Toyota struggling to overcome internal shortcomings

Updated: May 16, 2006, 9:56 AM ET
By Michael Kelley | Special to ESPN.com

Toyota Motor Corp. didn't let anything stop its quest to become the world's largest automaker.

However, in the high-speed world of Formula One, the company seems to be stopping itself, both on and off the track.

The latest example was Ralf Schumacher's collision with teammate Jarno Trulli at Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix, which didn't help the team's chances of gaining valuable and, of late, infrequent points. It helped highlight an apparent lack of direction and purpose by an extravagantly expensive operation in a business where anything less than total commitment just won't do.

Indeed, Toyota seems to be getting nothing for something instead of the other way around. Its reported $500 million annual budget, far and away Formula One's highest, has yielded a paltry seven points this season after a promising 2005 marked it as a team making its way up the grid.

Its 2006 points have come courtesy of Schumacher, as Trulli has yet to open his account in this year's driving championship. None of the above can be going down easily at Toyota headquarters in Japan.

Then again, not everyone associated with that 2005 success is still gainfully employed at the company's Cologne, Germany, racing base.

Technical director Mike Gascoyne departed earlier this year after a nasty spat that included a suspension and dark allegations of nonperformance by critical team personnel. His exit followed that of chief designer Gustav Brunner, who was shown the door in December.

Taking away the team's top engineering guru and its leading aerodynamic theoretician may have cost the team more than it was worth.

It's certainly upset what little chemistry has formed in an operation that's changed management and drivers alike with abandon during the course of its brief existence.

One factor F1 teams tend to focus on is continuity and institutional memory; one needs to look no further than highly successful Ferrari, whose core management has been intact for a decade, as confirmation.

Toyota, on the other hand, has no drivers, departmental executives or race engineers remaining from its original 2002 lineup and is already on its second generation of top-level management.

How the company could expect to generate an unbroken chain of racing philosophy within the team under those circumstances is its own private mystery.

Things began well enough for Toyota, as its 2002 debut at the Australian GP brought its first world championship point courtesy of Mika Salo's sixth-place drive. Perhaps as an early harbinger of things to come, Salo threw away a shot at fifth place that day by spinning off the track in an attempt to pass in the race's dying laps.

Toyota's F1 operation was initially headed by Ove Andersson, a factory rally-team executive with plenty of racing background but little if any open-wheel experience. His appointment seemed at the time to be similar to what Jaguar Racing had done early on by bringing in Ford Motor Co. technical wizard Neil Ressler to run its F1 operations, which upon reflection, didn't work, either. Andersson's tenure ended in 2004, when he was replaced as team principal by Tsutomu Tomita, a former Toyota engine developer.

The original Toyota drivers were Salo and former rally-racing hero Allan McNish, who were expected to remain with the team as it developed to provide stability; at least that was the theory. It lasted one season, with both being unceremoniously dumped in favor of Christiano da Matta and Olivier Panis, who were in turn axed two years later. The team has now employed seven race drivers over its four-year-plus existence.

In fact, many attribute Toyota's present on-track problems to its current drivers.

Trulli has a reputation as a qualifying specialist whose rivals pass through him so easily on race day, he looks like a mobile turnstile.

Schumacher is seen as temperamental and less than committed to anything other than gaining as much money for himself as possible; he recently fired manager Willi Weber after Weber negotiated a $20 million annual contract for him.

Still, the driver must have competitive equipment, and Toyota has not always had it.

Andersson's choice as the team's first chief designer was Brunner. However, there was the small problem of Brunner's employer, the former Minardi team, which had him under contract for another two years. That didn't stop Andersson from spending millions to steal Brunner and put him at the head of perhaps the most critical technical task for a new team.

Brunner was, as it turned out, better suited to a lower-tech culture, as he proved unable to adapt to modern F1 computerized design realities once presented with them.

One of his alleged adaptation measures landed him and Toyota in hot water: German state prosecutors formally accused Andersson, Brunner and aerodynamics team leader René Hilhorst of infringing fair competition laws by using computer software they knew had been stolen from Ferrari, Autoweek magazine reported in February.

Brunner's departure meant a sea change in design and an overlapping effect on the engineering department.

Then there was Gascoyne, who had worked at Tyrrell, Sauber, Jordan, McLaren and Renault before joining Toyota. While having a well-deserved reputation as a curmudgeon, Gascoyne was also esteemed for his design and engineering prowess and was thought to be just the sort of manager to put the team on the road forward.

As such, Toyota made him F1's highest-paid technical director at an estimated $8 million per year, ahead of more accomplished rivals such as Ferrari's Ross Brawn and McLaren's Adrian Newey (now with Red Bull Racing). Most of Toyota's 2005 success was attributed to his input, which made his suspension and departure all the more mystifying.

Gascoyne was replaced last month by Pascal Vasselon, formerly of tiremaker Michelin & Cie, as Toyota reorganized its management to eliminate the role of technical director in favor of a dual-general manager structure.

Team president John Howett said at the time he expected Vasselon and engine boss Luca Marmorini to boost the team's long-term stability. Then again, it's hard to boost something that may not exist in the first place.

Toyota has previous experience with unsuccessful racing programs, such as its brief foray with Dan Gurney's IndyCar team in the 1990s, and they apparently don't last long if they don't produce.

As the company seeks to establish itself in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series -- where team owner Michael Waltrip signed veteran driver Dale Jarrett over the weekend to race a Toyota next season -- it might well look around and decide that money being spent on a hugely expensive business that's not delivering the desired results might be better directed toward a start-up venture that costs less.

That would lead to the ultimate restructuring: closure. Those running the show in Cologne these days might do well to consider that possibility before they decide on yet another reshuffle.

Michael Kelley is a freelance journalist and a contributor to ESPN.com.

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