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Toyota hedges its F1 bets with backing for British TV package

TOYOTA's F1 test car may have been six seconds off the pace during testing at the Hungaroring, but the prospect of too much in the way of overt criticism being aimed in the Japanese team's direction next season may have been subtly defused by a new deal to sponsor the British ITV network's coverage of the 2002 Championship.

Toyota has reportedly agreed a sponsorship and advertising package worth £25 million (pounds) to support ITV's coverage of the F1 title chase, reportedly beating off two other keen rivals - one of which was Foster's - for the privilege. Add that to a package of agreed advertising slots surrounding the F1 race coverage and Toyota could spend up to £80 million (pounds) with ITV next year.

Financial analysts believe this will be welcome news for Granada and Carlton Communications, the two main ITV network companies which have seen their share price slump dramatically this year in the face of reduced advertising revenues.

Mick Desmond, the chief executive of Granada Enterprises, claimed that this was a clear sign that advertisers, when faced with "must-have" projects are willing to "dig deep and put substantial amounts of money into the ITV network."

For its part, Toyota sees sponsorship of the F1 television package as a key means of expanding its UK market share over the next five years.

"Toyota has invested £1.5 billion (pounds) in the UK and are keen to grow production at our factory as well as UK sales," said Mike Moran, the commercial director of Toyota.

"The sponsorship coincides with our own entry into F1 as a full factory team and is another important step in our aggressive UK sales strategy."