Panasonic Toyota Racing officially kicked off its 2006 Formula campaign with a special event for the world's media at the Toyota manufacturing facility in Valenciennes, France on Saturday 14 January.
The impressive factory is the home of the corporation's top-selling Yaris car and was chosen as the venue for the event to underline the close links between the Formula 1 team and the production car side of Toyota.
Panasonic Toyota Racing has adopted a unique approach to its 2006 racing season and chose to veer away from the more established 'car launch' as its TF106 race car has already completed substantial test mileage since its inaugural run at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona on 29 November last year.
A huge effort by the entire team to ready the new car in record time resulted in that unprecedented early rollout, which formed a key part of the team's push for success in 2006, a year that sees special challenges as the entire field adopt new V8 engines and Toyota joins forces with its new tyre partner, Bridgestone.
Toyota's aggressive development programme is a clear sign of its intentions in Formula 1. Having introduced the podium and pole-scoring TF105B for the final two races of 2005, the TF106 hit the track just six weeks later, stunning rival teams.
"We feel that the concept of holding a new car launch at the beginning of each year, just for the sake of it, is outdated," explains Technical Director Chassis Mike Gascoyne. "We are updating more major elements on an increasingly frequent basis. Although this can be a difficult process to manage it does mean that we can ensure resources are being spent in areas that make the car go quicker, as and when it is required, and not simply on redesigning existing components jus because we feel that we have to. Consequently, we have moved to a process of continuous evolution, hence the smooth transition from TF105 to TF105B and to the early completion of TF106."
That ongoing process will continue with the introduction of the TF106B – currently scheduled for the seventh race of 2006, the Monaco GP. The policy of continuous improvement reflects the philosophy of kaizen, a key element of the Toyota Way, the set of principles that guides the company at every level, even within its Formula 1 programme!
Work at Toyota Motorsport's Cologne-based factory is increasingly benefiting from the use of Toyota Way thinking, and in particular the Toyota Production System (TPS) techniques that it encompasses. TPS has been used to improve efficiency in departments such as composites and engine production, helping to speed up the introduction of new developments.
"Toyota Production System is part of the Toyota Way and enables us to increase efficiency in all areas of the corporation by eliminating waste through a continuous improvement approach," comments Chairman of Toyota Motorsport and Team Principal of Panasonic Toyota Racing Tsutomu Tomita. "TPS has been expanded to all areas of the Toyota Corporation, including Toyota Motorsport and our Formula activities."
"Every day we can see and feel the benefits that TPS brings us," adds President John Howett. "We have created a special TPS group in Cologne and by infusing TPS throughout the factory we have been able to cut down lead times, reduce costs, increase overall efficiency and positively impact all areas of the team with notable examples in CNC and Composites. It is an ongoing process, one which we encourage all team members to live by and embrace. There is no end to the improvement cycle and one major part of TPS is to promote the active involvement and feedback of the individuals doing the job, rather than simply dictate from above."
The implementation of TPS has played a significant factor in the team's ability to introduce the TF106 early. The intention was to get as much experience as early as possible with both the V8 and Bridgestone tyres as part of a definitive package, rather than with an adapted 2005 car.
Technical Director Engine Luca Marmorini explained: "With the move from V10 to V8 engines in 2006, it has been extremely beneficial to have the TF106 package running in the November-December tests. By waiting until January, it would be too long to react and change long-lead parts in time for the first race.
We were able to confirm things that we tested on the dyno and generally we have maximised our time. All drivers have given us positive feedback in terms of performance and reliability, so we were already confident that we had a raceable package, even if the rate of development never stops."
While the mechanical heart of the TF106 as tested in November is the same as the car that will first race in Bahrain on 2 March, aerodynamic and suspension updates – parts that in essence 'bolt on' – will be introduced as close to that first race as possible.
Mike Gascoyne continues: "The reason everyone pushes their car back as late as possible is to maximise time in the wind tunnel for aero development. Our philosophy is to get the best of both worlds by releasing the Bahrain aero package as late as possible, to maximise the development time and reliability running of the mechanical package while ensuring that the aero development time is absolutely at its peak. If we'd rolled out a new car for January, we still couldn't have incorporated any of the things we'd learned from testing Bridgestones in November. We can now react and introduce the TF106B bearing in mind all that we've learned from testing."
After Panasonic Toyota Racing drivers Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli achieved five podiums, including two second places between them last season, the team can have no other target than to win a race in 2006, but Team Principal Tsutomu Tomita knows full well the tough challenge this will entail.
"It is natural that we enter the 2006 championship with our sights on the top step of the podium," he says. "We are pushing very hard, but we don't underestimate the difficulty of Formula 1 or the challenges we face in 2006. If somebody goes up, then somebody else has to drop down the order. Even if we can get that first win we will have to push ourselves more to keep that position."
He admits that it's impossible to forecast how the car will stack up against the competition: "It's very difficult to predict what will happen, especially with all the variables we face this year with a new V8 engine, new Bridgestone tyres and a revised qualifying format. With that in mind, we should aim to be the best Bridgestone team this year. We were a podium scoring team last year, and any team looking to develop must always set its sights higher. Obviously that means finishing on the podium consistently, and ultimately finishing on the top step."
Mike Gascoyne and Luca Marmorini, the respective technical directors of the chassis and engine departments, have ensured that everyone at Cologne has worked in closer co-operation than ever before, guaranteeing that the TF106 and the new V8 form an optimal package in the quest for the top spot.
"You need integration between departments," says John Howett. "As soon as you get people to break down the barriers, and integrate across them, you get massive improvements. All Formula teams like to claim that they are teams, but there is a natural tendency to have a not-made-here syndrome between groups or 'empires'. The back end of the TF106 is impressive because the engine guys and chassis guys have spent the duration of the design and production process talking, and that's resulted in a huge step forward and the beginning of the benefits we can derive from our 'one roof concept'."
Marmorini says that everyone has responded to the challenge of designing and building the V8 in what was a relatively short time frame: "After six years there is a good know-how in the Toyota team, and this engine is the result of our experience. What is important is that we are a young and flexible team. We accepted the V8 as a challenge, and we enjoyed it because it was something different and technically stimulating."
Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli will take up racing duties once again, occupying cars 7 and 8 this season, a reflection of Panasonic Toyota Racing's well-earned fourth place in the 2005 championship. Ricardo Zonta and Olivier Panis, both of whom joined the team in 2003, will serve as third driver and test driver respectively.
Both Ralf and Jarno are entering their second seasons with the team, and both are delighted with the pace of development. They relished the chance to try the TF106 early, and make a contribution to its development even before the New Year.
"Hopefully this will give us an advantage for this year," says Jarno. "We cannot say we will be the best, but for sure we will be very well prepared with the new car in terms of mileage and experience. We've tried to solve all the problems and get ready for the first race. Now we're doing very well, and it feels good, although there's still a lot of work to be done in the run-up to the first race and beyond. I am optimistic and confident."
"Of course it is still very early, but the new car felt really good," says Ralf. "Obviously, the power is lower but it is still a very driveable engine, with a nice torque curve. I am happy with the new Bridgestone tyres as well, but we have a full programme of pre-season testing and development to continue making improvements to our package. It is an intensive schedule with a lot of work to cover before the first race, but that is where we can benefit from having our car ready so early. We learned that last year and saw the gains. It helped us a lot in the first few races, and that's what we are aiming for again."