There are rumblings that Toyota are very unhappy with Ralf Schumacher’s recent performances and could sack him before the season finishes. At the recent Monaco Grand Prix Schumacher qualified in 20th position. The only person who was outqualified by Ralf was Takuma Sato in the Super Aguri Honda, while Christian Albers in the Spyker Ferrari started last on the grid because mechanical difficulties did not allow him to set a time. To put things into perspective, Ralf was outqualified by both Toro Rossos and Adrian Sutil in the Spyker. Ralf’s team mate Jarno Trulli recorded a time that was almost 1 second quicker than Ralf’s, while Lewis Hamilton was almost two seconds quicker in the first qualifying session. In the race Ralf could only get up to 16th position and was lapped twice by the victorious McLaren Mercedes of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton.
Whilst there has been a lot of criticism of Ralf I believe that the blame for his (lack of) performance lies squarely at the feet of his Toyota team. Toyotas approach to Formula 1 has seemed haphazard since they joined the category in 2002, and this just seems to confirm in my mind that they do not seem to know what the hell they are doing. They have paid both Ralf and Jarno Trulli way above what they are worth, which has given both men little incentive to improve their racing. Not only that, but Toyota’s whole philosophy for success in Formula One is that if they throw as much money as possible into the F1 team, that sooner or later they will get results. It doesn’t seem to worry them that they are paying all those billions of dollars to the wrong people, which not only includes the drivers, but the team management and their technical people. If they were totally serious about acheiving any sort of success in F1, they would not have spent millions and millions of dollars by building their factory in Cologne. Instead they would have set themselves up in England, close to where all the other F1 teams are based.
I also feel that part of the problem is the way in which Toyota sees success. Prior to the Australian Grand Prix Toyota had a lift out in the newspaper trumping their success in motor racing in the last fifty years. Toyota even had the audacity to call themselves motor sport icons, something which I seriously question. In reality Toyota’s success if extremely modest, especially when compared to Ferrari, Mercede Benz and Porsche. The only area that they have really done well is in rallying, where they have won the World Rally Championship and Dakar Rally several times. I think that they should have perhaps stuck to rallying, where I have no doubt that they would currently be dominating.
When it comes to circuit racing their record is much more mediocre. They have never won at Le Mans but they are proud to talk about their second placing in 1994, where their Team SARD Toyota 94CV was beaten by the Dauer Porsche 962, a car that was designed 10 years earlier and which had an engine that was first designed in the 1970s. Eddie Irvine was leading the race with 90 minutes to go, but suffered mechanical problems which relegated him to second place.
A similar story occurred in 1999, when with an hour to go, the Toyota GT One of suffered tyre problems, handing victory to BMW. Sure they missed victory in both these races by a narrow margin, yet they still did not win. Very few people can remember who came second at Le Mans whilst everyone remembers the victor. A lot of people, including those at Toyota, call the GT One and iconic car, yet it never won a race. Not only did it lose both the 1998 and 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours races, but also the 1999 Le Mans Fuji 1000 kms to arch rival Nissan, whose R391 was never developed to its full potential due to lack of funds. Toyota pulled out of Le Mans sportscar racing at the end of 1999, never acheiving the amount of success that they should have.
Toyota’s record in the USA in the Champ Car and IRL categories are not that impressive either. When they first entered those categories they struggled for many years to get speed and reliability. They then briefly dominated each of those two series before going back to struggling again, eventually pulling out althogether.
In the short term I cannot see Ralf being in F1 much longer. Toyota will probably offer an outrageous amount of money to a driver who is either a F1 journeyman, or someone from the US scene, who in the end will not be suited to Formula 1. In the longer term, I really do not think that they will be around beyond 2010. They are certainly not getting there moneys worth and I think that their insipid performances are starting to affect their image. I would not be surprised if Toyota have quit F1 altogether by the end of 2010, especially if they have not won a race by then.