MOTORSPORT: A history of Toyota’s heartbreaks at Le Mans, Part 02

In Part 01, Toyota ended 1992’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with a second place finish, their best to date, in the TS010. Surprisingly, a 3.6-liter Toyota 92C-V fielded by Trust (GReddy) based on the older generation of Group C racers took fifth overall and won the C2 class. A second TS010 took 8th and another 92C-V took 9th. They had finally developed competitive machines, and would mount such a siege with dedicated track weapons built specifically for the race that by the end of the decade Toyota would be a major force at Circuit de la Sarthe. 

1993-94: By 1993, Toyota was an enormous presence at Le Mans. In addition to the C1-class TS010, several privateers were entering with older C2-class Toyotas. 1993 saw Toyotas from both classes finish 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th. That would have been cause for celebration ten years earlier, but it was not longer good enough.

1994 found the FIA was once again redrawing its rules, making the TS010 ineligible. Toyota withdrew its factory support, leaving only privateers in the old C2-class Toyota 94C-Vs to race. It would be the last opportunity for the Group C cars to compete, and as it turns out it was a nail-biter.

The race became a fierce battle Group C machines, with the Porsche 962 and Toyota 94C — both veterans of many a Le Mans and mostly problem free — duking it out for the lead. The Porsches started out front, but when the lead 962 ruptured a tire, Eddie Irvine charged ahead, pressing his No 1 SARD Toyota into the lead, with the No 4 Nisso-Trust Toyota not far behind.

Soon after, the No 1 SARD Toyota was delayed by a brake change during what should have been a routine pit stop, giving the lead to its sister car. The Nisso-Trust 94C-V went on to keep that lead for eight hours. As dawn broke, it was forced to pit due to a busted gearbox and differential. The hour it took to swap it out dropped it down to 5th place and out of the running for first.

As a result, the No 1 Toyota was back in the lead, with the Porsches not far behind. It led for nine more hours, fending off the 962s with a comfortable but not insurmountable 42-second lead. Then, with about an hour and a half on the clock, a failed transmission linkage weld killed all forward gears. As luck would have it, the failure occurred just before the entrance to pit row. Driver Jeff Krosnoff slammed it into third and hobbled the car into the paddocks, but a 13-minute repair to the linkage blew any chance of recovering the lead.

The No 1 car of Eddie Irvine, Mauro Martini and Jeff Krosnoff finished second behind the Porsche 962 that had been chasing the Toyotas for 17 hours. Irvine was a last-minute substitute after Roland Raztenberger was killed in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix a couple of months earlier. As a tribute, Ratzenberger’s name was left on roll call above the door and carried to the finish. Another 962 finished third, followed by the No 4 Toyota in 4th.

1995-96: Toyota didn’t have much luck at Le Mans in the mid-90s, but the era bears mention if for no other reason than Supras raced at Le Mans. A reflection of Japan’s peak Tuner Era, it was also a time when NISMO brought out an R33 Skyline GT-R and homologated it for the streets and Honda campaigned (and won its class) with an NSX.

Once again, it wasn’t a full Toyota factory effort but SARD leading the charge. The team basically took a JGTC GT500 Supra race car, modified the suspension with bits from the TS010. Like all GT500 Supras, it ran a 3S-GTE detuned to about 650 horsepower rather than the famed 2JZ-GTE.

SARD’s second entry was even more outrageous. Based on an SW20 Toyota MR2, the SARD MC8-R widened and stretched to house a twin-turbocharged 1UZ-FE, the V8 used in various Toyota luxury sedans like the Lexus LS 400. A single road car was built for homologation.

In the end, 1995 saw the Supra LM finish an honorable 14th overall, while the experimental MC8-R retired after just 14 laps. However, a McLaren F1 GTR driven Frenchman Yannick Dalmas, Finn JJ Lehto, and former Toyota driver Masanori Sekiya won outright. This also marked the first time a Finnish or Japanese driver took first place at Le Mans. In 1996, SARD’s fortunes were reversed, with the MC8-R finishing 24th overall, second to last of all the finishers, while the Supra LM crashed out after completing 205 laps.

1998: After two decades of attempts, Toyota was finally getting serious. At the time of its debut, the TS020 GT-One was considered not only one of the fastest, but one of the most beautiful Le Mans prototypes ever conceived. Powered by an updated version of the R36V twin-turbo V8s that had powered the last generation of Group C racers.

It was Toyota’s first serious attempt in half a decade and it came to Sarthe armed with three cars. Toyota was prepared, but so were its rivals, the Mercedes AMG CLK-LM, Porsche 911 GT1 and Nissan R390 GT1. According to homologation rules, all of these manufacturers had to create a single road car to qualify, giving the world some of the greatest supercars it has ever known.

As the race kicked off the No 28 Toyota of Martin Brundle, Emmanuel Collard and Éric Hélary charged to the front and stayed there until an “off” into the gravel forced them into the pits for a brake change. From there, the No 29 car of Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners and Geoff Lees took the lead for another five hours, until a lengthy pit stop to swap out a bad transmission knocked them to seventh place. Meanwhile, the No 27 car of Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki and Keiichi “Drift King” Tsuchiya maintained a more conservative pace to ensure a finish.

During the night a rainstorm washed over the circuit, and the No 28 Toyota of Martin Brundle, Emmanuel Collard and Éric Hélary crashed in the squall. Slow and steadily, the No 29 car fought their way back to the lead. With a solid lead and two hours left to go, the replacement gearbox failed again, retiring the car for good. The victory was handed to Porsche and it was left to the No 27 car to finish 9th after a what seemed like an assured win.

1999: Toyota’s final run before withdrawing from Le Mans for a decade would be even more heartbreaking. 1999 was the last of the big manufacturer battles, with the Mercedes CLR, BMW V12 LM, and Toyota GT-One all in contention for the top spot. That is, until a fatal flaw in the CLR’s aero launched one airborne flipping end over end in one of the most famous crashes in Le Mans history. As a result, Mercedes voluntarily withdrew all its cars from the race, turning it into a BMW versus Toyota contest.

As they raced into the night, two of the Toyotas crashed out. No 1 ended its run right before midnight and No 2 a few hours later. Through the night and into the next morning, one of the BMWs built up a strong lead, four laps ahead of its twin. The last remaining Toyota — driven by Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki and Keiichi Tsuchiya — was running a lap behind.

By mid-morning Katayama had settled into a constant pace, hoping not to over-exert the GT-One for a guaranteed podium finish. But when the lead BMW crashed with less than five hours to go, everything changed. Katayama realized he was now just a lap from the lead and pulled out all the stops. He began systematically reeling in the BMW, clocking a lap record of 3:35.032 in the process. By the final laps of the race Katayama had narrowed the gap to 22 seconds and was gaining on the BMW at the rate of seven seconds per lap. There was just enough time to close the gap, maybe a pass, for a squeaker of a finish if everything went perfectly.

It didn’t. A privateer BMW, unaware Katayama was behind him, forced the GT-One onto a curb. Debris punctured the left rear tire at over 200 mph. Miraculously, Katayama kept the car on the track, but unfortunately he had just passed pit row and the course was over 8 miles long. He limped the car back to the pits, got the tire changed, and charged out. But it was too late. The gap was too wide to close, and the GT-One ended the race in second place overall.

2012-13: It would take over a decade before Toyota returned to Sarthe. In the intervening years, the company would emerge as a pioneer in hybrid technology and their new race cars, the TS030, reflected that leadership. The new cars were propelled by a 530-horsepower 3.4-liter V8 mated to an electric-hybrid system capable of generating an additional 300 horsepower. Despite qualifying 3rd and 5th, however, neither TS030 finished the race — one due to a crash and another due to engine failure.

During Toyota’s absence Audi had become a dominant force at Le Mans, winning eleven times in 13 years. 2013 would add a twelfth victory to their tally, despite a valiant effort by Toyota. Audi claimed the lead early on and never lost it. Lap by lap, the Toyota fell further behind until the end, when the second place No 8 Toyota of Anthony Davidson, Stéphane Sarrazin and Sébastien Buemi was a full lap behind the lead Audi. The final podium slot was filled by another Audi not far behind, while the No 7 Toyota came in 4th, six laps down.

2014-15: Lessons learned brought Toyota back with a monster of a car in 2014. The TS040 increased the V8’s displacement to 3.7 liters, while the electric motors were cranked up to generate 473 horsepower for a total of a seriously powerful 986 horses. Kazuki Nakajima had set a blistering lap time during qualifying, placing his No 7 Toyota in pole position, followed by a Porsche 919 Hybrid and the No 8 Toyota filling out the front row.

Right off the bat, the No 7 took the lead with Alexander Wurz at the helm, followed closely by Nicolas Lapierre in its sister car. A sudden shower in hour two sent the No 8 car into the barriers when it aquaplaned during braking. Lapierre managed to limp it back to the pits for a lengthy repair session.

No matter, the No 7 held onto its lead until hour 14. Suddenly, the car came to a sudden stop and could move no further. The culprit, it turns out, was a piece of monitoring equipment required by the FIA that had malfunctioned, melting the car’s wiring harness. A tabulation after the race would see the car having led more laps than any other, but it’s day was done.

Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Lapierre scrambled back to a third place finish behind two Audis, but Toyota had been so favored that even a podium finish seemed a disappointing result. Despite losing Le Mans, the TS040 ended up winning the overall World Endurance Championship (of which Le Mans is a part) that year.

By 2015, the competition from Porsche and Audi had caught up, and the TS040 was never really a contender. The pair finished a 6th and 8th.

2016: If you’ve been keeping track, that’s four mechanical failures in the final stretches of the race (one of which was a piece of FIA-mandated monitoring that wasn’t even part of the race car proper), four second-place finishes, and four times where what seemed like sure wins were blown at the last minute (due to everything from equipment failures to tire blowouts). However, 2016 would be he worst of all.

Toyota’s new 986-horsepower TS050 Hybrid was widely considered to be the car to beat. Almost as soon as the race began, the two Toyotas secured their leads, running 1-2 for most of the race. Long through the night and into the following morning and afternoon, they maintained that position with Porsche’s 919 Hybrid chasing close behind.

Though the Porsche was able to wedge itself between the No 5 lead Toyota and the No 6 Toyota now running third, victory for Aichi had never seemed more inevitable. At 23 hours, 55 minutes Kazuki Nakajima was just about to take the No 5 into its last orbit of la Sarthe when he reported a loss of power over the radio. With one lap to go and Porsche about 1m14s behind, he persevered, only to have the car grind to a halt on its very last lap.

The Porsche flew past a few seconds later to claim victory, followed by the No 6 Toyota of Stéphane Sarrazin, Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi. Nakajima was able to get his car restarted and limped it around the circuit, but it was in vain. In the end, it received a Not Classified, having exceeded the minimum lap time (six minutes) needed in order to receive a proper ranking.

2017: That brings us to this week. Once again, Toyota’s TS050 was favored to win. The racing world had collectively wept for the team a year earlier. No matter how they felt about Toyota, to have fate so cruelly snatch victory away after a flawless performance was heart-rending. This year, fans old and new, as well as rivals making a one-time exception were eagerly cheering for redemption. This would turn out to be Toyota’s downfall.

Things were looking good during qualifying, when Kamui Kobabyashi lay down a lightning quick time destroying not only the lap record for Circuit de la Sarthe in its current configuration, but the all-time average speed set from before the chicanes were added to the Mulsanne Straight.

Toyota came armed with three cars this year, so in addition to the No 7 car of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Stéphane Sarrazin in pole position, the No 8 car qualified second, while the No 9 car held fifth. Right off the bat, the fastest No 7 car gained a firm lead. As night fell, the No 8 car came into the pits smoking, apparently needing serious repairs to its hybrid system. It was fine, though, as long as the favored No 7 Toyota continued to hold the position and run trouble-free, which it did for nine hours.

Then, after a routine pit stop, Kobayashi suffered a mysterious and catastrophic clutch failure, forcing the lead car to retire from the race. Less than an hour later, the No 9 car of José María López, Nicolas Lapierre and Yuji Kunimoto blew a tire as a result of contact with an LMP2 car. Lapierre, in an effort to get back to he pits as quickly as possible to repair the tire, tore up the rear of the car and damaged its hydraulic systems. It died 250 feet from the pit entrance, where it was forced to retire. Had Lapierre made it into the pits, rules would have allowed the team to push the car into the garage for repairs. As it stood, No 9 was out.

Later that night Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Anthony Davidson’s No 8 car was released back onto the track and completed the race in 8th place.

It wasn’t until days later that the reason behind the No 7 car’s clutch failure surfaced. According to SportsCar365, as Kobayashi’s Toyota sat at the end of pit lane, waiting for the go-ahead from the race marshals to get back on the track, driver Vincent Capillaire of LMP2’s Algarve Pro Racing ran across pit lane to give Kobayashi a thumbs-up.

The problem was, Capillaire’s orange and black-striped suit was nearly identical to that of the race marshals. Kobayashi started off, but was told to stop. In the confusion that followed, the car was restarted using the clutch, which quickly burned out.

Said Toyota LMP1 technical director Pascal Vasselon, “The clutch is not made at all to do that. The clutch is to start the combustion engine when the car is at speed; it’s not to start the complete car. So he had burned the clutch because he has been thrown into a situation which should not exist.”

It’s a highly irregular move for another driver to run across pit lane as Capillaire did, and he was fined. Ironically, he was actually cheering Kobayashi on and has since issued an apology: “I wanted to show my encouragement to the lead car, stopped in red a few meters in front of my box. Was a spontaneous encouragement, as it happens between pilots, and I was fined by the commissioners for this gesture and I admit it was inopportune.”

Toyota has let bygones be bygones, saying “We have fully accepted his apology and acknowledge that his sporting gesture was never intended to cause any negative consequences for our No 7 car…. We remain on good terms with Vincent and we consider the matter is now closed.”

As is Japanse custom, Toyota President Akio Toyoda had even more apologies to issue. In a heartfelt statement, he expressed his deep regrets first to his drivers:

I think I must first direct my opening words to our drivers.

To me, at Le Mans for the first time, our drivers said, “We want you up together with us at the center of the podium”…

In return, I said: “Drive all out. Trust the cars the mechanics readied for you. Enjoy Le Mans.”

Despite telling them such, I was not able to allow them to drive all out. This, I truly regret. Even though our drivers drove believing in our cars, I can only say how sorry and how full of regret I am.

I believe that the Toyota engineers, mechanics and parts suppliers, who built our cars for this battle, all feel the same.

Therefore, bearing the burden as a representative of all such people, please let me say once again: “Sorry we weren’t able to let you drive all out.”

The letter continued, addressing Toyota’s fans:

To all the fans who supported us believing in victory for Toyota, I am truly sorry that we were not able to meet your expectations.

And for believing in us and giving us your passionate support for 24 hours all the way to the end, I want to express my deepest appreciation. Thank you. Thank you all so very much.

Once again, Toyota will strive for the day on which we can, together, have smiles on our faces.

The string of mishaps Toyota has experienced is truly epic, but Toyota remains undaunted. They promise to return to Le Mans in 2018. Perhaps that will finally be the year when their fortunes are reversed, and a long overdue victory will reward years of heartbreak.

Images courtesy of Toyota.


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2 Responses to MOTORSPORT: A history of Toyota’s heartbreaks at Le Mans, Part 02

  1. Nigel says:

    Part 2 ? Soon…

  2. SHC says:

    Not sure Toyota will want to return to LeMans, after spending hundreds of Millions since the 80’s with little to show for it. And now the Automobile Club de l’oyes (ACO) that oversees LeMans and the World Endurance Cup (WEC) has emasculated LMP1 into insignificancy with just five entries this year. Unfortunately LeMans has become the home of “spec.” cars (see Ligier chassis) with a balance of power (BOP) that cripples innovation and performance.

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