At last weekend's Japanese Grand Prix, McLaren announced it had signed 24 Hours of Le Mans-winning Toyota factory driver Ryo Hirakawa to a development role. This ties McLaren and Toyota closer together than ever, and has ignited rumors of a potential Formula 1 comeback for the automotive giant. Those rumors by all accounts look like wishful thinking, though a Toyota advisor reportedly couldn't rule out the possibility of further escalation.
McLaren and Toyota have a longstanding relationship, with the former arranging to use the latter's world-class wind tunnel in Cologne. While McLaren opened its own wind tunnel in its home of Woking over the summer, ceasing the need for Toyota's facility, the two are actually growing closer together according to Motorsport.com. Instead of splitting, they're now partnering to advance Hirakawa's career.
Hirakawa is best known for winning the 2022 24 Hours of Le Mans and World Endurance Championship, as well as the 2017 Super GT GT500 championship and placing second in the 2020 Super Formula season. At 29 years old, he's not of the age typically associated with drivers in the running for an F1 seat, but next year, he'll still reportedly get a chance at McLaren's simulator. He will also get a test in McLaren's 2021 car, though the timeframe for that wasn't specified. Both are opportunities rarely given to anyone other than drivers that F1 teams hope will be worthy of racing Grands Prix in their name.
That's part of why initial reaction to this news—broken over a Japanese Grand Prix weekend attended by Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda and a company entourage—has been interpreted as evidence of Toyota starting back on the road to F1. Toyota famously flopped when it participated in F1 in a factory capacity from 2002 to 2009, fielding a well-funded team that failed to score a win despite several P2 finishes. (Lando Norris knows the feeling.)
With F1's profile elevated in recent years, a full-fledged return as an engine supplier or even as a team may be on Toyota's radar. But that's almost certainly not what's going on with the Hirakawa driver deal—not according to McLaren team principal Andrea Stella, anyway, and there's almost no higher authority than he.
"There was the element of, having started a driver development program, there's quite a lot of people knocking on the door," Stella told Motorsport.com. "We are also interested in a bit of exchange of how we deal with performance, how we deal with driver development. So, we want to sort of expand a bit our horizons."
So, more of a strategic exchange—political marriage, tit for tat—than paving a road for a Toyota return to F1. That's still not something that Toyota Gazoo Racing advisor and former Williams F1 driver Kazuki Nakajima could outright shoot down, though.
"For now, it's clearly no," Nakajima said regarding a Toyota F1 return. "This deal is really purely focusing on a driver, supporting a driver's dream. [...] I know, of course, you can think about it, and there are a lot of rumors. But I can clearly say that it's no, and nothing to do with it. For the future, we never know."
"We never know" does the heavy lifting here; news of earnest F1 programs often leaks early in the process, and no such leak has emerged. But should it happen anyway, it'd be Toyota's chance to clear its name of its last, more fruitless bid for Grand Prix glory.
Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: firstname.lastname@example.org