Toyota has confirmed it is targeting Robert Kubica and Kimi Raikkonen as drivers for the 2010 Formula One season.
The sought-after pair were widely considered to be destined for Renault and McLaren, respectively, but Toyota was attempting to upset expectations and provide some urgently needed star power to the underperforming team.
Asked about possible interest in Kubica, currently of BMW Sauber, Toyota team principal John Howett said his team had an "even chance" of snatching Poland's star driver away from Renault.
"I definitely would be interested," Howett said. "We are probably fighting with (Renault)."
Renault will announce a new driver next week to replace Fernando Alonso, who will join Ferrari in 2010. That had prompted speculation the Kubica deal had already been signed, but the driver subsequently said he was not certain of his destination next season.
Raikkonen will make way for Alonso, and has said he would only be interested in joining a title-contending team in 2010. That may count against Toyota, which has not had a single race win in eight years in F1. But Howett confirmed he had sounded out the Finn.
Since the onset of the global economic downturn and the withdrawal of manufacturers Honda and BMW from F1, there had been ongoing speculation that Toyota might also pull out, notwithstanding that the team had signed the new Concorde Agreement between teams and F1 organizers which ties them to the competition through 2012.
Howett confirmed Friday that next year's budget was likely to be reduced, but that did not preclude the team from competing for high-salary drivers.
"Its going to be less than this year, but still a very significant and substantial budget," Howett said. "If we buy a cheaper driver, we can employ that in other areas _ its a simple equation."
The bid for Kubica and Raikkonen meant at least Jarno Trulli, and perhaps also Timo Glock, will leave Toyota at season's end.
Both had been told they were free to negotiate with other teams, with options over their 2010 contracts not exercised.
"We have tried to be fair to the drivers and say we may not have seats for them," Howett said. "We remain in contact with both of them, particularly Timo."
Glock equaled his career best with a second-place finish at last weekend's Singapore Grand Prix, but Howett was critical of the German's regular performances in qualifying.
"We would like to have seen that sort of result more consistently," Howett said. "His race pace is outstanding and always has been but sometimes in qualifying he has problems and has made life hard for himself.
"He may well be in the car next year but its too early to confirm."
Glock's future was the source of fresh speculation Friday after he was replaced for the official practice session ahead of this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix, his place taken by reserve driver Kamui Kobayashi.
The team said he was ill but should be fit to take part in Saturday's qualifying session. Howett slammed suggestions that the illness was a ruse and that the team had taken a commercial decision to use a Japanese driver in front of the local crowd.
"It's a stupid question and doesn't deserve an answer," Howett said.
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