Toyota’s decision to withdraw from Formula 1 Racing, announced today, has been speculated upon more about half the season.
Although some are blaming the economic climate for the Japanese marque’s decision, with the parent company’s descent into red figures for the first time in its history, it is not the only factor.
Since joining the series in 2002, Toyota has had only modest success, not winning a single race in the team’s eight full seasons. Despite the promise that the company was in F1 to win, and the promising start by Mika Salo in its very first race, Toyota never lived up to its billing or was able to justify the huge expenditure involved.
The question remains, however, is whether this will be a sign that the remaining manufacturers will pull out of the sport.
BMW has already announced their decision to drop out, and though Toyota’s decision could prove a lifeline for teams who are hoping to continue without manufacturer support, it may also indicate that the manufacturer era is coming to a close.
There are rumours that the Renault team will follow suit, and it is expected that they will announce their intentions over the next few days. With Honda quitting at the end of 2008, this would leave no standard manufacturers with teams of their own, except Ferrari, whose reputation is effectively drawn on its F1 success.
Admittedly, Mercedes will remain as an engine supplier, as it has done ever since its initial involvement with the Sauber team, but the future of the Renault and Toyota engines is in doubt, and questions remain over whether the rescued BMW-Sauber team will make its own engines or whether it will rely on a supply from someone else as Brawn has done this year.
Red Bull is expecting to extend their Renault engine deal, but will that attract the full support of the manufacturer, or will it be like a Supertec-type deal, where an intermediary is given control of the program?
And if this is the end of the manufacturer teams, is it a good or bad thing?
It was always speculated that F1 needed to wean itself off manufacturer support, as the car makers were liable to withdraw from the sport at their whim, or because of a change in senior management, while the garagistes of traditional teams' sole purpose was and is F1.
The reduced costs promised for 2010 and onwards are attracting a swathe of new teams that will hope to compete strongly, without major manufacturers hogging the limelight, this may provide them a greater opportunity.
However, it also leaves the front of the grid firmly in the hands of established teams, particularly McLaren and Ferrari, whose potential budgets are still massive, but also Red Bull. Brawn may not be able to follow up this year’s success without the funding that Honda withdrew, and they have fallen back as 2009 continues.
Although Toyota’s decision answers a number of outstanding questions about who will be on the grid in 2010 and what options drivers still have, it leaves many questions still unanswered.
Where will the sport go next from here?
Are we seeing the start of a new independent teams era? Or will car manufacturers return to F1 once the current financial crisis has been ridden out?
Renault's break from F1 lasted from 1986 to 2000—will these withdrawals last that length of time? If the new teams are successful, will the FIA welcome the manufacturers back with open arms as they have done in the past? Or are the manufacturers simply waiting for an opportunity to take over one of these teams and re-market themselves as a new success story?