LONDON (Reuters) - Just like last year, Japanese Formula One fans approach the new season knowing that their country will have a winner at every race.
As sole tire supplier, success is guaranteed for Bridgestone.
The same cannot be said for the Japanese teams, Toyota and Honda, who face yet another tough year despite their considerable financial muscle and ranking in the global automotive markets.
Under-performing Toyota have only Italian Jarno Trulli’s two second places in Malaysia and Bahrain in 2005 to show for well in excess of $1 billion spent since their grand prix debut in 2002.
Last year the car giant scored just 13 points in finishing sixth overall and were beaten by Williams, who use Toyota engines and scored 20 points more.
“We have to do better than we did in 2007,” said Toyota motorsport president John Howett at the launch of their new car in January. “We have to work harder, faster and smarter than our competition.”
Honda, whose engines were dominant with former champions McLaren and Williams from 1986 to 1991, have had just Briton Jenson Button’s 2006 Hungary win to celebrate since they returned as a constructor that same year.
Championship runners-up with BAR in 2004 before buying the team, Honda scored six points in 2007 — only two more than their struggling client team Super Aguri whose future remains uncertain.
Both Toyota and Honda have undergone major overhauls and radically redesigned their cars in an attempt to haul themselves into contention. Honda have appointed former Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn as their team principal.
If the road ahead looks hard, both teams at least believe that it is the right one and can take heart from some encouraging signs.
After the new TF108 looked distinctly average in some of the early runs, Trulli closed out the final pre-season test in Spain last month with the fastest lap in what appeared to be a real morale boost for the Cologne-based team.
“We have finally found a new direction,” the Italian told the autosport.com Web site.
“Last year straight away I knew we had a huge problem, but this year I am much more confident.
“I am sure we can raise some eyebrows this year and cause problems for some teams. We can be competitive. Forget Ferrari and McLaren for the moment, they are a couple of steps ahead, but the rest are within reach.”
Button and Barrichello were much further off the pace in the Spanish tests but the Briton sounded more upbeat than might be expected.
“We’ve been putting in a lot of hours to make sure the car is reliable and running smoothly,” he said at the end of last month.
“I must say I’m happy with the way things are going. We’re making improvements at every test in many, many areas. And for me, I’m happy also because the car is very drivable. It’s a car we can really build on.”
Toyota-powered Williams, the former world champions clawing their way back up the pecking order after a dismal 2006 season, could be ahead of both manufacturer teams if testing times are borne out in Melbourne.
With rookie Kazuki Nakajima on board as one of their drivers, the team will in any case have plenty of support in Japan this season.
No Japanese has won a race since the championship started in 1950 and, although clearly quick, Nakajima is unlikely to end the wait any time soon even if he is one of a new breed of drivers.
He speaks fluent English, vital for communicating with engineers and removing what has been a stumbling block for many Japanese drivers in the past.
With Takuma Sato’s Honda-powered Super Aguri team likely to be bringing up the rear after prolonged talks to secure funding, Nakajima will undoubtedly be his country’s top-ranked driver but he is aiming higher than that.
Being the best rookie, and beating his German team mate Nico Rosberg, are his main targets this year.
Beyond that, there is always the example of Michael Schumacher to provide inspiration.
“I think we need a bit more history for Japanese drivers and I’m sure we can gain step by step,” he said. “I think it’s quite similar to the Germans. The German people used to have no champion and then Michael came along.”
Editing by Clare Fallon