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Toyota explains Formula 1 plans

THE Toyota Motor Company has given more details about what it hopes to achieve with its Formula 1 program. "We are going after the hearts of the younger generation," explained Toyota President Fujio Cho last week, when he announced that the company has bought the Mount Fuji Speedway near Tokyo. "Formula 1 can be seen as part of that strategy."

Toyota may be the biggest and strongest of Japan's car manufacturers - and the third biggest in the world behind Ford and General Motors - but it has a rather dull image. The cars are solid and not expensive but they are not very exciting. Honda has a much more sporty image both in Japan and around the world and tends to attract a younger car buyer. Toyota is aiming to change that and as part of the plan is planning to revamp the Fuji circuit to be the future home of the Japanese╩Grand╩Prix. The race is currently held at the Honda-owned Suzuka.

Toyota says that the rebuilding of Fuji should be finished by 2004 and it hopes to stage a race soon after that. Suzuka's contract for the race runs out next year but the circuit authorities are already negotiating for a new five-year deal. Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone will be happy to see a rival for Suzuka because the track has dragged its feet in making important changes over the years and this will force Suzuka to do what is demanded for fear of losing the contract.

The announcement that Toyota is buying Fuji - which we suggested would happen as long ago as April 1999 - is a further indication that the company's foray into Formula 1 is a direct attack on Honda. The smaller firm may not be worried in the short term as Toyota seems to be making a lot of mistakes in its F1 planning but in the longer-term Honda knows that Toyota will be a force to be reckoned with. In order to combat this, Honda would be wise to strike quickly with its own team and then move aside before the Toyota challenge gathers speed. This would seem to suggest that Honda's best course of action is to buy British American Racing and get on with the job with an all-Honda team. It should also be pointed out that Honda is less than happy that BMW's engine program with Williams has been as successful as it has in a short space of time. This increases the pressure on Honda to get results.

Toyota does not seem to be worried about money and announced that it is buying Mount Fuji for nearly $50m and intends to spend double that on revamping the facility with additional facilities aimed at younger people. But while money is not a problem, Toyota does have a habit of underestimating the job in hand when it enters competition. The company did well enough in rallying - except when it was caught running illegal parts and banned from the World Championship - but has flopped badly at Le Mans and in CART racing in recent years. As anyone in F1 will tell you, even those who have been very successful in the other formulae struggle when they get into Grand Prix racing.

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