Toyota still eyeing first win as sixth season looms


Sooner or later Toyota will win a NASCAR Nextel Cup race.

In Formula One, Toyota's first victory will fall into the later category rather than the sooner one.

Of course, just what time spans are covered by "sooner" and "later" is up for discussion.

After intense preparation, Toyota entered F1 in 2002. From the beginning, Toyota said that winning its first Grand Prix wasn't going to be easy.

Now, entering its sixth season in F1, Toyota knows it's time to win.

"Our fundamental challenge this year is to get the first victory," Toyota F1 chairman and team principal Tsutomu Tomita said when the team's new car was unveiled in Germany in January.

"We announced that a year ago, but we failed to succeed in 2006. And therefore we want to repeat that challenge in 2007. I know all the other teams are working very hard. We have five years experience in F1, but still we are young in comparison with the top teams, and therefore we have to be modest about it. But we would like to challenge them."

Toyota's best season so far was in 2005. The team earned two second-place finishes (Jarno Trulli was well adrift of Fernando Alonso and his Renault in both cases), three thirds and enough points to finish fourth in the constructors' championship.

The team slipped back in 2006, with just one podium finish. And with less than half the points earned in 2005 it placed sixth in the championship.

Still, Toyota has shown it is capable of winning poles and finishing on the podium. So what is missing when it comes to winning a Grand Prix?

Money is not the issue. Toyota has one of the biggest budgets in F1, estimated at more than $400 million a year.

So what does Toyota need to do to make that final step to victory?

"It is quite clear that we have to improve and enhance the car's performance," Toyota Motorsport president John Howett told ESPN.com.

"The biggest point is to have strength in every area of the car, and the balance of the car that evolves in a positive direction during the race weekend. It's about the suspension design, how it uses the car, the aerodynamics, and the stability of the aerodynamics in race conditions. That is the area we are really focusing on."

Tomita said there are two things: the car and the company management.

"The second thing is more important -- company management itself -- to strengthen the team so that there is one team spirit," Tomita explained. "This is the F1 world, a terribly difficult world, and without this high spirit it is impossible to win."

Toyota's vice president of motor sport Tadashi Yamashina told ESPN.com that it is a case of getting the technology, drivers, car, and reliability meshing smoothly together.

"Our spirit is getting better and better," Yamashina said. "I am confident we can fight with the other teams."

Toyota's massive F1 factory is located in Cologne, Germany. While most F1 teams are based in "F1's silicone valley" around the Silverstone circuit in England, Toyota decided to run its operation out of Cologne because that is where its base was for its World Rally Championship team.

One of the criticisms from the outside is that the F1 team is run from Toyota's headquarters in Japan. Some claim that it is not streamlined and self-contained like some teams, and that this translates into the car not being fast. Is that a problem?

"Personally I don't think we are controlled as such from Japan," Howett replied. "It is normal for any company to report from time to time. But we are empowered and autonomous to actually make the decisions at Toyota Motorsport."

"Our fundamental challenge this year is to get the first victory. We announced that a year ago, but we failed to succeed in 2006."
-- Tsutomu Tomita

What do the drivers think about Toyota's quest for victory?

Trulli is in his third season with the team and has signed a new three-year deal. He says Toyota and its supporters and critics need to be patient when it comes to that first win.

"More than anything else you have to trust in the team and its resources,"
Trulli said, "and this is what Toyota have. For Toyota F1 is a new challenge, so it is normal that they have to learn. It is the only team in
F1 that has entered in recent years that builds the complete chassis and engine.

"It is an extremely difficult challenge, but I can see that the potential is there because in 2005 we proved that Toyota can do well.

"Ferrari had to wait 20 years to win the championship again, so if Toyota moves the challenge of winning from five to seven years, that is not such a bad thing."

This is also Ralf Schumacher's third season with Toyota, and there are options for two more years. What does he need to win?

"If you have the answer, I will buy it from you!" he quipped.

Sometimes winning can be easy.

"Sometimes it is so simple to win," Schumacher said. "Back in 2003, when I won my first Grand Prix, I started from pole position and it was so easy. It was my easiest race ever. Sometimes it is a lot more difficult to fight for fifth or sixth or seventh than it is to win a race."

Sooner or later Toyota will win its first Grand Prix. Although it's difficult to make exact comparisons between the new cars in preseason testing, indications are that that fastest teams are Ferrari, McLaren Mercedes and BMW Sauber. Toyota's first victory might have to come a little later.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.