Q & A with Toyota's John Howett
|By Jonathan Noble||Monday, October 27th 2008, 17:50 GMT|
Talks about cost cuts in Formula One have dominated thoughts in the paddock in recent weeks, as the FIA moves to ensure the sport can see its way through the world's current financial crisis.
But while the focus of the debate has been on keeping F1's independent teams alive, the future of the manufacturer teams has also been thrown into the air - especially following the FIA's announcement of its plans to introduce a standard engine in F1 from 2010.
Amid hints from manufacturers that they may quit F1 if the standard engine goes through, talks within the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) have revolved around alternative solutions that secure a good future for independents and the car makers alike.
The situation has prompted many wild reports over recent days, including suggestions Toyota could quit F1 for Le Mans within two years.
So autosport.com caught up with Toyota team president John Howett to find out what the true situation is for his team's future, FOTA's plans and the impact of the standard engine.
Q. There have been various reports over the past week based on comments from yourself and team principal Tadashi Yamashina suggesting that Toyota are poised to pull out of Formula One in the near future, perhaps for Le Mans. Can you clarify what the situation is?
John Howett: Generally we are assuming we are here until at least 2012. The ambition is to win and continue the contribution, if you like, to Formula One. The issue is we don't want a standard engine. If it is forced through, then it (quitting) is not a decision we will take here, it will be taken by the board in Japan, but they want a degree of differentiation between teams.
Q. Is the real argument about standard engines about how much standardization a manufacturer like Toyota will accept?
JH: I guess so. If you read the actual document that was placed on the FIA website, they are seeking an exclusive supplier of power trains. So that would assume there was no opportunity for manufacturer development. We are not interested in producing the same engine – it does not add any value for a manufacturer. It is really too early to speculate what will happen. We have to see whether the FIA listens to FOTA's opinion, and whether or not the regulations change for F1.
Q. In the past Max Mosley has adopted the tactic of proposing something very radical as part of a negotiating tactic to get the teams to agree on something less dramatic. Do you think the idea of a standard engine is part of a similar tactic?
JH: I am not sure to be honest. You had better ask them, but you may be right.
Q. Do you believe the standard engine concept will be realized, or do you believe that FOTA can come up with alternative cost cuts acceptable to the FIA?
JH: I am sure that the FOTA proposal will be a balanced proposal that is still in keeping with the DNA that will keep a majority of people retained in F1. At the same time it will go a long way to help the independent teams. There is no suggestion that any of the big manufacturers wish to kill the independent teams, and the independent teams recognize the added value of the manufacturer teams. Within FOTA, while I admit there are differences that need to be reconciled, there is an intention to provide a strong and positive foundation for the sport.
Q. You were in the meeting with FIA president Max Mosley last week. Are you optimistic that FOTA and the FIA can reach agreement on a way forward?
JH: It is not for me to comment about the FIA and what comes from our talks, but from my involvement with FOTA through Toyota, and in my role as vice chairman, I believe there is a genuine intent and spirit from the teams to make things work. Everybody made big compromises in Shanghai, which is encouraging from all sides. I even got some very positive comments from the independent teams talking about the willingness of the manufacturer teams to help. The ideas (we came up with) gave them a significant cost-saving balance.
Q. How easy is it to achieve the balance of making genuine cost cuts without detracting from the attraction of F1 being a technological exercise for manufacturers?
JH: It is clear. One has to say that all the manufacturers are there because of the core value of F1. It remains the premier prestigious motorsport category in the world, and we believe that it is possible to achieve the two – cost cuts and it being technologically challenging. One example I give is that if you look at the technology you can now buy in a modern computer or telephone handset, then it is clear that technology doesn't always have to cost more.
Q. Is the focus for the teams now on sorting out a big cut in testing and the introduction of standard parts to help reduce costs?
JH: I can't presuppose what will be finalized from the technical discussions. Further items will be talked about and more discussions will take place in Brazil. We already have the three race engine concept, plus the engine package of a fixed size and value, so testing will inevitably be reduced as a result. These items will be talked about and finalized this coming weekend in Brazil.
Q. Yamashina was last weekend's quoted talking about Toyota's long-standing interest in Le Mans. Has the situation for the team changed? Are plans now being formulated for a return to La Sarthe?
JH: Toyota have never hidden from the fact that they are interested in returning to Le Mans. That is the answer you will get if you ask any Toyota executive – just as they did not hide from the fact that there was an interest to enter NASCAR. But as to whether it (Le Mans) is the right time now. It (Yamashina's comments) have been quoted out of context and misused in recent articles.
Q. How are Toyota viewing the future of F1?
JH: Our role is to win in F1 – that is what we are trying to do. As a member of FOTA we would like to see a stable platform for F1, where we have for all of us a clear and stable vision for the future. We seem to move from one crisis to another, and that is part of the reason why FOTA was established. We want a degree of stability for all of us, and we are contributing actively as a member of FOTA by compromising on what we want in the future.
Q. So what will happen if there is a standard engine in F1?
JH: I think you will see manufacturers potentially leaving F1 if there is a standard engine. I don't think any of the manufacturers want an homogenized engine. I think the outcome depends partially on the FIA and the World Motor Sport Council, and whether they have a mind to press through with the idea.
Q. Ultimately though, are you optimistic for the future?
JH: I am always optimistic. I have to believe that common sense always prevails.