Feature: Home Finale for Debutants Toyota

After a dream debut in Formula One, Toyota can provide a final flourish in front of their home fans in Japan next weekend.

Feature: Home Finale for Debutants Toyota

After a dream debut in Formula One, Toyota can provide a final flourish in front of their home fans in Japan next weekend.

The first appearance of the world's third largest carmaker at Suzuka on Sunday will bring down the curtain on a solid rookie year. The emotional high of the team's debut points finish in Melbourne in March may already seem like ancient history but they have managed to make their mark in a Championship dominated by Ferrari.

"In my own mind I think that the first season has gone maybe better than I dared to expect, from when we started in Australia," team boss Ove Andersson told Reuters in an interview at the last U.S. Grand Prix.

"Australia was an incredible start but if you look at the whole operation, the target we had was to learn this year and to try to be respected by the other teams in Formula One. I hope we have achieved that. The second season will be harder I am sure."

Toyota's delight at scoring points in two of the first three races of the year has long been replaced by the realisation that there is a hard road ahead. But they can take pride and pleasure in having proved some of the pundits wrong.

When Toyota arrived in Melbourne, the world was unsure what to expect. Some critics wrote them off while others suspected a subtle smokescreen had been laid. Mika Salo's sixth place, after nearly half of the grid had crashed out on the first lap, was lucky but the team soon showed it was not just a one-off.

Regular Points

Briton Allan McNish came seventh in Malaysia before Salo provided another point in Brazil. After three races, Toyota were suddenly eighth in the Championship.

"Australia was a very emotional event, from the point of view that it was the first time we came out, everything was the first time," said Andersson.

"The next emotions now will not start to come until maybe we get regularly in the points," added the 64-year-old Swede, a former rally driver who masterminded Toyota's success in that series.

There have been disappointments: Salo finishing seventh in Belgium and a possible point vanishing at Monza in September when the Finn was penalised for crossing the white line at the pitlane exit.

The team have not scored a point since Brazil and are 10th of the 11 who started the season, although a point at Suzuka would move them up to ninth. Sunday will also be the current drivers' last appearances, after both were told in August that they would not be retained for 2003.

French veteran Olivier Panis is coming in alongside a partner as yet to be named but expected to be Brazilian Cristiano da Matta. Few people doubt that Toyota have the resources and determination to become race winners but it will take time.

This year's car, hastily reworked when Minardi's former technical director Gustav Brunner joined in May last year after the test version proved heavy and slow, has been conservative but solid. The 2003 model needs to be another step up.

"We haven't tried to work too hard on this car to improve it during the season," said Andersson. "We have worked basically for next year's car and we have already started to test the car, a new engine and gearbox and so on.

"So I hope that we will be able to make a step forward and not really fall back.

"The (2002) car was made in a very short time...we didn't have a lot of wind tunnel work done with it and I think it was mainly something that came out of Gustav's experience, something to run and to learn with for this year."

Teething Problems

"I don't believe that in Formula One you really gain something from being very adventurous," added Andersson.

"I think its a matter of a lot of detailed work, a lot of attention to details, a lot of work in the wind tunnel trying to find where you have weaknesses and so on. The time of the real brave innovations is over."

He defended the decision to replace both drivers, a decision greeted with some amazement in the paddock due to the importance of continuity in developing the car.

"There was a lot of thinking and a lot of discussion going on. The drivers have done the job that we could ever expect from a driver," said the Swede. "But we are a team that is learning, that is in progress.

"We need maybe an influx of new ideas, different viewpoints about how we work, what we do, how we can progress the car. I felt very strongly that we needed to have a new view on that."

Toyota, Andersson said, had come to feel at home in their new surroundings.

"Before we came in I had the feeling that we were coming a bit strange from the outside. But after the first couple of races I have no such feeling," he said. "I don't feel like a stranger any more."

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