The news this morning that Toyota has pulled out of Formula 1 with immediate effect is not a total surprise, but it caps a very bad 48 hours for Formula 1. On Sunday night, after the teams and media had packed up and left the Abu Dhabi circuit, Bridgestone also announced its withdrawal from Grand Prix racing, at the end of 2010.
In terms of long-term damage, the Bridgestone decision is by far the worst of the two. The Japanese tyre company has given so much to the sport and seamlessly introduced the return of slicks to F1 this year without a blip to its quality and supply. Companies with the experience, technology, capacity and financial willing to supply F1 tyres are limited in the extreme, and given that a new supplier would ideally need two years to prepare for the mammoth task of providing rubber to the whole Grand Prix grid, this is a serious blow.
So who will step in? Michelin is the only company with recent F1 experience that stands out as the obvious option. But it withdrew from F1 at the end of 2006 in disgust, in the belief it was persecuted by the FIA following the debacle at Indianapolis in 2005 and in the wake of the governing body’s decision to impose a single tyre supplier for 2008. Competition is at the heart of Michelin’s ethos – so will it even want to become the sole supplier for 2011? New FIA president Jean Todt has his first major crisis on his hands
And so to Toyota. The world’s biggest automotive manufacturer will be remembered in F1 terms for one thing: failure. In 139 races since its debut season in 2002, Toyota has a string of second places to its name and a best finish of fourth in the constructors’ championship. It has also spent more money than any other team.
There have been some good people working for Toyota over the years, including current team principal John Howett, and they deserve more for their efforts. But Toyota just never got F1. Its corporate culture always seemed to strangle the ingredient of inspiration that Grand Prix teams always need. A series of conservative cars, conservative driver choices – and even conservative race strategies – made the team something it should never have been in F1: a non-entity.
Individuals such as Howett will be missed, particularly following his good work for the Formula One Teams’ Association last summer. But the team will be forgotten very quickly.
The announcement does open the door for the Sauber team, of course. Following BMW’s similar tail-between-its-legs decision to quit the sport, the team was left as a reserve on the entry for 2010. If its mysterious new owner, investment consortium Qadbak, can deliver, the team will presumably take up the 13th team place on the grid.
So Honda, BMW and Toyota are gone, and Bridgestone are on the way. Who’s next? Renault? Now that really would rip the sport to shreds.