Toyota reputation as F1 host on the line

by Yasushi Azuma

Kyodo News

After wiping out as host of last year’s disastrous Formula One Grand Prix, Toyota Motor Corp. is under the gun to prove it can run a major motor racing event at its Fuji Speedway in Shizuoka Prefecture, scheduled this year for Oct 10 to 12.

Last September, many of the 282,000 motor sports fans who turned out for the three-day event at Fuji were dismayed at the lack of organization. Traffic problems left thousands waiting for hours in long lines in the rain for shuttle buses and toilet facilities were inadequate. Organizers ended up giving refunds to about 7,250 people who claimed their view of the track from makeshift seats set up behind permanent seats near the first turn of the 4,563-meter racing course was obstructed.

The track operator, Fuji International Speedway Co., is 93.4 percent owned by Toyota.

Until last year, the international racing event had been run at Suzuka Circuit in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, for 20 years straight. Suzuka is operated by Mobilityland Corp., a wholly owned unit of Honda Motor Co.

In fact, Fuji Speedway, in the town of Oyama at the foot of Mount Fuji, hadn’t hosted the event for 30 years.

One person in the motor racing industry criticized Toyota’s handling of the F1 race last year, saying it was “a very regrettable development in terms of promotion of motor sports in Japan.”

“Obviously, the result put a damper on enthusiasm for motor sports. Some of the fans who visited Fuji Speedway must have been first-time spectators for F1 racing,” said the man, who declined to be named.

The International Federation of the Automobile, the F1 governing body, announced last year that Fuji Speedway and Suzuka Circuit will stage the F1 Grand Prix alternately from 2009.

If Toyota fails to impress this year, it will be hard to convince motor sports fans that Fuji Speedway ought to host F1 events in the future, observers said.

Fuji Speedway President Hiroaki Kato and Vice President Yukio Takase, both from Toyota, have pledged to do everything possible to eliminate last year’s problems, ensure safety and improve access.

“We want to restore the public trust that was lost because of last year’s event and make this year’s event successful at any cost,” Takase said in a recent news conference in Tokyo.

Takase also said Fuji Speedway has cut the number of expected spectators for the October race to 220,000 from 282,000 last year, to make the event more enjoyable.

Toyota also appears serious about improving the image of F1 racing at Fuji Speedway. The carmaker sent eight additional senior officials, including Takase, to the subsidiary to take control of its operations.

The operator plans to increase the number of charter buses from 1,250 in 2007 to 1,650 this year. It will let buses park in designated lots close to the facility so fans will be able to wait inside the vehicles in case of delay, instead of waiting outside for buses to pick them up.

Fuji Speedway also promised to fix other problems by paving more roads, bringing in a sufficient number of toilets and installing more lights to make the surrounding areas brighter.

Because of limited parking at the site, Fuji Speedway doesn’t allow spectators to come by car. Unless they take a direct tour bus from Tokyo or another major city, fans must park their cars far from the track or travel by train and then use shuttle buses to get to the speedway.

The town of Oyama will also offer more support. It will double its budget for the race in fiscal 2008 and plans to secure parking lots close to the cultural hall and provide accommodations and food to visitors.

“We give a big welcome to the F1 racing event in Oyama, but we also hope visitors turn to our town a bit,” a local official said.

Of 110,000 expected visitors for the day of the actual race this year, the town will probably be able to accommodate only about 2,500, but expanding such hospitality will eventually benefit the town through economic effects, he said.

But the official is not fully optimistic about hosting the race at Fuji Speedway. He said its infrastructure is insufficient to host an event that draws 100,000 spectators.

The F1 race will be held on Oct. 12.