As Formula 1 prepares for the first European race of the year, in Spain this weekend, Toyota Motorsport President John Howett comments on the season so far.
Would you say it has been a positive start to the 2007 season for Panasonic Toyota Racing?
What I would say is that the expectations of many people have been grossly exceeded. But in terms of our own ambitions, we expect to be fighting at a higher level. So yes it is pleasing we have exceeded some peoples’ predictions based on winter testing but we know we have to do more.
Has the team exceeded your expectations?
No. I think we were quicker than BMW last year, very similar to McLaren but not quite so fast in race pace and now clearly they have achieved more or we have slipped back.
But the team is not where we want to be – is the challenge now to push for the top three?
There are two or three challenges facing us now the European season is starting. The first is to maintain our position at the top of the second group of teams and make sure we don’t slip back. Then, looking forward, the main ambition now has to be to catch and pass BMW as the first step.
Reliability has been an improvement on 2006, is that encouraging?
If one goes back to 2005 we had the most reliable car on the grid but in 2006, after the change to V8 engines and numerous other detailed regulation changes, we had a lot of reliability issues. We can do it and this year is proving we are recovering and we are able to put out a reliable car.
What has been your highlight of the first three races?
Jarno’s performance in Malaysia stands out. It was a great race, no question that is the highlight. But also the reliability is back and we are understanding the car. We significantly increased the performance and closed the gap on the teams ahead of us between Melbourne and Malaysia. That shows we are able to squeeze more out of the car and the package.
It’s no secret the team suffered one or two difficult tests over the winter. How pleased are you with the team’s response?
First of all, in Melbourne we were quicker than people generally expected and in Malaysia I think we closed the gap on the top three teams by about 50% compared to Melbourne. That was more or less maintained in Bahrain. That’s a result of the great effort from the team in all areas. After a successful test in Barcelona we are looking forward to seeing where we are relatively this coming weekend.
How much will change on the car for the Spanish Grand Prix?
To the inexperienced eye it may not look to be a huge change but improvements have been made in many areas and we know performance has been enhanced. We know that the other teams are pushing very hard as well. It is the relative change that is more important. In Formula 1, dramatic changes don’t always deliver performance, it is more the subtle evolution, understanding what really can give the car more performance.
The midfield battle is very tight at the moment so is it fair to say small improvements can drastically alter results?
Clearly. Our main target is to maintain our position at the head of that secondary group but our ambition is to be in a stronger position this year so we have to work hard and believe the improvements we have made on the car will close the gap to the next team in front of us, BMW.
How is the atmosphere within the team?
It is very positive. Jarno’s fantastic performance in Malaysia has certainly lifted everyone. He has silenced many of his previous detractors and shown clearly that if the car balance remains consistent he is able to fight, consistently and fight very strongly. It is a thrill for everyone in the team to see us fighting and actually coming out in front but we all want to do this at the front of the race.
What about the performance of the race drivers, Ralf and Jarno. They have had good days and bad days…
You can say that looking at most teams. Even in Ferrari and McLaren you can see e
xperienced drivers struggling a bit at times with the new tyres we have for 2007. The tyres and the way we have to set up the car are more generally suited to Jarno’s driving style than Ralf’s. We have improved the situation for Ralf over the last test and we believe Ralf will be better able to use more of the potential the car has to offer.
Last season saw the team make a big step in performance from the first race to the last. Does that give you reason to be hopeful for 2007?
I think everybody is pushing very hard in Formula 1. It’s clear from last year that we can make major improvements in performance over a season after we moved from a pretty slow start to a competitive position at the end of the year. We are intending to do exactly the same this year but we are acutely aware there are another four, five or six teams out there trying to do exactly the same. It is a motivating challenge for the people here to do it again and to show we are an emerging and serious cha
llenger on the F1 grid.