- Dan Knutson
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SEPANG, Malaysia -- After the Toyota F1 team tested a total of 12,618 miles during the offseason, you would think the last thing it needs right now is more testing -- especially on a race weekend.
But, after a miserably uncompetitive Bahrain Grand Prix, Toyota plans to treat the first three races of the 2006 season as test sessions.
"At the moment, we are analyzing the data," Jarno Trulli told ESPN.com, "and these first two or three races will be taken as test races because we really need to understand what is going on with the car and the tire temperature. And then hopefully we can solve the problem and start racing."
A year ago, Trulli drove his Toyota to second place in the races in Bahrain and Malaysia. In Bahrain this year, he slithered home to 16th place while his teammate Ralf Schumacher finished an undistinguished 14th.
What has gone wrong? How can a team that finished in fourth place in last year's constructors' championship be running around near the back of the pack this year? And why is a team that brought out its new car at the end of November 2005 and tested it so extensively so far off the pace?
The problem is easy to define. But the solution is proving to be very elusive indeed.
Toyota switched from Michelin to Bridgestone tires during the offseason, and so far the team simply cannot get the chassis and the tires to work together.
"I am not saying that the tires are wrong," Trulli said. "I am saying the combination of our car and the Bridgestone tires is not working properly at the moment. There is nothing obviously wrong with the car; we just cannot heat up the tires. Our tire temperatures are the lowest in the paddock."
"We have experienced a 60-degree difference between Bridgestone and Michelin," Trulli said. "The temperatures I was running in Bahrain were the lowest I have ever had in dry conditions. They were nearly matching wet conditions."
That's 60 degrees Celsius, which is 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Toyota experienced these problems in winter testing in Europe but hoped hotter temperatures in the Bahrain desert would improve things. They didn't.
"Again in Bahrain we had this problem, and it was a real disaster," Trulli said. "I am not angry, I am just disappointed because the package we have cannot be that bad. There is something that is stopping us showing our true performance."
Trulli's smooth driving style is so easy on the tires that it makes the situation even worse.
"We don't understand why we can't generate heat in our tires," said Toyota's chassis technical director Mike Gascoyne. "We have [former Michelin engineer] Pascal Vasselon working for us, and he can't explain it either. Bridgestone is perplexed, too. We simply don't wear out the tires.
"Maybe we should go for a much softer option than other teams."
Bridgestone has brought a very soft tire to Malaysia specifically for Toyota.
But Toyota's engineers and drivers are at a loss to figure out what went wrong in Bahrain.
"We still have confidence because we know that our car is better than last year's car," Trulli said. "There is no need to panic. We need to keep our confidence and motivation high because we are a strong team and we have to show our true potential.
"Our target is to bounce back because at the moment the performance shown in Bahrain is not our true performance. We know that our car is quicker. There is no way that our car is so slow. We cannot be three seconds off the pace yet there is nothing basically wrong with the car."
Track temperatures here in Malaysia are considerably hotter than in Bahrain, so that will benefit Toyota.
Trulli is not wasting time thinking about his runner-up finish a year ago in Malaysia. He just wants to be competitive and go racing again.
And that is why he doesn't mind using races as test sessions.
"I would be very happy to lose two, three, four, five races and then bounce back and again be on top," he said. "It is important for the team to go back to what it was like last year. At the moment, I want to race, and to race, we first have to solve our problems."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
1dLaurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders