Panasonic to fund Toyota

JAPAN's Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., owner of the National, Panasonic, Technics and JVC brands, is expected to be named shortly as the major sponsor of Toyota's Formula 1 team, which will enter Grand Prix racing next season. Matsushita is expected to use F1 to promote the Panasonic name. The deal is expected to be announced later this year.

Such a deal would not be a big surprise as around 18 months ago, Matsushita announced plans for a major marketing push into the European markets - where the power of Formula 1 is at its strongest.

Panasonic has a strong motor racing tradition thanks to the fact that the grandson of the company founder is Hiro Matsushita, who raced CART in the early 1990s and has since taken over the Swift Engineering company and is providing aerodynamic services for the Jaguar Racing Formula 1 team at Swift's headquarters in San Clemente, California.

The consumer electronics business is an obvious target for F1 sponsorship as most of the companies involved are marketing high-technology machinery which speeds up household tasks and thus fits the image of F1 very nicely. In the past a number of similar companies have been involved in the sport, notably Sony, Pioneer, Sanyo, Faure, Akai and Braun. A move by Panasonic could precipitate the wider involvement of more of these companies, just as the arrival of Telefonica resulted in similar moves from Orange and Vodafone.

The links between Toyota and Panasonic appear to go slightly deeper than usual sponsorships. The Arciero Wells CART team ran uncompetitive Reynard-Toyota backed by Panasonic in 1998 with Matsushita driving. After Matsushita retired as a driver there was an attempt to put together a package of his Swift chassis with Panasonic backing for Jerry Forsythe's secondary CART team (which had been sponsored by McDonalds). The Swift chassis was not competitive and the team eventually flopped.

If the deal does go ahead it may reveal a little of the involvement in the F1 program of the Toyota racing people in the United States. There were rumors some years ago that Toyota was considering using Swift to work on its Formula 1 chassis but the decision was then taken to do the work in Europe. However, other links do exist. We heard some time ago that Toyota in the US was receiving technical assistance on its CART engine program from the Mecachrome company in France and in recent months there have been strong suggestions that Mecachrome is also involved in some way in the F1 engine project, although this is not being confirmed by anyone involved.

Toyota may be winning now in the United States but for many years the company was struggling badly in CART. The criticism at the time in the United States was that Toyota did not listen to people who knew how to build competitive engines and so failed to make much of an impression.

It is a criticism which has been levelled at Toyota Motorsport in Cologne, although the work with Mecachrome and the hiring of Gustav Brunner show that someone within the Toyota organization has realized that it is dangerous for big corporations to enter F1 thinking they are big enough to deal with the competition.

Formula 1 is no respecter of arrogant corporations... as British American Tobacco would attest.

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