McLaren forging closer ties with Toyota as F1 rumours swirl

McLaren is set to embark on an ideas exchange with Toyota, as rumours swirl that the Japanese manufacturer could be eyeing an F1 comeback. 

Kazuki Nakajima, Toyota Gazoo Racing, Andrea Stella, Team Principal, McLaren, Ryo Hirakawa, Reserve driver, McLaren

The Woking-based outfit recently ended a long-running deal it had to use Toyota’s wind tunnel in Cologne, as it shifted its programme to its own new facility in Woking. 

But rather than it being the end of their association, it appears that the McLaren and Toyota partnership is actually evolving and getting closer. 

Evidence of that came ahead of last weekend’s Japanese GP when McLaren announced that Toyota factory driver Ryo Hirakawa had been signed up to its roster of reserve drivers for 2024.  

As part of the deal, the Japanese would also join McLaren’s simulator programme and conduct some tests in its 2021 car. 

Hirakawa’s deal seemed to be a leftfield choice as he had never previously been on the radar for F1 teams, but it has clearly come amid a push by Toyota to get some stronger links with grand prix racing. 

The presence of Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda with McLaren at last weekend’s Japanese GP, as part of a delegation from the Japanese manufacturer, also further fuelled the idea of a growing interest in F1. 

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It even prompted rumours that McLaren could have Toyota on the radar as a potential future engine partner should it elect to return to F1 at some point - having been absent since its withdrawal at the end of 2009. 

Asked by Autosport to explain the background to the Hirakawa appointment, McLaren team principal Andrea Stella revealed that it was part of a bigger picture agreement with Toyota. 

“There was the element of, having started a driver development programme, there's quite a lot of people knocking on the door,” said Stella. 

Toyota has been absent from Formula 1 since 2009

Toyota has been absent from Formula 1 since 2009

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

“We actively chase talents, but we also have interest from other talents to join the programme, which is good. It shows that we have credibility from this point of view.  

“So, we are certainly excited that Ryo and Toyota wanted to join the team in terms of the driver development programme.  

“Then we took advantage to say well, let's add him to the pool of reserve drivers. And this is not only for the driver himself. 

“We are also interested in a bit of exchange of how we deal with performance, how we deal with driver development. So, we want to sort of expand a bit our horizons.” 

While the potential is there for closer ties to be forged over the next few years, suggestions that Toyota definitely wants to return to F1 appear to be premature for now.

Speaking at the Japanese GP, Toyota Gazoo Racing advisor Kazuki Nakajima said that the Hirakawa deal was not a first step towards a grand prix racing comeback, but he left the door open on things changing over the next few years. 

“For now, it's clearly no," he said when asked by Autosport about Toyota's interest in F1. "This deal is really purely focusing on a driver, supporting a driver's dream. 

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"At the moment, it really has nothing to do with that. I know, of course, you can think about it, and there are a lot of rumours.  

“But I can clearly say that it's no, and nothing to do with it. For the future, we never know." 

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