Foreword: Welcome To France
Up until June 17th 2018, no manufacture at the 24 Hours of Le Mans has suffered more heartbreak than Toyota. The Japanese marque has been to Circuit de La Sarthe 13 times competing for overall victory, only to come up empty handed each time. You could sum it up to the competition being extremely difficult, or an unbelievable string of bad. Both things are true to a degree; Toyota’s first ventures to Le Mans included bouts with the might of Jaguar, Porsche, Mazda, and Peugeot. The various iterations of the group C Prototype, which included in a Turbocharged 4-cylinder unit succeeded by Turbocharged V8 engine, failed to score a top-10 finish overall between 1987 and 1989. More worrying was the car’s unreliability, with two DNFs in ‘87, and all three cars failing to finish in ‘89. After competing in 1990, Toyota took a year off as the FIA announced new rule changes for the 1991 season. All cars competing in the FIA World Sportscar Championship were to be powered by Formula 1 style V10 engines. While this gave this a considerable boost to the performance of the cars, the excessive rise in cost saw the exit of Mercedes, Jaguar, and Porsche. For 1992, only Peugeot and Mazda remained as the only fully-fledged factory teams along side Toyota to compete at Le Mans.
Chapter 1: In The Shadow of Peugeot
With the new rules in place, Toyota introduced the TS010, a forerunner for the current crop of Le mans prototypes. The car boasted double-wishbone suspension, a monacoque chassis able to produce twice the downforce of F1 cars at the time. The car also boasted a newly-designed 3.5 Liter V10 engine able to produce near 700 Horsepower.
These machines were built to such extremes, that it was argued they could qualify mid-pack in F1. Driver Andy Wallace summed it up while testing in 1992, “You go into a corner at a speed you think is the limit, and its not the limit. You keep going faster, faster and faster, there is so much downforce.”
While the performance figures were staggering, the car did suffer from reliability throughout the ’92 season. After taking victory at the first round the season at Monza, a double-DNF followed at the next round in Silverstone. Toyota entered three cars for Le Mans, only to come up short against the mighty Peugeot 905. The rest of season would be dominated by the French marque, with Toyota failing to score another win. Following the season, the FIA canceled the World Sportscar Championship, thus bringing an end to the V-10 era. The 1993 24 Hours of Le Mans would mark the final race for the TS010, as it came come home 4th overall, behind a trio of Peugeot 905s.
Chapter II: A “Dauer” Problem
1994 would usher in a strange era for Le Mans as well as end of an era for Toyota. With the collapse of the World Championship, the ACO and the FIA opened the invitation list to include machinery for the old Group C days, GT cars for the first time since 1986, and the IMSA GT-S category. With the abandonment of the V10 rules, Toyota reverted back to their 92 C-V, which had run under the C2 class the previous two years. While the chassis was mostly kept the same, the body of the car was upgraded for better aerodynamics and cooling, and renamed the ‘94CV’. The team boasted a strong driver lineup including Le Mans veterans George Fouche, Bob Wollek, with F1 driver Eddie Irvine and future Indycar driver Jeff Krosnoff. Toyotas main competition supposedly, was the Gulf Kremer-Porsche team lead by Derek Bell and the French Courage team. With preparations coming together for the trip to La Sarthe, Porsche was busy in development of a new prototype out of the skeleton of a ten-year-old Porsche 962. Built by German designer Jochen Dauer, the “Dauer 962” was a GT special built exclusively to win at Le Mans. The car exploited a rule that no homologation was needed to race the car, meaning other than the two 962s that were built to race, the car was never sold to the public. Being in the GT class meant that the car could run with 30 liters more fuel than the Toyota. This all meant the 94 C-V would have to contend with not just the Kremer and Courage, but with Dauer as well. From the outset, Toyota knew they did not have early pace for qualifying, but figured the cars would be being okay once the race started. After seeing both the Kremer and Couerage fall by the wayside early in the going, the “GT” Dauer 962 took over the lead before a cut tire at the start finish line cost the Dauer 11 minutes, handing the lead to the chasing Toyota. During the early morning hours on Sunday, the leading 94 C-V experienced Differential problems, leading to a one hour stay in the pits. The second Toyota driven by Jeff Krosnoff, Eddie Irvine, and Mauro Martini took over the lead and held it for the next 9 hours. With just over 90 minutes to go, and the two trailing 962s struggling with driveshaft issues, the Toyota driven by Krosnoff seemed to have the race in hand, but then after crossing the start/finish line, the car pulled off at pit exit and come to an abrupt stop. Krosnoff quickly climbed out of the car to examine what could be. He somehow got the car to re-fire and nurse it back to the pits.
It was discovered during inspection that a gear linkage mold had broken and needed replacing. The resulting repair dropped the car from 1st to 3rd. After the repair, driver Eddie Irvine hurriedly got the car up to speed to chased down the fragile 962s, but was unable to bridge the gap in the last hour, coming up one lap short. While Porsche and Dauer were able to bask in the glory of Le Mans, Toyota one again came up empty-handed at the historic track. It would the last time Toyota competed at Le Mans for four years.
Chapter III: GT-Oh No
In 1998, Toyota returned to a Le Sarthe with the Dallara designed GT-One. Based on a loophole in the FIA rule book, the GT-One was built from carbon fiber, and boasted a 90-Degree 3.6 Liter V8. Early skepticism of the car soon emerged because unlike the Mercedes CLK-GTR and Porsche GT1, which were sort of based on production cars, the GT-One was strictly built to race at Le Mans. Toyota explained this away by arguing the car did offer luggage space, albeit enough for a small suitcase.
They also built two production cars based on the GT-One, neither of which were sold to the public. Early testing showed promise, as the three factory cars all placed in the top 10. The race itself showed the outright speed of the GT-One, powering to the lead over the Porsches. As the long June evening war on, the cars started to show their fragility. The first to go was the #28 driven by Martin Brundle, Eric Helary, and Emmanuel Collard. Around two in the morning, the car suffered a massive accident taking it out of contention. Several hours later, the #29 driven by former F1 driver Thierry Boutsen suffered a gearbox problem, leaving the all-Japanese #27 driven by Tsuchiya/Katyama/Suzuki to soldier on to a 9th place overall, nearly 25 laps behind the race winning Porsche GT1. For 1999, the FIA and ACO announced the closing of the GT1 loophole, thus taking away the production-based aspect of the class. Both the Toyota and Mercedes CLR would now fall under the new Grand Touring Prototype category. Without the reliable Porsche, prospects were good for Toyota to finally take a overall win. For a good part the race, that prospect was coming to fruition, however two of the cars suffered massive accidents, leaving the all-Japanese squad once again to fight on. With Mercedes withdrawing after multiple blow overs, the stage was set for a duel between the GT1 and the BMW LMR. With just over an hour to, Ukyo Katyama set forth a blistering pace to try and catch the leading BMW, setting the fastest lap of the race. With the margin of just over a minute, the Toyota seemed poised to take over the lead, but racing luck once again frowned upon the Japanese manufacturer. A cut tire forced Katyama to pit, and while the car did end up winning its class, it still fell short of beating the BMW. After the race, Toyota announced they were withdrawing for Le Mans for the foreseeable future, focusing instead their new F1 program to be launched three years later.
Chapter IV: Four Rings and a Stuttgart Pony
Over a decade later in 2012, the newly reformed Toyota Motorsports Group presented the brand new TSO30 Hybrid to the press before a pre-season test at Circuit Paul Ricard in France. After a testing crash postponed the race debut, two TSO30 Hybrids were entered for Le Mans. While not having the out and out pace of the Audi R18 E-Tron, the Toyotas were competitive before a massive crash took out the #8 driven by Anthony Davidson.
The sister #7 faired slightly better, surviving contact with the Deltawing, before succumbing to and engine failure just before halfway into the event. The very next year, treacherous conditions through the 24 hours, rendered any attack on the four-wheel drive Audi fruitless, with the #8 driven by Anthony Davidson, Stephane Sarrazin, and Sebastien Buemi to come on 2nd. Following the event, FIA announced changes to the prototype class, giving rise to a new version of the Toyota Hybrid, the TSO40. The car, with its reduced drag of 100 pounds and improved aerodynamics, fuel consumption was cut by nearly 25 percent over its predecessor. In addition, the updated 3.7 Liter V8 was partnered with four-wheel drive and dual KERS systems bringing the total power of the car to 986 Horsepower. It’s first venture to the Le Mans showed great promise with the No. 7 driven by Kaz Nakajima taking pole over Romain Dumas’ Porsche 919. The early hours went according to plan, with the no. 7 out front. It’s sister car, the no. 8 driven by Nicolas LaPierre was caught out by changing weather conditions, hydroplaning into the tire barriers at the Mulsanne straight taking it out of contention. The car did recover to finish third overall. The lead Toyota was in cruise control when in the ninth hour, the monitoring unit supplied by the FIA melted one the wiring harnesses, thus cutting all electrical power. The car was abandoned by Nakajima at Arnage corner. The following year, a heavily revised TSO040 proved no match for the improved Audi and Porsche, finishing 6th and 8th overall respectively. It was the second and last time the car competed at Le Mans.
Chapter V: Three Minutes
2016 would mark the introduction of the newly-minted TSO050, powered by a new 2.4 Liter Bi-Turbo V6. After a rough start to the season, two factory Toyotas headed to Le Mans with hopes of at least finishing the race. After a strong qualifying effort to put both cars on the second row of the grid behind the vaunted Porsches. Steadily, the no. 5 driven by Nakajima, Buemi and Davidson moved their way to front. What followed in the final half hour of the race is considered by many to be the most dramatic ending in the history of Le Mans. With under 10 minutes to go, Nakajima in the no. 5 lead the no. 2 Porsche by just over a minute. Everything thing was lining up for Toyota to finally conquer the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but with 6 minutes and 40 seconds to go, Nakajima radioed in that his car was losing power, suddenly his one minute advantage had been slashed to 37 seconds, then 10 seconds. As Nakajima crossed the finish line to start the last lap, the car crawled to a stop, handing the lead to the Porsche driven by Neal Jani. Nearly a minute after Jani went by, the stricken Toyota girdled back to life and crawled around the circuit, to what they thought was a 2nd-place finish, but because the car did not meet minimum speed on the last lap, it was not classified in the final results. The sister car would take that 2nd position on the podium, three laps behind the car Porsche. The drama on track came as total shock to both Toyota and Porsche, from the jubilation felt in the German marque’s paddock, to the stone dead silence of the Toyota paddock.
Driver Anthony Davidson told The London Telegraph after the race, “That was an unbelievable end to such a difficult race. You couldn’t have written the way it ended; no one would have ever believed a movie that ended like this. So to live through the experience is pretty hard to take, but it will make us stronger and we will be back.”
The next year though, even more trouble would befall the team. While leading in the 10th hour of the race, Kaz Nakajima’s no.7 suffered a clutch failure while leading, and confusion with the team led to him abandoning the car. The sister cars also ran into to trouble with no.8 pitting in the fifth hour to replace a battery and front drive motor, but recovered to finish 8th overall. The no. 9 suffered a worse fate when it collided with an LMP2 car, taking it outof the race. Porsche wound up winning the race yet again.
Epilogue: A Quiet Victory
At the end of 2017, both Porsche and Audi announced the the closure of their prototype programs, leaving Toyota as the sole remaining engine Prototype Hybrid entry. Entering the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Toyota would cruise to an easy win. In a way, that turned out to be the case. Both factory cars easily scooted away from the non-Hybrid Rebellion Gibsons and swapped the lead throughout the 24 hours. To spite a few technical hiccups, the no.8 driven by Sebastien Buemi, Kaz Nakajima, and Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso, took the victory two laps ahead of the sister car.
It was the first time since Mazda in 1991 a Japanese manufacturer won the race. While the victory was savored, there was an obvious lack of excitement surrounding the event. The absence of Porsche and Audi was felt throughout the paddock. In reaction to this, while in the lead up to the Le Mans, the FIA and ACO new regulations set to be introduced in 2020. Toyota has yet to commit to the new program.