Doug Nye: Toyota finally gets its 24-hour pay-off

26th June 2018
doug_nye_headshot.jpg Doug Nye

Did you follow Le Mans this year? The race overall most certainly wasn’t the most exciting, with Toyota facing the daunting prospect of potentially beating itself – as it did on the last two laps last year. The giant Japanese company’s investment in attempting to win the 24-Hour race since. 

Pioneering Toyota Group 7 sports-prototype car driven by Sachio Fukuzawa in Japan, 1968.

Pioneering Toyota Group 7 sports-prototype car driven by Sachio Fukuzawa in Japan, 1968.

Like their arch rivals Nissan and Mazda, Toyota were involved in sports prototype racing throughout the 1980s but on a generally intermittent basis within Europe. They actually began Group C endurance racing in 1982, though only in Japan. Their programme involved a Dome-built silhouette Coupe derived from the Celica Coupe – but with the 2.1-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine mounted in the rear - and they called it the Toyota Celica C. Toyota’s adopted tuning company – Tachi-Ohiwa Motorsport – better known as TOM’s – entered this car in the 1982 Fuji 6-Hours which was a full round of the FIA’s contemporary World Endurance Championship. Co-driven by Hoshino/Tachi/Suzuki, the car finished a distant fifth.

For 1983 Dome won a Toyota contract to build all their competition chassis. The sheet-aluminium monocoque Dome Toyota 83C proved an effective piece of kit. Three were built, two with Toyota engines, and the third kept as a test chassis with a 3.9-litre Cosworth DFL V8 power unit. The cars were dogged by handling problems that year but between 1984 and 1987 Toyotas were run in Japanese Championship racing by five different teams. By 1987 Toyota’s corporate ambitions saw them hire World Champion Alan Jones’s services as a driver and the race operation was taken in house as Toyota Team TOM.  A pair of Toyota 87Cs modified by ex-Dome chief designer Masahiro Ohkuni ran at Le Mans that year, but failed to finish.  Alan Jones and Geoff Lees later led the Fuji international race, after qualifying on the front grid row beside the pole-sitting March-Nissan.  Toyota recognised that Jaguar and Porsche had more power, and for 1988 they adopted a twin-tubocharged3.1-litre V8 engine in a new all carbon-fibre monocoque car designed by Dome’s Syunji Tsuchiya. 


But for Le Mans the new engine was deemed unready, so they stuck with the old engine and bodywork on the new chassis.  Geoff Lees promptly qualified fifth fastest and both cars finished – 12th and 24th…

New regulations for 1988-89 forced manufacturers to enter the entire World Championship series if they wanted to appear at Le Mans. Toyota set up a TOM’s team operation in England and the latest V8 cars were fast, but unreliable and too thirsty for the fuel-conservation aspect of Group C racing.  For 1990 engine size was increased to 3.5-litres but the year was so disappointing that Toyota withdrew from the World Championship – saying they would return in 1992.

They hired vastly experienced British designer Tony Southgate – ex-Lola, Eagle, BRM, Shadow, and the TWR-Jaguar operation – to create for them an entirely new car with a 3.5-litre naturally aspirated – non-turbocharged – RV10 engine. Toyota gave this new car its debut in the final round of the 1991 WSC season at the Autopolis circuit in Japan.

The new car, co-driven by Britons Geoff Lees and Andy Wallace finished 6th overall.

Toyota’s new TS010 Coupe cars confronted the Peugeot 905 into 1992, and at Monza, the Japanese marque scored its maiden victory after the leading Peugeot crashed – their successful driver pairing Geoff Lees and Hitoshi Ogawa. 


Three TS010s were fielded at Le Mans – one finishing 2nd – six laps behind the winning Peugeot – whose performance the Japanese could never quite match.

When both the World Sportscar Championship and All Japan Sports Prototype Championships were cancelled in 1993, the works Toyota TS010s had nowhere to race except at Le Mans. Fourth and 8th places were poor reward for the massive investment.  Following this race, with no place to compete, the TS010 was officially retired and Toyota concentrated on American IMSA racing with Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers team.

Back at Le Mans in 1998, the latest Toyota GT-Ones challenged for the lead, only for the effort to evaporate in unreliability.

Toyota then decided to follow Mercedes-Benz’s approach and developed the GT-One into a GTP class prototype. Although the CLK-GTR required extensive modifications to become the CLR, the GT-One was already close enough to a prototype that extensive redesign was not needed.

Toyota entered the final hour of Le Mans with their lone surviving GT-One chasing the remaining BMW for the lead, but it suffered a tyre failure, and would finish second to Bavaria’s finest.


Toyota then turned to Formula 1 – again investing hugely, and proving quite incapable of the rapid reaction and technical commitment necessary to win races. The Japanese giant eventually abandoned Formula 1 – an awful loss of face – but returned to the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2012, with the TS030 Hybrid closed-prototype LMP1 car.

The new car featured a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) regenerative braking device produced by Toyota Racing Development to charge a super capacitor (battery). The extra 300bhp power from this system drove to the rear wheels, and the TS030 became the first petrol-hybrid car to compete in the WEC. At Le Mans poor Anthony Davidson survived his spectacular chicane collision and somersault in one of the works cars, and again Toyota’s Le Mans programme failed. 


But at the subsequent Sao Paulo 6-Hour race in Brazil, Toyota’s Alexander Wurz took the TS030 Hybrid's first pole position and with Nicolas Lapierre secured Toyota’s first victory in the new WEC.

Toyota opted to run one TS030 Hybrid for the entire 2013 WEC season with a second vehicle participating in selected rounds including Le Mans – challenging Audi – but not beating them.

At Le Mans Audi out-strategised Toyota, and the Japanese effort finished second, again. They won at Fuji – before regulation change for 2014 rendered the TS030 obsolete.

Toyota was nothing if not tenacious – announcing the TS040 Hybrid for 2014. Two cars failed at Le Mans, and in the 2015 Toyota could not match Audi and Porsche’s race pace.

And so – in 2016 – Toyota introduced their definitive TS050 Hybrid Coupe endurance racing works car. Le Mans proved more successful as the new cars led the Porsches. As the race drew to a close, the Toyota No 5 was leading the No 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid, only for Toyota driver Kazuki Nakajima agonisingly to report over the radio link severe power loss – and within the last six minutes they lost the 24-Hour race they had moments before seemed poised – at last – to win…


Still – with very Japanese stoicism – the company persevered. Le Mans 2017 saw the Toyota TS050s in their latest guise leading convincingly, but after ten hours leader Kamui Kobayashi’s Toyota suffered a clutch failure – and a Porsche 919 Hybrid won again.

And so to last weekend.  Both Porsche and Audi having shut down their Le Mans programmes, 2018’s LMP1 top class was a two-horse race between both Toyotas. The two TS050 Hybrid Coupes dominated totally. Toyota became the second Japanese marque to win Le Mans following Mazda's triumph in 1991. This was tremendous for the victorious driver trio of Fernando AlonsoSebastian Buemi, and Kazuki Nakajima – most especially of course for Alonso – after his Formula 1 nightmares with McLaren-Honda and now McLaren-Renault.


The media have made much of the Spaniard’s quest to join Graham Hill as winner of a Triple Crown of great racing achievements.  For some daft reason they commonly list victory in the Le Mans 24-Hours, the Indy ‘500’ – and the Monaco GP – as the three legs of this ‘trifecta’.  Well Graham certainly won each of those – but in period (I promise you) we didn’t even consider the Monaco GP as part of Graham’s Triple Crown. Oh no – it was a far bigger fish – victory in the Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship that we added to the Indy ‘500’ and Le Mans. 

Now Fernando Alonso has two Drivers’ World Championships to his name – in addition to his Monaco GP wins of 2006-2007 which I discard from relevance as cited above – plus this Le Mans win – and after his promising showing upon his Indy ‘500’ debut last year, he could plainly win there too. 

Dear old Graham won his two World Championship titles in 1962 and 1968.  He won at Indy in 1966, and at Le Mans – with Henri Pescarolo in the works Matra – in 1972.  And of course he won the Monaco GP – five times, no less – in 1962-65 and 1968 – so really he had a Quadruple Crown if the dumb media persist in this Monaco obsession.  But, trust me – the ‘trifecta’ dating from Graham’s achievement in 1972 involved World title, Indy and Le Mans.  But well done Toyota – and Fernando Alonso – and his team-mates. It was lovely to see and I am delighted for this great Spanish driver particularly. With his help, finally the corporate investment – and Japanese tenacity – paid off…

Photography courtesy of The GP Library and Motorsport Images

  • Doug Nye

  • Toyota

  • Le Mans

  • le_mans_alonso_goodwood_01022018_list.jpg

    Doug Nye

    Doug Nye: Le Mans – An F1 driver's greatest challenge

  • jaguar_gpl_27071607.jpg

    Doug Nye

    Doug Nye: Jaguar and Ecurie Ecosse – sportscar kings

  • gpl-goodwood-aston-martin-db3s-63-emu-hits-the-apex.jpeg

    Doug Nye

    Doug Nye: DB3S – The Best Of British