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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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Toyota and Team Orders

Autosport magazine reports that the Toyota team did ask Jarno Trulli to move over and let Ralf Schumacher through in the Japanese Grand Prix. Apparently, this has caused some frustration to Toyota management since it may have resulted in the loss of points – there is some speculation that Ralf could have beaten both Button and Raikkonen (yeah, right) had Trulli done as he was told. Jarno is unrepentant, however:

Trulli said after the race that his pace was slow because of tyre issues, but that the team should have been happy for both cars to finish in the points.

“I had several problems and struggled with my last set of tyres – particularly for the first 10 laps,” he explained. “The most important thing is that we both scored points.”

Jarno

Jarno and Ralf

This is all very interesting as regards the team’s harmony or lack of it, but isn’t something being missed? Have we all forgotten about the ban on team orders?

Autosport avoid implicating the Toyota team by stating that their information came from a “source” but, being a reputable magazine, I can’t see it publishing anything that did not come from someone who should know. And that means someone within the team, surely.

It should also be remembered that the TV commentators to the race fully expected that Trulli would have to let Ralf through – the German was obviously faster and it made perfect sense for the sake of the team that he be let loose. I think we must all have shared in the surprise that this did not happen and that the Toyotas circulated for the rest of the race at Trulli’s pace.

So, what of the ban on team orders? Would not Toyota’s request, repeated three times, have amounted to just that? If it had been Massa being asked to let Schumacher through into the lead, would not every other team be lodging protests? It seems to me that there are double standards at work here – one rule for when it really matters and another when no-one could care less.

In fact, the whole thing merely shows up the stupidity of the ban on team orders anyway. F1 is a team sport (there would be nothing for the stars to drive were it not for their teams) and sometimes things have to be arranged for the good of the team – or for the sake of a championship. Team orders have been a part of F1 from the very beginning and it is only recently that any comment, let alone protest, has been raised over them. And that is because the audience base has increased so rapidly that it includes many who have yet to learn all the nuances of the sport. Those who understand how it all works raise no eyebrows over such things.

The rule is impossible to police anyway. It is easy enough for the number two driver to pretend to fight for his position while letting the number one through. And these days number twos go into every race knowing what they must do if the situation arises (just ask Massa about that). There is no need for the team to get on the blower and issue instructions – that’s all taken care of beforehand.

In the end, it comes down to personal opinion on whether a driver is obeying team orders or not when his team leader passes him. And, as we saw at Monza, rules that depend upon personal interpretation are an open invitation to abuse.

The rules and regulations governing F1 are complicated enough without including such meddling in team affairs. I say the FIA should get rid of the ban and let things take their normal course. Yes, occasionally a crowd favorite might have to give way to a team leader for the sake of the championship; but that’s F1 – sometimes the team’s interests must come before an individual’s.

And another thing: who would bet on Jarno Trulli receiving 100% of the team’s efforts next year?

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Istanbul Qualifying

I told you Massa was coming good. All weekend he has been on Schumacher’s pace and it was no surprise to me that he grabbed pole in the last few minutes of qualifying. In the race, of course, it will be different – Michael will gravitate to the front and Felipe will ride shotgun.

Felipe Massa

Felipe Massa

Ferrari and Bridgestone still have their advantage in the heat, obviously, but Renault should take heart from the fact that they are back at the front of the Michelin runners. The gap closes and Alonso should be in with a chance of retaining his championship at the end of the year.

BMW Sauber continue to improve and benefited from Ralf Schumacher’s ten-place demotion from fifth, with Heidfeld inheriting Ralf’s position and Kubica in eighth. Jenson Button looked very fast in the Honda but had slipped down to sixth by the end. I suspect that he will have a good race tomorrow with the team still on a high after Hungary.

The surprise of the session was the disappointing form of the McLarens, Raikkonen managing only seventh and de la Rosa missing the second cut in eleventh. It seems this season that as fast as McLaren make improvements, their rivals do the same. For Mercedes, it must be especially galling to see BMW ease past them.

Michael must be favorite for the race win and a Ferrari one-two looks quite likely too. But racing is a funny old game and usually confounds our best guesses. So I’ll not make any prediction but admit that I would dearly love to see the Honda team amaze themselves and everyone else with another win for Jenson Button.

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