After months of anticipation, Toyota has finally pulled the covers off its Le Mans Hypercar – the GR010 Hybrid. It marks the latest chapter in Toyota’s Le Mans story.
The story of Toyota and Le Mans is one that has been written since the mid 1980s and has featured so many twists and turns that some Hollywood executive might want to have a look at picking it up for adaptation some day.
Which predecessors paved the way for the GR010 Hybrid’s road to Le Mans? MotorsportWeek.com takes a closer look.
Toyota’s motorsport story begins in the late 1960s, when the Japanese manufacturer built its first purpose-built racer. Developed in cooperation with the Yamaha Motor Corporation, the Toyota 7 was an open-top V8 powered machine that exclusively saw action domestically, although it would often be pitted against American Can-Am machinery.
Toyota’s name first appears at Le Mans in 1975. While Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx took the overall win with their Gulf-liveried Mirage GR8, a small Japanese manufacturer named Sigma Automotive entered the race for the third time. Powering their Sigma MC75 is a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, provided by Toyota. The plucky Sigma performed admirably, but ultimately would retire with engine issues.
Sigma would not return to Le Mans again until 1990, but in 1980, Japanese constructor Dome had another crack at the event. Teaming up with Toyota tuning firm Tom’s, it built an A40 Toyota Celica and intended to race at Le Mans. It lacked official support from Toyota, however, and failed to qualify.
Stepping into the ring
The failure of the Celica attempt led to a change of direction and in 1985, a decade after Sigma’s first attempt, Le Mans was introduced to the Dome-designed, Tom’s-built 85C Group C prototype. While not a factory effort, the car was powered by a Toyota engine and is often considered the first time Toyota officially competed at Le Mans.
Dome and TOM’s both fielded a single car as separate teams. The #86 Dome 85C-L failed to finish, but the #23 Tom’s-entered 85C finished twelfth overall. It marked the first time a Japanese car reached the chequered flag at Le Mans.
Both teams came back for 1986, this time with the improved and upgraded 86C. In a year where Nissan and Mazda both ramped up its Le Mans efforts, neither cars made the finish. Toyota’s presence, however, would only increase after 1986.
After two years of supplying engines to privateer efforts, the Japanese firm officially stepped into the ring in 1987. Under the Toyota Team Tom’s banner, it would enter two Toyota 87C-Ls, although it would once again not see the chequered flag. Toyota would continue to struggle throughout the late 1980s, entering the 88C and later the twin-turbo V8 powered 89C-V, but results were poor.
1990s: coming of age
If the 1980s saw Toyota take its first shots at Le Mans, the following decade would be where it would evolve into a true force to be reckoned with, missing out on that illustrious first victory on a number of occasions.
In 1990, Toyota entered three 90C-Vs, one of which was entered by a returning Sigma Automotive under the Toyota Team SARD banner. While it was beaten by Nissan, the Toyota Team Tom’s #36 90C-V would achieve the first top ten finish in sixth place, the highest finish yet for Toyota.
After skipping Le Mans in 1991, Toyota returned with an all-new car. Powered by a 3.5 litre V10, the fearsome TS010 was Toyota’s most serious challenger yet, and would bring the manufacturer to the brink of overall victory for the first time.
The TS010 proved a quick car at Le Mans, setting the fastest lap and the highest top speed, but crucially, not the race win. A series of repairs cost the #33 TS010 of Masanori Sekiya, Pierre-Henri Raphanel and Kenny Acheson valuable time and it would finish second, six laps behind the winnng Peugeot.
There was reason to celebrate for Toyota, however, as further down, a privately entered 92C-V outpaced newer machinery and took a class victory in C2.
In 1993, Toyota entered no less than five cars into the race and the TS010s and 93C-Vs locked out much of the top ten. The TS010 was, however, convincingly beaten by Peugeot, as the French manufacturer sweeped the podium with its 905. 1993 would mark the last year of Toyota’s factory involvement, as the Group C regulations were abandoned and Toyota’s factory support went with it.
In 1994, some of the old 94C-V machinery was allowed to compete under the new LMP1 regulations and once again, Toyota missed out on that illustrious first win due to mechanical issues.
Privateer entries from both SARD and Trust held the lead at various stages in a nailbiting race. The #1 SARD-entered 94C-V looked to have the race won before a transmission issue in the closing hours gave the win to the infamous Dauer Porsche 962. Mauro Martini, Jeff Krosnoff and Eddie Irvine finished second, equaling the best result from 1991, but it was a somber affair.
Not only did Toyota miss out on victory again, the team was still grieving from the death of Roland Ratzenberger, who was supposed to drive for the team but died in a crash at Imola earlier in the year. Irvine was brought in as a late replacement, but the team carried Ratzenberger’s name on the car as a tribute. This particular 94C-V can be viewed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum, where it is a permanent exhibit.
And that was it for Toyota’s prototype efforts for most of the 1990s. Apart from a few SARD-entered Supras in 1995 and 1996, Toyota was absent from the top class for nearly half a decade. But when it returned, it did so with a vengeance.
Toyota returned to Le Mans in 1998 with a car that carried the code name TS020, but has become far more famous under the more commonly used name GT-One.
Considered by a fair few to still be one of the best looking cars to ever race at Le Mans, it showed that Toyota meant business and really wanted that first win. It entered three cars, first in the fiercely competitive GT1 class, and a year later in the LMGTP. But as it turns out, it just wasn’t meant to be.
In 1998, it battled against Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Nissan and McLaren in a fierce fight. As fate would have it, the #29 GT-One in the hands of Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners and Geoff Lees led on Sunday morning, having fought its way back up after an earlier gearbox failure.
Heartbreakingly, with two hours remaining, the replacement gearbox failed too, and victory was gifted to Porsche – the last it would score until 2015.
Even more heartbreak followed a year later. Initially, the stage was set for a three-way fight between Toyota, BMW and Mercedes, but it became a straight fight between Toyota and BMW when Mercedes withdraw following a pair of spectacular flips from the Mercedes CLRs.
Come Sunday morning, a single GT-One seemed to be heading for victory as it was chasing the leading BMW, with Ukyo Katayama closing the gap down at a rapid rate. With the clock ticking, it seemed like Katayama would be able to capture the lead and finally win Le Mans, until a left rear puncture at high speed shattered Toyota’s dreams.
The car made it to the finish, but once again in second place. Victory had eluded Toyota once more. The Japanese giant would not return to Le Mans for well over a decade.
The hybrid age
Toyota finally made its return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans as part of the newly created FIA World Endurance Championship in 2012. Toyota had begun to establish itself as one of the leading light in hybrid mobility, and therefore it wasn’t much of a surprise that it came back with the hybrid-powered TS030 Hybrid to battle Audi in the LMP1 class of the new series.
It’s Le Mans return, however, did not go smoothly. It entered two cars, and neither made it to the finish. One of the two cars retired with mechanical failures, while the other became involved in a spectacular backflip accident in the hands of Anthony Davidson.
One year later, it would finish second again as the TS030 was no match for the might of Audi’s diesel R18s.
In 2014, however, Toyota introduced the TS040 Hybrid and instantly proved a far greater threat to Audi. At Le Mans it took pole position on the hands of Kazuki Nakajima and during the race, the two Toyotas quickly moved into a one-two formation.
A crash in the rain caused the #8 Toyota in the hands of Nicolas Lapierre to drop out of contention, but the #7 Toyota carried on, seemingly headed for victory until, unbelievably, it all went wrong again.
An FIA-mandated piece of monitoring equipment malfunctioned, which caused a wiring loom to melt. Kazuki Nakajima was stopped dead in his tracks, and again, a certain win slipped away as Audi took its final win at Le Mans. In 2015, the TS040 was outgunned by Porsche and Audi and had no hope of winning.
Unbelievably, after a long history of mechanical troubles, the worst was yet to come when Toyota debuted the TS050 Hybrid in 2016. Once again, the car was the one to beat and outpaced the Porsches throughout the race until, in the final minutes, Kazuki Nakajima reported a loss of power.
Heartbreakingly, Toyota’s Le Mans curse had struck again as a turbo component and Nakajima crawled to a halt on the main straight as Porsche won for a second consecutive year.
For 2017, Toyota entered three cars, but again, it all went wrong. The first car suffered a hybrid failure and dropped out of contention, but during the night hours, it al fell apart. First, Kamui Kobayashi fell victim to a bizarre clutch failure due to a pit lane mixup.
Less then an hour later, Nicolas Lapierre made contact with an LMP2 car and suffered a pucture. The damage he sustained from trying to get the car back to the pits was to much, and it too retired.
Finally, in 2018, after decades of trying and decades of misfortune, Toyota finally won Le Mans overall when Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso led home a one-two for the Japanese manufacturer.
They would repeat the trick one year later, with Buemi and Nakajima partnering Brendon Hartely for the TS050 Hybrid’s third and final victory in 2020.
With the launch of the GR010 Hybrid, a new chapter in Toyota’s history of Le Mans starts. Will it be as dominant as the TS050 Hybrid? Or will it fall victim to so many of the gremlins that Toyota has experienced before? Only time will tell.
All images provided to MotorsportWeek.com by Toyota Gazoo Racing