Toyota’s time in F1 was, generally speaking, a failure, and proof that throwing money at a team is not a guarantee of success. In eight seasons they took 13 podiums, three pole positions and three fastest laps, with a best of 4th in the constructors’ championship in 2005. They never really came close to winning a race. Except once.
The rain-shortened 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix is remembered for many things: the first half-points race since the 1991 Australian Grand Prix, the first podium for a KERS-equipped car, Jenson Button winning again, Kimi Raikkonen eating an ice cream, and Felipe baby needing his white visor.
Less well-remembered is the fact that Timo Glock and Toyota may well have been on course to win before the race was stopped.
Glock started from third on the grid, one place behind his teammate Jarno Trulli, but made a bad start and dropped down to 8th, whilst the Williams of Nico Rosberg had made a sensational start from 4th on the grid to take the lead. Although none of the weekend sessions had been wet up to this point, there had been rain on every day of the event so far. The race was starting later than usual because Bernie wanted it to be on at a more reasonable time for European audiences, even though the locals had warned that there was a high likelihood of monsoon conditions. As a result, teams were expecting rain at some point – they just didn’t know when.
They didn’t have to wait long. As the cars approached their first stops the circuit become enveloped with dark clouds; rain was now imminent and some drivers opted to gamble. Ferrari made one of their legendary strategy calls and opted to put Raikkonen on wet tyres on a bone dry track. By the time the rain did start he’d completely chewed up his tyres. When the rain started on lap 22 many thought it would come down hard and fast, and over half the field put full wet tyres on. One driver, however, stayed on slicks. Was it Glock? It was!
Although rain had started, it was initially quite light and the track stayed mostly dry. Glock scythed through the field and just a few laps later was up to second place, half a minute behind Button. The track was starting to get wetter, but Glock’s warm slicks were proving better than Buttons old wets, and he was gaining at more than five seconds per lap. Button reacted and pitted for Intermediate tyres, and dropped behind Glock. Now the rain was really starting to get heavy though, and by the end of his outlap Button had passed the Toyota to retake the lead. Glock immediately pitted and put the full wet tyres on, and with the intense rain he was now on the perfect tyres for the conditions.
He and Toyota had read the conditions to perfection both times, and although he dropped to 3rd after the stop he quickly passed Nick Heidfeld’s BMW for second and, with Button on the wrong tyres and surely needing to pit again, Glock and Toyota were in the perfect position to challenge for the win. Or not.
The rain had got so heavy that on lap 32 the race was red-flagged, and by the time the rain had eased up enough to think about resuming it was too dark (thanks to the late start time) so the result was called and half points were awarded. But hey, at least the Europeans could watch the delay live with their breakfast, right?
To add insult to injury for Glock, the red flag meant the results were counted back by one lap, so in the final order he dropped back behind Heidfeld and finished third. They’d done everything right and even though a podium was a solid result, it could have been so much more.
Later in the year Glock finished second at Singapore, and Jarno Trulli put in an inspired drive at Suzuka to finish second after Toyota had announced they would be leaving Formula One at the end of that season, but they never really got as close as they did that day in Malaysia. If they’d won on that day, maybe they wouldn’t have left the sport. Who knows how the landscape of Formula One might look today if Toyota had stayed in? But of course, they didn’t stay in F1, so it’s irrelevant.
What they did do was head to the World Endurance Championship, where they won both titles in 2014. They looked set to win Le Mans in 2016 too, until possibly the cruellest twist of fate in motor racing history saw the leading car break down on the final lap after 23 hours and 58 minutes of racing – and that wasn’t even the first time they fell short in the final hour. Toyota do many things well, but perhaps there are some things they just aren’t destined to succeed at.