Toyota's doomed attempt to conquer F1 with a Le Mans team: 'They couldn't handle the pace'


Toyota's debut season was a microcosm of why the manufacturer didn't succeed in F1 – Allan McNish, Mika Salo and race engineer Dieter Gass remember that eventful year

SPA - SEPTEMBER 01: Allan McNish of the Toyota Formula One Racing Team in action during the Belgian Grand Prix at the Spa racing circuit in Francorchamps, Belgium on September 01, 2002. (Photo By Mark Thompson/Getty images)

Toyota's doomed F1 project: misled by the 'Toyota' way?

Mark Thompson/Getty images

It’s a well-known story: gigantic road car manufacturer is seduced by the glamour of Formula 1 but then comes a cropper – not so much that it has bitten off more than it can chew, more that it doesn’t even comprehend the table it’s dining at.

Toyota’s doomed F1 project, which made its race debut now 20 years ago, might be the ultimate example of this familiar tale of Formula 1 folly.

Prior to its grand F1 entry in 2002, the Japanese giant had dominated WRC, more than acquitted itself in sports cars and now had its eyes set on the biggest prize of all.

“Montezemolo said ‘Yes, go for it.’” Mika Salo

That first grand prix season showed many of the foretelling signs of why things never quite worked out: initial promise torpedoed by calamitous testing crashes, inter-team politics, corporate wrangling and a desire to follow a company culture rather than bend to arguably the world’s most idiosyncratic sport.

Its drivers Mika Salo, Allan McNish and race engineer Dieter Gass all spoke to Motor Sport about that debut year, with the latter saying “everyone wasn’t used to doing things at the pace you need in Formula One – there was an insistence on doing things the ‘Toyota way'”.

The Japanese firm first announced in 1999 it was entering F1 for the 2002 season. With the end of its sports car and rally projects, it sourced its new drivers with a combination of Toyota familiarity and experience in F1.

TOKYO - OCTOBER 9: Mika Salo (left) of Finland and Allan McNish of Scotland sit on a Toyota Formula One racing car during a press conference October 9, 2002 in Tokyo, Japan. The Japanese Grand Prix will be held on October 13, 2002 and is the final race of the 2002 Formula One World Championship Season. (Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

Salo and McNish brought a combination of F1 know-how and Toyota familiarity

Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

For Salo and McNish, joining this massively well-funded manufacturer team was a no-brainer. The former McLaren tester’s stock had risen significantly after his Le Mans win with Porsche in 1998, followed by a stint with Toyota’s endurance squad – this was all part of Tokyo’s policy of keeping it in the family.

“When I got the call it was like ‘Christ! Yes, I am interested!'” says McNish. “It was something that I was targeting for a long time in my life, and Toyota was the biggest car manufacturer in the world.”

Salo was in little doubt at this early stage either. Having come into F1 with the fading Tyrrell team, then having experienced midfield mediocrity with Arrows and Sauber as well as being a Michael Schumacher super sub at Ferrari in 1999, the Finn was ready for a big league team.

“I talked a lot of people about it, even [Ferrari CEO Luca di] Montezemolo at that time. He said ‘Yes, go for it,'” says Salo.

From the archive

“Basically it was my first full season with a factory team – there was no question about taking it.”

However, that factory team was set up in a way like few had been done before. Toyota opted to keep its motor sport base in the German city of Cologne, hardly an F1 centre of gravity, and it also transferred a huge number of staff over from its previous racing endeavours.

“There were a lot of new people from rally and from the endurance side – very few experienced people in there,” says Salo.

“It was a bit of a struggle at the beginning to make everything work and to work properly on it. It wasn’t easy.”

“When we went to Melbourne [for Toyota’s first race] I think there was less than a handful of people that had actually been in a Formula 1 team before,” adds McNish. “Fundamentally Mika and his engineer [Humphrey Corbett] were the two most experienced people in the team in terms of F1.

“I think Toyota was a very, very good F1 university. There was a lot of really good people that came out of it. However, you have to learn in university, you don’t arrive at that level.”

Gass further explains how this attitude permeated how Toyota went about F1 racing.

“The target was to make it in F1 without F1-experienced people,” he says. “Maybe it was a little bit more a philosophical question as well, in terms of really wanting to do it the ‘Toyota way’ as they said and not taking on F1 personnel.

“Many of the work processes that they use were basically brought over from this. I had many meetings where things were followed up in their ‘company philosophy’ – creating countermeasures and so on when things went wrong, instead of simply reacting to the problem.”

However, those great expectations of the car manufacturer and its Japanese board weighed heavily, and it wouldn’t be long before inevitable issues started to crop up – some bigger than others.

The team had decided to undertake an unprecedented big-budget testing programme, the likes of which had never been seen before. The fledgling F1 squad essentially followed the grand prix circus around the world throughout 2001, setting up at most circuits in the days following a grand prix and simulating a race weekend themselves – the huge project eventually logged 3,000 laps and almost 21,000 kilometres.

Being driven at these tests was a prototype Toyota F1 design – the TF101 – that was so poor it was relegated to being used as a development mule, described artfully by Salo to Tom Clarkson as “a piece of s***”. As he mentions today with his usual understatement, disaster struck almost immediately – at 135mph.

“The first car was really, really heavy and difficult to work with,” he says. “On the first real test day at Paul Ricard something went on the car’s suspension on the [Mistral] straight and I broke my back in three places.

HOCKENHEIM - JULY 27: Mika Salo of Finland and Toyota prepares for during second timed practice for the Formula One German Grand Prix at Hockenheim Circuit, Germany. (Photo by: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images.)

A testing crash for Salo soon put development on the back foot

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

“I was out for three months. It was bit of a setback but we still had Allan driving. Though he didn’t have any real F1 experience, he did have good experience with all those people from sports cars.

“So it went forward a little bit while I was gone, but when I came back I needed to start working hard on things moving forward.”

“It became very obvious, very quickly that the test car which we had was a nightmare,” says Gass. “And there was a decision basically taken early on that this car would not be developed.

From the archive

“We just used the old car to gain experience in the team to learn the tracks to learn the procedures, how to operate at the track.”

Such a deadweight was the TF101, that mercurial designer Gustav Brunner was poached from Minardi, to completely start again and pen a new car, the TF102.

“It wasn’t a great car,” Salo remembers. “But the engine was mega, really beautiful – so it made up for some of the faults in the car.”

“By the time we got to Melbourne, we had got reliability done,” adds McNish.

With a relatively solid foundation now to work from, Toyota finally made its racing debut at the 2002 Australian GP, actually scoring a famous first result – and it all hinged on one moment.

Salo and McNish qualified in 14th and 16th respectively, but a huge opening-corner pile-up took out both. As McNish remembers, a bit of Le Mans know-how brought his team-mate back into play whilst the race was stopped.

“They got into a problem to find the solution – in F1 normally you would have said ‘That’s it, it’s done.” Allan McNish

“Mika had damage to a track-rod or a wishbone, and they changed it,” he says. “That was not an F1 philosophy, but a rally philosophy, a sports car philosophy.

“So there was some parts of it was actually good because they got into a problem to find the solution – in F1 normally you would have said ‘That’s it, it’s done.'”

Salo was back in the restarted race, and came through to score a point with a sixth-placed finish, but Gass actually notes at the time that Toyota wasn’t satisfied with a credible first-time result.

“Mixed emotions,” he says. “We were coming up on Mark Webber, and Mika really should have already taken him – but messed up and spun. So the feeling was we should have had two.”

Mika Salo (Toyota) goes off during the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix at the A1 Ring. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

Development went further off-track due to inter-team disagreements

Grand Prix Photo

However after one more point scored by Salo in Brazil, that was all the reward this gargantuan F1 effort would get in its first season. Though the Brunner-designed car was reliable and therefore a solid base to work from, inherent issues in performance were quite simply not addressed fast enough, leaving the race team on the back foot for the rest of the season, as McNish explains.

“There were already some political aspects between the engine and chassis departments” Dieter Gass

“Traction was not good,” he says. “I didn’t like ‘understeery’ cars, it was never my thing. And we were in the grooved tyre era, so it kind of sat into a bit of an understeer.

“Generally we lacked downforce [too] – I would say drivability wasn’t too bad but you didn’t have maybe the working window that you would have had in other cars.

“But it wasn’t as if it was was a horrible car to drive, it just lacked overall performance.”

However, as Gass reveals, the shortcomings in the TF102’s design revealed deeper fissures within Toyota’s F1 organisation. He suggests that the engine might not have been as good as some thought, and that a general lack of cohesion was hampering efforts.

From the archive

“At the beginning there were already quite some political aspects between the engine and the chassis department,” he says. “The senior management listened to the ‘politicking’ of the engine department.

“We were fastest on the straight most of the time. The race team was saying, ‘Yeah, we’re fastest on straight, because we have no drag, because we have no downforce! And that’s why the lap times aren’t upcoming.’ So it was difficult to get the development in the right direction.”

Though keen to stress he had good relationships at Toyota overall, Salo adds that this “politicking” made the atmosphere in some sections of the team unpleasant at times: “It’s not nice when you hire a lot of people, and you don’t trust [some of] them.”

The team did have other opportunities to score points, but let these slip through their fingers. Ironically after so much testing practice, a botched pitstop in Malaysia denied McNish of his debut F1 points. He never would score at the top level of racing.

“That was a lowlight – I came away from Malaysia so disappointed,” he says. “The biggest one that was really tough though was running sixth in Monza when the front suspension gave up because of a technical issue.”

This late season chance-missed was actually a semi-positive blip on a downward trajectory throughout the year, as the team turned its attention to 2003. Gass and McNish elaborate on how the lack of developments meant it was all a question of too little too late in ’02.

3 Mar 2002: Mika Salo in action in his Toyota during the Formula One Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia. \ Mandatory Credit: Clive Mason /Allsport

Salo brought home a famous point on Toyota debut – but Gass says team felt it could have had more

Clive Mason /Allsport/Getty Images

“With the benefit of hindsight, the team at the design office weren’t used to doing things at the pace which you need to have in F1 – they were used to endurance and rallying,” says Gass. “In endurance you have just one race in a season [Le Mans], you don’t update the car on a two-week basis.”

“We realised we were fighting an uphill task, because we were competitive enough for points at the start, then suddenly you get to Budapest and if we have a good day, we might finish 12th!” says McNish. “That’s tough in reality, because you know that you’re actually just making up the numbers to some extent.”

Whilst treading water in the midfield, Toyota then raised eyebrows in deciding to make a driver change for 2003 midway through the ’02 season, bringing essentially like for like in with an elsewhere-successful rookie in Cristiano Da Matta and an experienced hand in Olivier Panis.

Salo, who had a multi-year contract and had been banking on development work paying off in 2003, was particularly peeved, saying at the time: “I really hope they struggle a lot. I’m happy I’m not there, I couldn’t take that any more, one more year of the same thing.”

From the archive

“It’s always easy to blame the drivers,” he says now, in a slightly more reflective mood. “From a few races into 2002 they were already complaining that the drivers were not performing. It was all from certain people. They would ask you: ‘Why don’t you brake ten metres later for that corner, like the Williams?’ ‘Because I’m going to go off if we brake then!’ In the end, because of the politics, I was happy to leave.”

That wasn’t all in this eventful year though. Both Toyota’s would suffer sizeable accidents during the season. Salo is typically laconic when describing having to nerf his TF102 into the wall at Monaco to slow after he noticed a brake pad had fallen off – “My Sauber rear wing fell off three times at 300km/h, I’m used to it” – whilst McNish suffered one of the all-time huge F1 shunts after deciding to take on Suzuka’s formidable 130R flat in practice.

“Energy wise, that was the biggest crash by a long, long way,” he says. “I got it really hooked up through Spoon, and thought ‘Well, I’m eight tenths up, you’ve got to give it one boy!’

“So I kept my foot in it and the rear diffuser stalled because there’s a couple of little bumps in there, got a tank-slap on and off it went backwards. I’m glad they didn’t let me race afterwards.”

“You heard cars coming, and all of a sudden there was silence,” remembers Gass. “He opened the radio, and you only heard him heavily breathing. He wasn’t saying anything. That was that was massively scary.”

McNish thankfully came through unscathed, but he would never race in F1 again. Looking back now he, Salo and Gass are relatively philosophical about that eventful debut year with Toyota, being part of a project that would eventually pull out of F1 in 2009 with podiums and poles but no race wins.

McNish crash Japanese GP 2002

Grand Prix Photo

McNish crash Japanese GP 2002

Grand Prix Photo

“It was initially a key difference between the philosophy in terms of what is required and mentality in terms of the importance of the people on the ground,” says McNish. “They were getting closer, but time wasn’t there. I think their long term planning was a little bit too ambitious, trying to do everything in Germany.”

Gass, who became the team’s chief race engineer partway through 2002, notes that in 2005 and 2009 Toyota nearly became a winning outfit, but that in moments such as F1’s transfer from a V10 to V8 engine in 2006, the company’s approach stymied its efforts on track. Parallels can be drawn between this and 2002 too.

“In my opinion they were too Japanese in their culture,” he says. “Everything had to be explained to senior management, with counter measures if things went wrong. They were very [big] on reliability, so brought things early to the track [in 2006, as in 2002]. The V8 was [was then] frozen [as per regulations], you could only work on reliability. I think in the Japanese mentality, they didn’t use up all the possibilities. Again in 2009 the car was good, but lacking engine [performance].”