Friday, March 17, 2006

No way to run a racing team

I don't know what the collective mood of the various teams was when they packed up and left Sakhir last week, but it seems from here that most of them had reasons to be cheerful. Renault, of course, won the race with Alonso, demonstrating that the team had not been unsettled by the persistent rumours that the corporate accountants are planning to pull the plug on the team, or by Alonso's announcement that he's off to McLaren at the end of the year. Ferrari showed they were back on the pace with a second place finish and an all-red front row. McLaren and Raikkonen did a good job of rescuing a potentially disastrous weekend to pick up a podium from the back row. Honda might feel a little disappointed, but appear to have a car that is, if not quite on the level of the big 3, then certainly not very far off. Williams would doubtless be disappointed that they got qualifying wrong, but knowing that for substantial periods of the race, they had the fastest car out there will give them hope for a better season than last year. Red Bull were undoubtedly pleased to get both cars over the finish line after a torrid time in winter testing and Super Aguri could take pride simply in getting both cars to the start line (that one of them also made it to the finishing line, after completing just 25kms of testing in definitive 2006-spec was most impressive).

One team, however, were definitely leaving for Malaysia on a low. There has been much talk of how, eventually, Toyota's sheer financial muscle will see them leave all and sundry behind in Formula One. People point to their success in rallying and say that it is only a matter of time before they dominate Grand Prix racing too. A few years back, at the height of Ferrari's dominance, Patrick Head said "down the road, its these guys that I'm really worried about", pointing at the Toyota team truck.

If recent figures in F1 Racing magazine are to be believed, Toyota spent more money last year than even Ferrari and McLaren (very much the established big spenders) and yet they were able to net only a handful of podiums and fourth place in the constructors championship. For a team that was established from scratch just five years ago, their performance was respectable enough (think where BAR were in 2002, by way of contrast) but the board over in Japan must have been expecting that this would be the year they would finally establish themselves among the frontrunners. Going into their second season with Mike Gascoygne leading the design team and two more than decently quick drivers, they got their car out ahead of everyone else, they looked primed to join Renault, Mclaren and Ferrari at the front. An additional advantage should have come from the switch from V10s to V8s. Major regulation changes always tilt the odds in favour of the teams with the research budgets required to find the optimal solution in the quickest possible time. Autosport magazine listed them as being, along with Ferrari and Honda, the team most likely to trouble last year's big hitters, and then they go to the desert for round 1......

....And they are absolutely nowhere. Ralf Schumacher, to his own horror, found himself missing the cut after the first fifteen minutes in qualifying, while Trulli scarcely did any better, qualifying only fourteenth. Come race day, they circulated reliably enough, but neither Schumacher Jr nor Trulli were able to finish on the lead lap, and much of the time, they were unable to lap any quicker than Tiago Monteiro was in his MF1-Toyota, which is all the more of an indictment when one considers the relative ability of Trulli and Monteiro as drivers. The problem, apparently, was that the cars were simply unable to get their tyres up to working temperature - at the end of the race, it was all but impossible to tell which sets of tyres had been used and which had been not.

So why have Toyota got it so wrong? I'm not a team manager, an aerodynamicist, an engine builder or a tyre technician, so any answer I come up with is no more than educated guesswork, but for what its worth, here's my theory: Toyota are in Formula 1 for the wrong reasons, and they don't really understand it, so they will never succeed.

Their participation is partly a marketing exercise, and partly in the Japanese tradition of the high-prestige flagship corporate project. This makes little sense for Toyota. The Japanese firm sells more cars than almost any other manufacturer on earth, not because they are reputed to be sporty, exciting or fashionable, but because they are very well put together and go on and on forever. People aren't going to go out and buy a Yaris or a Corolla because Trulli or Schumacher won a Grand Prix in a Toyota. Ferrari? Certainly their racing heritage helps them sell cars. BMW? Any company wanting to make out that their product is the ultimate driving machine is going to do well out of F1. Honda? The car of choice for the discerning reader of Fast and Modified and very much trading on a reputation for high tech (and does anyone else make such high revving road engines?). But Toyota? The idea of their going into F1 for marketing reasons just doesn't make sense to me.

Which leaves the flagship corporate project theory. A friend of mine who used to work for the UK wing of a Japanese software company told me that these are very much a Japanese tradition, but to my mind, an F1 team really isn't a good idea for a company looking for something interesting for its engineers to do. The trouble with corporate projects is that they tend to be run along corporate lines - which in the case of a major motor manufacturer, means running an F1 team as if it is in the business of being a volume car manufacturer. Corporations tend to like rules, agreed processes and uniformity, which is all very well in as far as it goes, but the trouble is that geniuses don't tend to work like that. And motivated, single minded geniuses are what you need to succeed at the highest level, not large numbers of competent by-the-book men. One recalls the way Ford bought Stewart, and proceeded to wreck a perfectly decent, tight knit little race team (I remember hearing that one of the first things that Ford insisted upon was replacing all the teams computers, which were from one supplier, which kit from another supplier, on the grounds that Ford had signed an exclusive contract with the other supplier. This apparently caused no end of disruption, cost an absolute fortune, and made the cars not one hundredth of a second faster than they would otherwise have been).

Prestige projects cost money: In the case of Toyota's F1 project, around £300m a year. Toyota are pouring in this kind of money because they believe that through sheer financial muscle, they can short-cut their way to the top. This plainly isn't working. It may be that having so much money encourages wastefulness: No other team would have spent the best part of £20million to hire Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli. A Schumacher, an Alonso or a Raikkonen might be worth that kind of money, but then they would want to drive for a team that might enable them to win races.....

There's an old saying that the quickest way to make a late project run even later is to hire extra staff, and one wonders if a version of this might explain Toyota's problems. Perhaps there's too many people scrabbling around trying to solve some perceived problem or another and not enough strategic direction keeping them in check (intriguingly, reading between the lines, that appeared to be what Mike Gascoygne said of development work at the team before he joined - but perhaps he hasn't succeeded in turning things around as he would like). An excess of money can encourage inefficiency too: If your resources are limited, you focus on what you think is most likely to bring the largest gains - but if they are verging on limitless then there is inevitably a temptation to just try everything and anything to throw everything at every perceived problem.

In the end it all comes back to one thing. The Toyota F1 team has no soul. One has no sense that this is a team that really has racing in its blood. And that must have a knock-on effect inside the team itself. Can you really believe that they burn the midnight oil back at the factory in quite the way that one suspects that they do at Williams or even Red Bull? All the money in the world can't buy team spirit. Except, of course, it can, and it has. Ask Renault what they paid for the old Benetton team......


Blogger gshevlin said...

The bottom line is that the Toyota car is not working properly on the track. Gascoyne explained after Bahrain that they could not get the tyres into an "operating window". I interpret that to mean that they could not get them up to temperature. That implies a lack of aero grip for a medium-to-high speed circuit like Bahrain.
Based on the photos that I have seen of the medium speed circuit aero package, Toyota has a significant aero problem. The car is festooned with wings, unlike the Renault, which has very few additional wings. Wings are good for advertising, but are bad for drag. When a car sprouts wings for medium-speed circuits, you know that the base aero configuration is not generating sufficient downforce.
I also believe that the main structural weakness of Toyota is that they tried to set up a completely new F1 team in Germany (which was where their rally team was based) and made little or no attempt to learn from existing F1 operations in the UK. Only after they kept on producing mediocre cars did they start hiring outside help (most notably Mike Gascoyne). They have also picked up and discarded drivers like disposable diapers. The appear to have no appreciation of the benefits of continuity and actually Listening To The Drivers.
I would be tempted to say that Toyota needs a scapegoat, but they already have one in the form of (ex-)employee Gustav Brunner. He is probably a good scapegoat for a while, but when you have been spending $300m a year for 5 years and are still struggling to score points, the only thing that is likely to reduce the pressure is some real results.

11:18 AM  

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