In the last few weeks, Toyota have effectively put the two men who have driven for them for the majority of this season on notice. As a result, they are in the hunt for the signatures of Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button – two of the best drivers on the grid. But what is in it for the two world champions? Can they fulfil Toyota’s dream of being the car in front?
Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli have put in reasonable, if fairly typical, performances this season – some good qualifying, the odd points finish or podium, peppered with some diabolical weekends. At this point it looks extremely unlikely that either of them will be retained for next season. Assuming Brazilian GP debutant Kamui Kobayashi impresses this weekend too, he will be in with a definite shout for the second seat. But one will probably be vacant. This could signify that Toyota have finally got serious and have realised they need a talismanic driver to get to the top.
It was well known that they were in the hunt for Robert Kubica, but it is thought negotiations broke down over the Pole’s unwillingness to accept anything other than a one year deal. He will have been fully aware of the possibility of a Ferrari seat in 2011, and so opted for Renault. Toyota, on the other hand, are now looking for the sort of man who will lead their team from the front – ideally, a Michael Schumacher-type figure. Many observers would actually consume their headwear if Schumi signed for Toyota, though.
So where have they been forced to look? Alonso and Hamilton are in pretty watertight contracts at Ferrari and McLaren respectively, and any approach from Toyota would have fallen on deaf ears. Nico Rosberg could have been approached, but he is still a work in progress, many consider. Only two other stars with relatively long futures remain in the galaxy; new world champion Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen. It is not an exaggeration to say that by the end of this weekend, one of them could be signed for the Japanese marque, lured by multi-million pound contracts.
But in their own interests, neither should go to Toyota. Jenson Button will be interested in the seat primarily because of the money. He took a voluntary pay cut at the beginning of the season because of the withdrawal of Honda, down to £3m, and is asking Brawn to reinstate his previous £8m retainer. It is not an unreasonable thing to do, considering what other drivers are paid, but in this new 2009 spirit of austerity at a team that still has financial uncertainty, it may not happen. It is fair to assume Toyota could pay him well over that, with their money-no-object approach to racing.
But Button, as the latter half of this year has shown, cannot deal with a car that is even remotely unstable. It causes him difficulties which slow him right down, and he still has issues with tyre management. Despite their gradual, year-on-year improvement Toyota do not have a reputation for building the kind of well-balanced car that Button so needs for his considerable talent to shine through. One envisages him dawdling in much the same way as he did in mediocre Benettons, BARs and Hondas if the car is not to his liking. His motivation to effectively start from scratch again may have also been sapped by his recent glory.
Raikkonen will also have been lured by the millions Toyota can promise. His primary problem, one imagines, at Toyota would not be a mechanical one, although that too could play a part. Rather, it is more likely to be the effect on Raikkonen’s psyche that an underwhelming car could have. For vast swathes of 2008 and this season Raikkonen has been distinctly unspectacular in mediocre machinery, making those hard-charging, glorious races of his in the past seem like a distant memory. Until, that was, the latter half of 2009, when the disappearance of Felipe Massa and the knowledge that his contract was not going to be renewed provoked a fierce succession of drives from the Finn. The point is that there being something on the table appears to make a difference to Raikkonen in some way, probably primarily psychological.
So the conclusion is that if one of them goes to Cologne, they could be heralding the beginning of a new, winning era for Toyota. But in all probability, a Raikkonen or a Button in Toyota colours next season could be the demise of their careers. They are not, after all, Michael Schumacher.