Toyota’s near misses at Le Mans

Motor racing has a cruel side to it, but during the 24 Hours of Le Mans that cruel side seems to be appearing more often than anywhere else. For over a century the French endurance classic has pushed man and machine to their absolute limits, on many occasions breaking machinery and breaking dreams.

Toyota owns a special place in the history of the race. The Japanese automotive overlord has not only been trying to win Le Mans for more than three decades and earned an undesired record of most second-place finishes without a win, but, above all, Toyota became the protagonist of some of the most memorable heartbreaks in the history of the race.

Toyota LMP1 at FIA WEC Prologue 2018

It all started in a rather modest manner, nothing like the LMP1 effort of today. The Toyota name first appeared at Le Mans in 1975, as an engine supplier of Sigma Automotive. The Sigma MC75 powered by a turbocharged engine from Celica ran in the top 10 at some stage but failed to finish. A decade later came Toyota’s first official involvement at Le Mans, when the Toyota 85C-L become the first-ever Japanese car to finish the 24 Hours of Le Mans, crossing the line 12th overall. In 1987 TOM’S become a fully factory-backed team.

But it wasn’t until the ‘90s that Toyota became a contender and it also wasn’t until then that its litany of near misses started. Toyota’s ’92 challenger, the TS010 powered by a 3.5-litre V10, was a formidable force. The car shared by Masanori Sekiya, Pierre-Henri Raphanel and Kenny Acheson was fastest at the speed trap and set the fastest lap of the race but a series of repairs buried the chances of a victory and resulted in a second-place finish.

Two years Toyota’s only presence was in a form of privately entered, updated versions of the C2-class 94C-Vs. The #4 car (Steven Andskar, George Fouche, Bob Wollek) led for eight hours until it was hit by gearbox and differential problems. Later on the #1 car (Eddie Irvine, Mauro Martini, Jeff Krosnoff) was comfortably in the lead with only an hour and a half remaining when a gear linkage problem forced a 13-minute repair. The #1 car finished second, a lap behind the winners, with the #4 car crossing the line in fourth.

When Toyota returned to Le Mans in 1998 gone were the days of Group C. A new breed of cars ruled at Circuit de La Sarthe – the mighty GT1s. The rules required manufacturers to produce a low number of road-going versions, hence some of the world’s most extreme supercars were made during the era, with a beautiful Toyota GT-One among them.

The TS020 GT-One was a favourite. The #28 car (Martin Brundle, Emmanuel Collard, Eric Helary) led in the early stages until it was forced to stop for a brake change. Then the #29 car (Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners, Geoff Lees) took over the lead and enjoyed it for a handful of hours until, with 80 minutes remaining, a transmission problem caused a lengthy pit stop. In the end, the #27 car (Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki, Keiichi Tsuchiya), classified ninth, was the only Toyota that finished the race.

In ’99 Toyota came back even stronger, starting out with locking out the front row. As the race went into the night two cars were lost due to crashes, with #27 (shared by Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki and Keiichi Tsuchiya) Toyota’s only remaining car. Katayama suffered a puncture at over 200mph while closing on the leading BMW. The wounded car limped to the pits, received a new set of tyres and went on to finish second.

In the 2000s Toyota turned its attention to Formula 1 and it wasn’t until 2012 when it finally started its latest chapter of Le Mans history. In 2013 Toyota with its TS030 HYBRID shared by Anthony Davidson, Stephane Sarrazin and Sebastien Buemi finished second, again only a lap down, but this time the team never threatened the winning Audi.

In 2014 Toyota had the edge over Audi during the night when a problem with an FIA sensor stranded Kazuki Nakajima (who shared the #7 car with Alexander Wurz and Stephane Sarrazin) out on the track.

Two years later Toyota suffered one of the biggest heartbreaks in the history of the race. The TS050HYBRID looked destined to win, running one-two for most of the distance. With five minutes to go the leading #5 car in the hands of Kazuki Nakajima suffered a power loss – result of a fractured connection in an airline between turbocharger and intercooler. Porsche snatched the win in the very last moment.

In 2017 Toyota was the car to beat once again, but only until a clutch problem. The issue was a result of a bizarre incident that occurred in the pit lane. Nine and a half hours into the race the #7 car of Kamui Kobayashi was parked at the end of pitlane during a safety car period. Kobayashi mistook an LMP2 driver giving him a thumbs up for a marshal giving him a sign to go, soon after the team told him to stop again, that in turn lead to a failure.

Toyota has endured a rotten luck at Le Mans in recent years, but some believe that there’s no such thing as bad luck, there is only bad planning. Is that indeed the case with Toyota? Difficult to say, but one thing is for sure – this year Toyota will return to Le Mans prepared better than ever before. At Motorland Aragon the team simulated a variety of issues in order to prepare themselves for different crisis situations. More than 20 different problems were simulated, including a turbo issue that cost them victory in the 2016 edition. Running on three wheels was also practised.

The team has lost a formidable competitor in the shape of Porsche and its biggest threat will come from privately entered LMP1 cars in what will look like a battle of a Goliath with a small army of Davids. It also secured services of one of the highest-rated drivers in the world, a certain Fernando Alonso. It’s simply now or never for Toyota.