“Some car companies sell cars so they can go racing, while others go racing so they can sell cars.”
Not too far in the distant past, I picked up on this rather relevant comment about car companies and motorsports. It’s all the more I bring this up now, as Panasonic Toyota F1 announced yesterday that they are withdrawing from Formula 1 with immediate effect. 500+ employees at the team factory in Cologne are going to be out of a job unless they find work elsewhere in racing. The team’s suppliers are losing out on revenue as there’s one less customer to sell to. And their 2009 drivers, Jarno Trulli, Timo Glock and Kamui Kobayash, will have to look elsewhere for a drive in 2010. But I digress. This isn’t about people losing their jobs. This is about how one car company perceives racing versus another.
The oldest team in Formula 1, Ferrari, has been there from the very beginning. You could even argue that even though the first F1 race was held in the UK, the spirit of it all really started at Maranello. Ferrari has always been about racing. And Enzo sold cars so that he could go racing. And racing helped create probably the most desired car brand in the world today, but racing was always at the center of it all. A successful car building operation was merely the instrument through which the expense of racing could be paid for.
You have the billionaires, wanna-be billionaires (the Grand Prix Autopolis immediately comes to mind) and / or racing fanatics who want to feed their ego and / or fulfill a lifelong dream of owning an F1 team. Eurobrun, Leyton House, March, Larousse, Tyrrell, Brabham, Spyker, Minardi and many others have come and gone. A few had some success. A few were dedicated and helped bring many good drivers into the sport (Minardi, for example, provided maiden drives to Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber) Others were permanent backmarkers who couldn’t buy a ticket out of pre-qualifying.
Then you have the behemoth car builders with billions to spend and figure Formula 1 would be a wise investment in building their brand on a global scale. Ford came and went with success (HB engines that powered one Michael Schumacher to a driver’s title in the Benetton); Jaguar was a leftover from the Ford days; Lamborghini powered the Larousse for a while, but they were backmarkers; Yamaha powered the Brabham, but yet again another backmarker; and so on.
Honda was a raving success entering the sport in the 60s, then with Piquet at the wheels of the Lotus-Honda, then with Senna & Prost at the wheels of the McLaren-Honda. Then they left the sport with multiple driver’s and constructor’s titles in their hands. Credit Soichiro Honda-san for that one. He was a racing fanatic. And their F1 efforts gave birth to VTEC, which everyone in their 20s and 30s knows about. Honda back then went racing because it wanted to, not because they wanted to sell cars.
Honda returned to F1 with BAT, which then became BAR Honda, then became Honda F1. This wasn’t the Honda we knew. This was a Honda focused on increasing market share. This was a Honda that went racing to sell cars. Honda-san must have turned in his grave.
Which brings us to Toyota. A company that became the #1 car brand in America, as US made brands quickly lost their luster. They were selling cars like there was no tomorrow. They had money to burn. So they entered Formula 1, spending what is reportely over $500 million on their F1 program. And they kept spending. But never won a race. Their driver choices were at times questionable. But they kept at it as long as the money was there. But when the recent global economic meltdown happened, they saw their compatriot Honda leave the sport because they couldn’t afford it anymore. So they questioned whether they should stay. And inevitably left the sport. Dwindling car sales couldn’t support the habit anymore.
This all begs a number of questions – did Toyota believe they could win races and championships by throwing money at it? Did they sell cars to go racing or was it the other way around? – I tend to believe it was the former. Was it just an ego play? No way to know for sure unless you’re deep within the industrial complex that is Toyota.
Whatever the reason may be, I’m still glad there are companies like Ferrari that stands by its tradition of racing to win. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t be worth watching anymore.