The 2007 season is a special one for Panasonic Toyota Racing as the team has two significant milestones to celebrate. This year marks 50 years since Toyota’s first foray into motorsport so the start of the season has many in the paddock looking back on five decades of international success.
But that is not the only anniversary of note. Among those casting their eyes back to times past are race drivers Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli as they celebrate a decade since their Formula 1 debuts in Australia in 1997.
Both drivers have played an important role in Toyota’s 50 years in motorsport, helping establish Panasonic Toyota Racing in Formula 1 and move the team closer to its goal of one day becoming World Champions.
Of course, the routes taken by Toyota, Ralf and Jarno to the 2007 Australian Grand Prix were long and varied. For Toyota, it all began in 1957 when a single Toyopet Crown was entered into the Mobilgas Round Australia Rally, not only marking Toyota’s first motorsport activity, but also the first time a Japanese manufacturer had competed on the international stage.
Kunio Kaminomura and Kojiro Kondo were charged with the momentous task of navigating around Australia in 19 days over 10,563 miles. Little were they to know that they were blazing a trail for Toyota success in the future.
Before the glory days of World Rally Championship triumphs, Toyota found its feet in domestic racing and took three class victories in the first Japanese Grand Prix, the birth of modern motorsport in Japan.
After successful attempts at sportscar racing with the 2000GT and Toyota 7 cars, including speed records and Can-Am victories, Toyota’s focus turned again to rallying. The first success came in 1974, a year notable for the birth of Jarno Trulli, when Ove Andersson took a class win in the Rally of Portugal.
A year later Andersson Motorsport, and Ralf Schumacher, were born. Three decades on and Schumacher is a driving force at Panasonic Toyota Racing, a direct ancestor of Andersson Motorsport.
Ralf is just one of a number of highly talented drivers to have worn Toyota overalls, a trend which began in earnest in the 1980s when Hannu Mikkola and Juha Kankkunen won world championship rallies.
Toyota’s potential was clear when Carlos Sainz took the drivers’ world championship in 1990, just as in the following years the potential of Ralf and Jarno began to emerge in karting.
In 1993, when Ralf first drove a Formula 3 car, Toyota became the first Japanese company to win the prestigious manufacturers’ world championship, with Kankkunen taking the drivers’ crown.
A year later Jarno won the inaugural Ayrton Senna Memorial Cup to prove he was one of the top karters in the world. While he was on the long road to the pinnacle of his profession, Toyota was already there, emphasised by another world championship double.
However, like Ralf and Jarno, Toyota was not standing still. Ralf, as Formula Nippon champion, and Jarno, as German Formula 3 champion, made their Grand Prix debuts in Australia in 1997. Jarno finished ninth for Minardi but Ralf’s Jordan gearbox ended his race.
They were already establishing themselves in Formula 1 but for Toyota that remained a dream, one which could be realised only after Toyota Motorsport – previously Andersson Motorsport –proved its potential in the gruelling Le Mans 24 Hours.
Two attempts at the legendary French race brought mixed feelings. The second-place champagne was sweet in 1999 but after mechanical problems denied the lead GT-One a sure victory, it was tinged with disappointment.
Nevertheless, that was enough for Toyota to commit to Formula 1, with a Grand Prix debut coming in 2002.
By that time, Ralf was a multiple Grand Prix winner after graduating from Jordan to Williams in 1999, his breakthrough triumph coming in San Marino in 2001. Jarno too was making a name for himself and in 2002 he joined Renault after a long spell at Prost.
Panasonic Toyota Racing made steady progress in those early years in Formula 1, becoming regular points scorers after a tentative first season. To make the breakthrough and become regular podium challengers, however, the team called on two established Formula 1 stars – Ralf and recent Monaco winner Jarno – for 2005.
That paid immediate dividends when Jarno wrote his name in Toyota’s motorsport history with the team’s first Formula 1 podium, in Malaysia. More history followed for Jarno with Toyota’s first pole position, at Indianapolis, and Ralf also contributed, ending the season sixth in the championship – the best yet for a Toyota driver.
Last season was disappointing as the team slipped from fourth in the championship to sixth but, in a year of milestones, the team and its two drivers are challenging to take the next important steps in Toyota’s motorsport adventure.