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Tom Howard

How Alpine F1 team can learn from Toyota’s unique WRC management approach

Car maker’s involvement in the management of motorsport programmes has been thrust into the spotlight by the 'football manager' style turnover of senior staff at the Alpine Formula 1 team. It doesn’t take an expert to realise that seven team principals across 10 years for the Enstone team is not conducive in creating stability to be successful. The team could learn a lot from how Toyota has tackled the WRC, and in particular the passionate, yet unique way the boss of one of the world’s biggest companies, Akio Toyoda, manages his all conquering rally operation.

His mantra is a simple one but it goes a long way in explaining Toyota’s run to three WRC manufacturers’ titles (2020-2022) and four drivers’ crowns (2019-2022) since rejoining the WRC in 2017 after a 17-year absence.

“The people that are as close to the place where things are happening, they know the most, so I think we should let those people that know the most just do their job,” Toyoda tells Autosport. “I think that is the best. This is what I am doing here at the rally and also in the Toyota company too, it applies to both.”

Manufacturers go racing to first and foremost sell cars and to use the experience and technology honed in competition to develop even better road cars. Winning certainly helps achieve that goal. Of course, striving to achieve success in competition comes with a lot of financial investment and, equally, pressure to deliver.

Alpine put pressure on itself by setting out a 100-race plan to return to the front of the F1 grid, this laid out by its then-CEO Laurent Rossi, when the Renault team rebranded to Alpine in 2021. Despite not even being midway through this plan to fight for the world championship, its upper management decided to pull the trigger on a second round of personnel changes, with Otmar Szafnauer only lasting 18 months in the team principal job. The decision was the result of a disagreement between the management of the F1 team and the car maker regarding the speed at which it was travelling on this timeline.

PLUS: Why 'football manager' approach to F1 team principals won't boost Alpine's form

In comparison, since Toyota announced its WRC comeback, the only significant management change came in 2021 when four-time WRC champion Tommi Makinen, who helped initially set up the team, stepped aside to let Jari-Matti Latvala take up the team principal position.

Latvala became Toyota team principal in 2021, but was given a round off to return to the driver's seat in Finland (Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images)

There is no question manufacturers want success almost immediately once an investment into motorsport is made, it’s human nature. But it is virtually impossible to expect success overnight. To challenge for any world championship takes time, a healthy working environment and more importantly trust between the manufacturer and the team working to deliver success.

Akio Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda, is a great exponent of the above. His management style was showcased at last weekend’s Rally Finland, where he took on the role of team principal. The reason behind that job change in itself highlights Toyoda’s character as he afforded Latvala the opportunity to leave his team principal role to make a one-off WRC return behind the wheel at his home event - a reward for the recent successes.

Toyoda is one of the most passionate and engaged automobile bosses when it comes to motorsport. He is the very reason Toyota returned to the WRC in 2017. During an announcement where Toyota revealed plans to build an all-new WRC development centre in Finland, last week, he claimed, “I’m not going to lie to you, I love the WRC like a kid loves ice cream." It is not just lip service, it is pure passion that has seen him drive and compete in his company’s rally cars. When Toyoda is surrounded by motorsport there is a beaming child-like grin and this relentless bundle of positive energy is designed to lead the team to success.

"In addition to the regular morning greetings, what I told them were simply three things: ‘One team’, ‘never give up’, and ‘we hate to lose’. And one more Finnish word that I learned this time: SISU [the Finnish word for courage]" Akio Toyoda

“There are two reasons why I wanted to come back to WRC. The first is we wanted to be able to come back and participate so that we can use this experience to make even better cars and also the second is for human resource development,” he says. “If we lose the two we are going to lose our raison d'etre as a company that is why I can say that this [development centre] commitment to WRC is going to be a long-term commitment by Toyota.”

In Finland Autosport was able to witness Toyoda’s management style as a team principal, and it is clear to see why Toyota has been so successful in WRC. It is built on allowing staff to do their jobs to the best of their ability amid a palpable sense of team unity. He portrayed this ‘one team, one dream’ mantra as team principal by attending every service to talk to his staff and conducting interviews with the media in all weather. He cheered on his drivers from the stages and back at the service park.

Despite a naturally individualistic sport, Toyota has struck a strong teamwork ethic in its ranks (Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images)

“I feel real at home here. I appreciate our team and all the members doing their jobs,” said Toyoda.
“Before I took up this team principal job I just didn’t want to bother them [the drivers] because they know what they are doing. They are professionals, so my only objective is to cheer the drivers. I am also a driver but I want to know what the team principal wants to tell them to motivate them.

“The first job was to talk to the team members. In addition to the regular morning greetings, what I told them were simply three things: ‘One team’, ‘never give up’, and ‘we hate to lose’. And one more Finnish word that I learned this time: SISU [the Finnish word for courage].”

This unity, Toyoda believes, was best displayed by world champion Kalle Rovanpera offering advice to his team-mate Takamoto Katsuta that helped the Japanese to a stage win, and ultimately his first podium in Europe.

“For example, right after Takamoto [Katsuta] finished [the last stage] his comment was that he got advice from Kalle,” said Toyoda. “And with Kalle unfortunately we couldn’t fix his car but he is still participating with team members and that makes me proud as a team principal and a team owner that people can help each other and smile together. That is our team. This shows we are a real ‘one team’. I am grateful for Jari-Matti once again, who has built and is leading such a great team. I want to thank him and the team for this amazing week.

“Being the alternate team principal this time, I was able to realise that each member of the team is doing a very hard job in each area and that made me appreciate everybody again. Jari-Matti will be back as team principal for the rest of the events. We will continue to work and fight together with our special words: ‘one team’, ‘never give up’, ‘we hate to lose’, and ‘SISU’.”

While he will be among the first to shy away from the plaudits, Toyoda now has the enviable record of leading a team to success in his one and only outing as team principal, thanks to Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin claiming a home win for Toyota.

PLUS: How the WRC title race was ignited by Evans in Finland

Could Toyoda be asked to come back as Toyota team principal after his winning debut? (Photo by: Toyota Racing)

But what is it like to work for Toyoda directly? Latvala is perhaps the best person to answer as Toyota’s team principal, who, outside of Rally Finland, has the task of leading Toyota to WRC success.

“It has been very nice to work with him. He said to me you have to enjoy, be relaxed and smile,” Latvala tells Autosport. “It is impressive to see that he went to the Meet the Crews, he came to the autograph signings, he does interviews and has been to the stages. You don’t often see a top guy at a car manufacturer being so excited and ready to do this kind of job. That is part of our success”

It’s clear that manufacturers striving for success in motorsport, whatever the discipline, could learn a lot from Toyoda’s approach.

Toyoda is showered in podium fizz but didn't wish to take the plaudits for the team's success (Photo by: Toyota Racing)
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