Schumacher sees bright future at Toyota
But, all in all, Ralf Schumacher had an excellent season in his first year with the Panasonic Toyota Racing.
"We have achieved a lot more than we thought from where we started," he told ESPN.com. "I expected the team to be a lot more successful than they used to be, but not that we achieved so many podiums and scored so many points."
Toyota made its F1 debut in 2002. In the first three years, it scored a total of 27 points and never finished higher than eighth in the constructors' championship. In 2005, Schumacher and teammate Jarno Trulli earned a total of 88 points, and Toyota finished fourth in the championship.
For the most part, Schumacher couldn't match the pace of Trulli, but Schumacher still finished in the top eight and scored points 14 times.
Had it not been for the United States Grand Prix, where Ferrari finished first and second while Toyota was one of the seven teams that withdrew, Toyota probably would have finished third in the constructors' championship.
"If I had said to somebody [before the season] that Toyota would battle with Ferrari for third place in the constructors' championship, they would have called me crazy," Schumacher said. "It goes both ways. Toyota did an incredible job in getting it right, and Ferrari did an incredible job in making it wrong."
Another team that got it wrong was Williams BMW, Schumacher' team for the previous six seasons. Schumacher won six races, five poles and finished on the podium 15 times during his career at Williams, but he saw signs that the team was heading for a slump. Williams, a multiworld championship winning team, finished fifth overall this year.
"For me it was obvious," he said, "and that is why I decided to go elsewhere. I don't think that it has anything to do with BMW. BMW has always been a good engine. It is past and it is not my business anymore. I wish Frank [Williams] and his team all the best, but I am with Toyota so let us talk about something else."
OK, why did Trulli usually outqualify his teammate this year?
"The problem I personally had with this car is that I can't go to the limit," Schumacher explained. "I am always off the limit because I am afraid of braking too late and making mistakes. The car doesn't suit my driving style for qualifying, so basically I am always backing off and trying to make a clean lap, but it is not good enough. Jarno has traditionally always been a very good qualifier, so there are two extremes. That enables him to outqualify me most of the time."
Still, Schumacher got the pole in Japan thanks in part to being out on the track when it was driest.
He also had a shot at winning the Belgian Grand Prix, which was one of those lottery races with constantly changing weather conditions. Had Schumacher not pitted too soon for dry weather tires, he probably would have won instead of finishing seventh.
"We took the decision together," Schumacher said of the team's pit strategy. "It was wrong, and in hindsight you can guess about anything. But I don't want to do that. We learned from it and it won't happen again."
What else did Schumacher learn this season?
"I have learned a lot of new things with Toyota, with the team and with different ways of working," he said. "After being with Williams six years, it was a totally different approach in many ways, which was interesting."
During the interview, Schumacher confirmed that he has a five-year contract with Toyota. He's 30 years old and thinks that he will probably finish out his F1 career with the team.
"At the moment, I have no reason to think about anything else," he said. "I am really happy here. So far it goes better than planned. Let's hope that continues."
It's rumored that Toyota pays Schumacher about $16 million per season, which would make him the second-highest paid driver after brother Michael.
Toyota took a huge step forward in 2005. It took another step when it brought out a B-version of its car with just two races remaining in the season. Can the team keep up this momentum in 2006?
"The momentum will continue," Schumacher said. "It is just a question of how long it takes. There is momentum. There is a big push going through the company. We are doing the right things and bringing a B car [helped] find what the benefits might be to develop that and bring a better car for next year.
"But there is a lot to do. The lap-time gap to McLaren under normal circumstances is five to seven tenths of a second, and to pick that up is not going to be easy."
Toyota won two poles and finished second twice, and third three times in 2005.
After such a successful season, does Schumacher expect Toyota to win in 2006?
"That is our target," he said. "It must be our target after what we have achieved this year. But it is a big step."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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