This week we learned that Toyota’s Le Mans curse remains firmly in tact, having robbed the team of what seemed like a sure-fire victory. The loss, due to a comically unfortunate mistake perpetrated by another team, prompted President Akio Toyoda to issue a heart-felt apology to fans, his crew, and even his drivers for not building a car that let them “drive all out.”
Even race fans that wouldn’t be caught dead in a Camry couldn’t help but root for them, but alas, it was not in the cards for Toyota this year. They’re the Chicago Cubs of Le Mans, except worse, because the Cubs have actually won. Here’s a brief history of Toyota’s tragic attempts at conquering the world’s most grueling race.
1975: Toyota’s first appearance at the 24 Hours Le Mans was over 40 years ago, as an engine supplier for the Sigma MC75. Sigma Automotive was founded in 1972 by Shin Kato, an ex-Toyota engineer who led the development of the 800-horsepower Toyota 7 race car.
Kato founded the company specifically in the hopes of promoting Japanese motorsport both at home and abroad, and in 1973 the Sigma became the first Japanese team to qualify for Le Mans. Ironically, the for its first two years at Circuit de la Sarthe Sigma’s race cars were powered by Mazda rotary engines, a trivia fact linking to the only Japanese car to have won the race outright.
In 1975, Kato teamed up with Toyota, who donated turbocharged 2T-G engines like the ones powering the turbo Celicas that won the Fuji 1000km in 1973. However, Kato tuned the engines to a reported output of 360 PS. Marlboro came on as a sponsor, a perfect match requiring minimal changes to Sigma’s white and red racing livery.
During the race the MC75 climbed to 10th place in the first two hours, but soon debris from a broken valve spring damaged the oil pump and forced the car into the pits. Kato-san himself worked to repair the engine for another two hours and sent the car back out, but soon the issue re-emerged and the car was forced to retire.
Sigma ran out of funds and would not return to Le Mans again until 1990. In 1985, it was reorganized into SARD (Sigma Advanced Research & Development), which ran a Supra during the heyday of JGTC and still develops Toyota and Lexus racers in SuperGT.
1980: By the late 1970s race car constructor Dome, creators of the Zero concept, was making a concerted effort to take on the Le Mans challenge. In 1980 Dome teamed up with Toyota tuner TOM’s to enter an A40 Toyota Celica, powered by a turbo 18R-G twin-cam making a purported 560 PS, into the IMSA-GTX class.
However, without Toyota’s official support the team never really had a chance. The car was originally built to race in the Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft, the German series pre-dating modern-day DTM. It managed to win a race in Europe in the late 70s, according to Toyota Motorsport, but it failed to qualify for Le Mans and never actually participated in the big race. It was eventually brought to America, where it ran the 12 Hours of Sebring and 5 Hours of Riverside.
1985: Instead of basing their machine on a road car, this time Dome and TOM’s came prepared with an all-out Group C racer. Two of them, in fact, with a small amount of backing from Toyota City. While not a full factory effort, it is considered to be the first time Toyota officially tossed their hat into the Le Mans ring.
Designed by Dome and built by TOM’s, the Toyota 85C-L pair was actually entered as two separate teams. The No 38 car was managed by Dome Motorsport and drew a more international team with Swedish driver Eje Elgh, Britain’s Geoff Lees, and Japan’s Toshio Suzuki. The No 36 car ran under the banner of TOM’s Racing with an all-Japanese team of Kaoru Hoshino, Masanori Sekiya, and Satoru Nakajima (father of F1 driver Kazuki Nakajima).
Both cars had carbon-fiber monocoques, but the bodywork was different with the No 36 TOM’s car having an integrated wing and larger rear diffuser. Underneath, both were powered by Toyota’s 4T-GT. It’s estimated that the 2.1-liter inline-four, fed by a CT26R single-turbo setup, was somewhere around 500 horsepower.
Lees and Nakajima qualified 22nd and 29th, respectively, about mid-field. At the time Porsche’s 956 and 962 were dominant. Dome and TOM’s knew they had little chance of winning, but simply finishing the 24-hour endurance would be an accomplishment in itself.
On race day, the faster No 38 Dome began experiencing gearbox problems early on. After a costly hour for repairs it was sent out again, only to be retired by clutch failure after 141 laps. However, the No 36 TOM’s kept its pace, completing 330 laps when all was said and done, finishing 12th overall and marking the first time a Japanese car had finished the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
1986: The year was known as “Le Japon attaque,” or the Japanese invasion. Mazda was debuting their first triple-rotor engine and Nissan was making their inaugural run at Circuit de la Sarthe.
Dome and TOM’s returned with the 86C, prototypes of similar design as the previous year’s cars but elongated and with re-worked aerodynamics to create more considerably more downforce. The engines were still turbocharged Toyota 4T-GT inline-fours, but tuned to an estimated 650 horsepower.
This time around, it was the No 36 TOM’s car, driven by Satoru Nakajima, Geoff Lees and Masanori Sekiya, that retired before dawn having completed just 105 laps. The No 38 Dome car driven by Eje Elgh, Beppe Gabbian, and Toshio Suzuki, on the other hand, clawed its way up to seventh place and seemed on track to finish in the top ten. Sadly, with a turbo failure forced it into retirement after 296 laps and just one hour left in the race.
1987-89: In 1987, the TOM’s team gained the full backing of Toyota and became essentially a factory works effort. Dome was still the constructor, and the 4T motors were replaced by 4-valve 3S-GT mills generating about 600 horsepower. Neither car fared very well, though, completing only 30-something laps each. Toyota returned in 1988 with essentially the same car and both finished, placing 12th and 24th, unable to beat their old standing.
By 1989 Nissan was seen as a serious contender at Le Mans. Following their rival’s lead, Toyota developed an all-new twin-turbo V8. The R32V was capable of anywhere from 700 PS. Toyota expanded to three cars, two new 89Cs and one holdover 88C, but none of them finished. Nor did any of the Nissan. Instead, all three Mazda 767Bs with their 4-rotor engines completed the race, with the No 202 car driven by Takashi Yorino, Hervé Regout, and Elliot Forbes-Robinson placing as high as 7th.
1990: At the peak of the Bubble Era Toyota redoubled their efforts, fielding a trio of 90C-V racers with their twin-turbo V8s retuned to make 750 PS. Sigma founder Shin Kato was called in to head one of the three teams, which was renamed Toyota Team SARD rather than the now traditional Toyota Team TOM’s.
Toyota saw its highest placing finish this year, finally breaking the top 10 with the No 36 car of Geoff Lees, Masanori Sekiya, and Hitoshi Ogawa finishing the race in 6th place. Their thunder, however, was stolen by the Nissan R90CP of Masahiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki placing 5th.
1992: Toyota sat out Le Mans in 1991 in order to devote more resources to the next generation of Group C racers. The FIA rules were about to change, and in 1992 it was required that all cars in the C1 class run a 3.5-liter V10. The new engines would require a whole new car to be designed around them.
That car, the TS010, made its debut at the end of 1991 during the last race of the Sportscar World Championships in 1991, placing 6th. At the 1992 SWC season opener in Monza, Geoff Lees and Hitoshi Ogawa took the TS010 to a 1st place finish. It looked to be a promising year for Toyota. Shockingly, Ogawa was killed a month later in a Formula 3000 crash at Suzuka Circuit.
A month after that, at Le Mans, the Toyota TS010 of Masanori Sekiya, Pierre-Henri Raphanel, and Kenny Acheson fought their way to a second-place finish. Though the TS010 setting a fastest lap and fastest trap speed of 336 kph (209 mph) during the race, a series of costly mechanical repairs killed their chances for the top spot.
Mazda had won outright the year before, but Toyota’s second place finish was bittersweet for another reason. During the entire parade lap and as he stood on the podium, Sekiya carried with him a framed black and white photo of his fallen teammate Hitoshi Ogawa.
To be continued…
Images courtesy of Toyota, Dome.