacher, I think he would be driving for one of the lesser teams by now.

And then there is Jarno Trulli, famously the qualifying specialist. How he must hate that title by now! It does nothing but put a huge question mark over his race performances and we forget the times when he does well. The truth is that Jarno is inconsistent – sometimes he is brilliant but, more often, he is merely competent. And his recent demonstration that he is not a team player also raises doubts over his suitability for Toyota.

So why is the Japanese giant sticking with their drivers? I can only put it down to an unwillingness to try something new. This would fit with the ethos of the company too, their faith in tried and tested technology having won the road cars a reputation for reliability but also leading us to look elsewhere for innovation and invention.

Consider the drivers that have been available this year. Mark Webber would have been a good choice, a driver of undoubted speed and with that Australian grit and determination that Toyota so desperately lack. Or the team could have gone looking amongst the horde of young drivers clamoring to get into F1. With their budget, the Toyota execs could easily have bought themselves a Vettel or a Paffett.

But no, Toyota stick with what they know. And that attitude is bound to affect such things as car design and race strategy. For the moment, F1 is still an arena where “he who dares, wins” and Toyota are paying the price of their conservatism.

Look at the chances other teams take. For the sake of a few tenths of a second off lap times, Ferrari were willing to risk their wheel inserts being banned; Renault did the same with the mass dampers. One team got what they wanted, the other didn’t – but both tried. When was the last time you heard of a Toyota tweak that came under suspicion from the FIA? It’s just not their style; they wait until other teams have had an improvement accepted and then they stick it on their cars. Note the bristling “ears” on the Toyota’s nose; no-one seems to know what they achieve but Ferrari has them and so does Renault – Toyota must have them too.

It’s not the way to win championships. To do that, you have to be prepared to try new ideas and take a few risks. Throwing money at the problem is never enough.

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Pascal Vasselon on Interlagos

In the recent FIA survey, Toyota emerged as the least popular of the F1 teams. Why that should be so I have no idea, especially when one considers that the team’s main spokesperson, Pascal Vasselon, is one of the most articulate and level-headed people in the sport. When he speaks, I listen.

TF 106B

Toyota TF 106B

Autosport magazine has posted an interview with Pascal today and he discusses the Brazilan race from a position of considerable knowledge and understanding of the Interlagos circuit. For instance, we have heard a lot about the bumps on the track but only M. Vasselon has pointed out that they are a problem that won’t go away. As the name suggests (Interlagos means “between the lakes”), much of the circuit is built upon a lake bed and it is the instability of the underlying ground that causes the bumps.

He then goes into some detail on how the unpredictability of the Brazilian weather affects race strategy and it makes interesting reading. The fact that the rain does not cool the track surface much has an effect on the suitability of wet weather tires, for example. It all adds up to an explanation for the Brazilian Grand Prix often springing surprises. And that has to make the racing more exciting for the fans.

Most team managers are very bullish when asked about a team’s prospects for the next race; they will talk about it as if they were in with a real chance of victory (and we know they can’t all be right). But Pascal is refreshing in his sober assessment of Toyota’s chances. They are “reasonably optimistic of a strong performance” it seems.

To me, that seems exactly the right blend of optimism and realism. Pascal is one of those who are not afraid to “tell it like it is”.

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Pascal Vasselon on Mass Dampers

F1 Racing-live dot com has a very interesting interview with Pascal Vasselon, Toyota’s senior chassis manager, today. Perhaps the most revealing part of the whole interview was what he had to say about the mass damper controversy (which the International Court of Appeal is due to give a ruling on this Wednesday):

“Mass damping is one of the critical things that engineers have to sort out. We are forced to use stiff suspensions to maintain a stable aerodynamic platform. And, on the tyre side, we use low pressure for grip. So it means we put stiff suspension on top of very soft tyres and that causes a lot of problems. The combination means that at some frequencies the suspension is locked and the car is effectively bouncing on the tyres, which are not damped. The mass damper is one of the possibilities to control the frequency.

“From our side, we disregarded this because we considered it to be moving ballast, which is not allowed. Our development focused on suspension and another route that, for us, was more in line with the regulations. The mass damper is not an innovation, it is well known in engineering. It was actually used on the Citroen 2CV to counteract wheel hop! The question was: do we apply it to F1 or not? I would say it is obviously borderline. But then we also believe the issue of – it should be banned for the future, but it has been accepted, so why ban it in the middle of the season? Let’s wait the end of the season – will be answered by the International Court of Appeal very soon. That’s probably the true question that has to be answered.”

This is the clearest explanation of mass dampers I have yet come across and gives us a much better idea of why it is such a contentious issue. Had the FIA described it as “moving ballast” in the first place, instead of their vague reference to moving bodywork, I think everyone would have understood the problem sooner.

Toyota

Toyota TF106

Pascal also puts his finger exactly upon the most important point in the whole matter: the FIA’s choice to outlaw the mass damper right in the middle of the season. One could see the necessity for so hasty a decision if it were a safety matter or some tweak that gave an unfair advantage, such as Brabham’s fan car of 1978. But the mass dampers have been used since last year and to ban them suddenly in the middle of this season seems either stupid or deliberately antagonistic.

Do the FIA actually enjoy these trips to court where the whole business of F1 is made to seem contentious, chaotic and obsessed with trivialities? Is it impossible to reach some sort of agreement between the governing body and the teams that the rules will not be tinkered with during the season? So one team or another might make some huge technical breakthrough midseason that gives them a big advantage (unlikely but possible) – is that really the end of the world? Ban it at the end of the year if it’s so important.

With a little common sense and a spirit of compromise, so many of these storms could be avoided. I suppose we have to be grateful that there are still men like M. Vasselon involved in F1 who have plenty of both.

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