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DECEMBER 18, 2001

Ecclestone present as Toyota launches new F1 car

BERNIE ECCLESTONE, the most powerful man in formula one, took his private jet from Biggin Hill to Cologne yesterday in order to be present at the official unveiling of the all-new Toyota grand prix challenger which Mika Salo and Scotland's Allan McNish will debut in the Australian grand prix on 3 March next.

Ecclestone's appearance not only amounted to a personal welcome to the world's third largest car company as it prepares to join his very exclusive global club, but was also seen as an acknowledgment of just how significant Toyota's arrival really is. The Japanese car maker has already invested £80 million in start-up costs, building a state-of-the-art formula one factory at its European base in Cologne where it will become the only other team apart from Ferrari to build its entire car and engine under the same roof.

"This is an historic day for all of us," said Ove Andersson, the president of Toyota motorsport who used to drive the Japanese company's rally cars in the 1970s with great success. "We also give a special welcome to the Godfather of formula one, Bernie Ecclestone, who has made the trip to be with us on this special occasion."

The launch of the formula one Toyota has also given a late boost to Allan McNish's professional career more than a decade after he first tested a McLaren-Honda formula one car as one of the brightest young British stars of the early 1990s.

Winner of the British senior kart championship in 1986, McNish was team-mate to a young Mika Hakkinen in the 1988 GM Lotus Euroseries single seater and finished second in the following year's British formula three championship behind Mika Salo, the man he is now partnering at Toyota. McNish subsequently touched the hem of formula one in 1993-94 and '96 when he had two stints as test driver for the Benetton formula one team, since which his career path seemed destined to leave him marooned in sports cars until Toyota gave him this big break. "This is an opportunity for me which has not come in a conventional way," said McNish who celebrates his thirty second birthday on 29 December.

"I had to believe that when I signed up as test driver that I had a chance of securing this (race) seat and it's obviously a big moment for me. All I want to do really is to speak to Bernie and see if he can move the first race of the new season to 1 January. As far as I am concerned, the first race cannot come quickly enough for me. Do I feel any trepidation? Not at the moment, just a keen anticipation."

"It is our target to qualify for every race," said Andersson cautiously, "and to finish as often as possible and learn about the formula one business. But our long term aim is eventually to win both the drivers and constructors' world championships, no matter how long that may take us." Few formula one insiders would bet against Toyota in the long term.