Posted by: Ian Rowley on November 4, 2009
At a hastily arranged press conference this evening in Tokyo, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda announced that the carmaker is the latest big player to quit Formula One motorsport. Toyota, which competed in 139 races after entering the sport in 2002, recording no wins, will quit immediately. Toyoda said the company will also stop providing engines to the Williams team. “It’s a complete withdrawal,” he said, citing the “the current severe economic realities”. Toyota follows Honda, which quit F1 last December, and BMW which entered its final race on Nov. 1 in Abu Dhabi. On Nov. 2, Japanese tire-maker Bridgestone said it would pull also out of the sport, saving $100 million a year.
While long rumored, Toyota’s decision to quit wasn’t a certainty. For one thing, since becoming CEO in June, Toyoda, a keen racer, has talked of giving Toyota a sportier image. At last month’s Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota showed the $375,000 Lexus LFA supercar, which its CEO had a hand in developing, and the rear-wheel drive FT-86 sports concept.
Despite never winning a race, this season wasn’t all bad and included several podium finishes. And, after an injury to first-choice driver Timo Glock, Kamui Kobayashi, a Japanese driver who graduated from Toyota’s driver training scheme, impressed in the final two races. Toyoda said the decision has nothing to do with Toyota’s poor record in F1. Indeed, with Toyota expected to post a second consecutive annual loss this fiscal year, it is in some ways surprising it took this long to quit. Running a F1 team can cost upwards of $500 million a year.
A bit like Honda last year, the decision may also make good business sense. Spending such large sums on a sport that isn’t a huge draw in the U.S. isn’t the best use of limited resources. On top of that, gas guzzling F1 cars don’t sit comfortably with Toyota’s carefully honed “green” image, while it’s hard to see their relevance to any of the company’s production cars, save the Lexus LFA. And, if all that isn’t reason enough, F1’s teams and management haven’t covered themselves in glory in recent times. In 2007, the McLaren team was fined $100 million for its part in a spying scandal. Last year, Toyota was one of several teams that put its name to a statement attacking Max Mosley, the chairman of the sport’s governing body, after he became embroiled in an embarrassing sex scandal. And this year Flavio Briatore, the chief of the Renault team, was banned for life after instructing one of the team’s drivers to crash on purpose.