The interesting thing about the Japanese Grand Prix this weekend – other than Sebastien Vettel winning it in dominant fashion and Jenson Button not scoring enough points (again) to wrap up the world championship – was the tap-dancing going on concerning Toyota’s future in Formula One.
Several days ago, I commented on reports from Europe that Toyota was sending signals that its participation in F1 wasn’t guaranteed beyond 2009. This is because the auto industry has been hammered by the recession and other manufacturers – notably Honda and BMW – have already called it a day. Because Renault is also far from certain for 2010 (they’re not selling many cars these days on top of the race-fix scandal they’ve had to endure), it’s not exactly a stretch to suggest that the rumours surrounding Toyota may very well be true.
When F1 got to Japan, however, friends and critics sent me links to stories on the Internet that suggested the stories about Toyota’s possible demise were wrong, that the quotes had been taken out of context and that, in fact, the team was planning to sign both Kimi Raikkonen and Robert Kubica as drivers for 2010.
Now, you can’t blame Toyota F1 president John Howett for calling a news conference as soon as he got to Japan to try to turn the negative PR around 180 degrees. Toyota is in the business of selling cars. The last thing it needs is for people to get the idea it’s in any kind of financial difficulty.
But instead of calming the waters, Howett, in his zeal, raised the ante by suggesting that not only was the team going to be back next year but that it was going to go out and sign Robert Kubica and Kimi Raikkonen to be its drivers.
That’s when I became even more convinced that Toyota’s in trouble because Raikonen’s going to McLaren and Kubica will drive for Renault – if it survives. To suggest that Toyota even has – or had – a chance of landing either driver shows how desperate Howett had become to calm the troubled waters.
Look, I want everybody in Formula One to thrive, never mind survive. But other than statements made by Renaul F1 acting team manager Bob Bell to the effect that he’s sure the team will be on the grid in 2010 (and, like Howett, what’s he supposed to say?), to my knowledge, nobody at Renault corporate headquarters has said much about that team’s future, if anything.
The board of directors of Toyota will not meet until Nov. 15 and, until then, nobody knows what’s going to happen next year.
So the last thing John Howett is in a position to do is offer multi-million-dollar contracts to a world champion driver and/or a potential world champion driver.
To suggest otherwise does nothing for credibility, which F1 needs in large doses these days.
– The Japanese race ended pretty much the way it started with Vettel first for Red Bull, Jarno Trulli second for Toyota and Lewis Hamilton third for McLaren (although Hamilton did pop into second at the start but then had some trouble with the KERS power-boost system that dropped him back to third. KERS is gone for 2010, thank goodness).
– There were a tonne of accidents at Japan this weekend – notably Mark Webber in his Red Bull (his second crash in two races), and Jamie Alguersuari in his Toro Rosso during the race and Timo Glock (Toyota), Sebastien Buemi and Keikki Kovallainen (McLaren) in Saturday qualifying.
Glock, in particular, had a miserable weekend. He missed Friday practice because of a cold (!) – Toyota just happened to have a Japanese driver on hand to stand in for him (!) – and then in Saturday qualifying he crashed and suffered a fairly substantial gash to his left leg that kept him out of the race.
– That F1 pilots are real racers, let there be no doubt. When Buemi crashed in qualifying, Button, Rubens Barrichello, Fernando Alonso and Adrian Sutil were all penalized five starting positions because they ignored a yellow flag and kept the hammer down. None of them would give an inch.
– Vettel had a 10-second lead and was cruising to victory with five laps to go when Alguersuari crashed and the safety car came out. He kept his cool, however, and was pulling away at the checkers for his third win of ‘09.
– Button still leads the championship with 85 points. Barrichello is second with 71 and Vettel is third with 69. Barrichello was seventh in Japan while Button finished eighth. Two races remain – Brazil in two weeks (Oct. 18) and Abu Dhabi Nov. 1.
Say it ain’t so: Speed News reported last night that the disgraced Nelson Piquet Jr. is planning to test a pickup truck for Red Horse Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
For once I have No Comment.