LONDON (Reuters) - Toyota can safeguard their Formula One future by shifting up a gear and challenging for race wins this season, team president John Howett said on Thursday.
The Cologne-based team, who have won nothing in seven years in the sport, are the only remaining Japanese manufacturer on the starting grid following Honda and Super Aguri’s departure.
With the world’s largest carmaker set to suffer its first ever operating loss in the year ending in March due to a steep drop in global car sales, their continued presence has come under scrutiny.
“I think everybody is under pressure, all the sponsors and everybody competing in Formula One,” Howett told Reuters in an interview before the launch of their new TF109 car.
“I don’t think that one can say that uniquely because we are Japanese we are more vulnerable than, say, a German manufacturer or others.
“But we have to demonstrate that we are competitive,” he added, saying that Formula One was not purely a cost-based decision for Toyota but a more ‘holistic’ one based on value and performance.
“We have to win, I think that’s clear. This organisation really only exists to win so we have to realise that we need to really make a change and deliver some outstanding performance this year.”
Toyota finished fifth overall last year but did return to the podium for the first time since April 2006, with Germany’s Timo Glock taking a second place in Hungary and Italian Jarno Trulli third in France.
The team also supply former champions Williams with engines.
Howett said his team had to demonstrate to the Toyota board that the money was well spent but was optimistic they could do that, with cost-cutting measures expected to reduce their expenditure by 30 percent.
According to a Formula Money report last year, Toyota spent an estimated $300 million (205.3 million pounds) on their team in 2008 — a figure exceeded only by Honda.
“Provided Formula One remains a sensible sport to be involved in...I think we have the possibility with good results to remain in Formula One for the foreseeable future,” said the Briton, who also serves as vice chairman of the teams’ association FOTA.
“I just hope we continue to retain the DNA of Formula One, something that makes Formula One unique and very special. If that is compromised purely on the basis of short-term cost vision, then I don’t believe that any manufacturer will remain in the sport.”
Thursday’s low-cost launch reflected the changing times, with the TF109 unveiled on the internet rather than at the sort of lavish function that teams have served up in the past.
Howett was reluctant to predict just how good it might prove when the season starts in Australia on March 29 given new regulations that include heavily revised aerodynamics, slick tyres and new technology.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “We’ve worked very hard and we believe that we have a car that will perform very well.
“But until we see it on track over the next four to six weeks, it’s difficult to determine. But we’ve put a huge amount of effort into this car and it looks good.”
Howett warned also that the new regulations could trigger controversy and the sport had to beware alienating fans and sponsors with political bickering.
“We have had an extremely close and competitive season last year and when such major change is introduced there is the risk that racing will be less exciting because the field is not so close,” he said.
“There could also be issues of interpretation of the regulations.
“I think there is a serious risk that if we have that sort of situation (protests and stewarding controversies), a lot of people will start to question whether they wish to remain and compete in Formula One.
“I hope that this is really managed very professionally and very sensibly,” he added.
Editing by Miles Evans