Famous Five... Toyota's Le Mans near-misses

15th June 2017
Henry Hope-Frost

Among the extensive list of Le Mans statistics, the ‘most second-place finishes without a win: Toyota (5)’ entry ranks pretty high on the unpopular list. And when you cast your mind back to the last-gasp heartache of 2016, when the Japanese marque’s leading TS050 Hybrid ground to halt on the pit straight with a lack of power as it began its final lap, it seems extra cruel.


This year, Toyota fields three of its LMP1 prototypes in the 85th running of the French endurance classic, and arrives at La Sarthe having won both rounds of the 2017 World Endurance Championship – at Silverstone and Spa – with Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima. It was this trio that was robbed of victory at Le Mans last year, so I doubt you’d find many who’d begrudge them a maiden victory this time round. The team certainly acknowledges that it’s favourite for honours in this weekend’s race.

The sister car took a valiant runner-up spot in 2016, thanks to Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Stéphane Sarrazin, but it marked the fifth time Toyota has fallen short in its quest to tame sportscar racing’s biggest challenge. These, then, are the occasions that helped Toyota to be part of an unpopular statistic that with any luck it will expunge in 2017.



TS010 #33, crewed by Kenneth Acheson, Pierre-Henri Raphanel and  Masanori Sekiya, took second place in 1992, six laps adrift of the winning Peugeot. The sister 3.5-litre V10 TS010s posted an eighth-placed finish (with Teo Fabi, Jan Lammers and Andy Wallace) and a retirement due to engine failure (with David Brabham, Ukyo Katayama and Geoff Lees). A brace of older, 3.5-litre turbo V8 93C-V prototypes secured fifth and ninth.



After a trouncing in 1993, in which its best car finished fourth behind a trio of Peugeot 905s, Toyota returned to Le Mans for the first race without the V10 atmospheric screamers keen to make amends. In the end, though, its SARD Company-run 94C-V was beaten by just one lap by a curious road-car-based Porsche 962 clone. Eddie Irvine, Jeff Krosnoff and Mauro Martini stood on the second step of the podium that year, while the sister 94C-V of Steven Andskar, George Fouché and Bob Wollek took fourth. 


With low-volume production supercars, classed as GT1, forming the sharp end of the grid, Toyota brought a trio of GT-Ones to Le Mans in 1999, ready to go head to head with BMW and Mercedes in what was a dramatic era of sportscar racing. The #1 car secured pole position, thanks to former winner and World Sportscar Champion Martin Brundle, who shared with Emmanuel Collard and Vincenzo Sospiri, with the #2 machine of Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners and Allan McNish alongside. A third car, crewed by Japanese racers Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki and Keiichi Tsuchiya, lined up eighth. The race was an intense battle between Toyota and BMW, with the German firm prevailing after cruel late luck in the shape of a puncture had struck Katayama in the #3 GT-One. The winning margin was, again, just one lap. 


Toyota had taken the spoils in the final two rounds of the 2012 WEC, but had lost out to arch-rival Audi in the first two races – warm-ups for Le Mans – of 2013. Who would prevail in the big one in France? The two Toyota TS030 Hybrids qualified fourth and fifth behind the three Audi R18 e-tron quattros, but mixed it with them in the race. Ultimately, there were two of each of the LMP1 big-hitters in the top four after the twice-round-the-clock sprint, but sadly for Toyota, the red-white-and-blue machines occupied second and fourth places. The best of the Japanese racers, driven by Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Stéphane Sarrazin, was only a lap in arrears of the winning Audi. 


In one of the most infamous finishes to the great race in its long history, Toyota suffered its biggest blow in an event it had tried to win, on and off, for more than 30 years. Engine dramas almost within sight of the flag put paid to what looked like an historic victory for Toyota. It was scant consolation for the remaining car to finish second, for the fifth time, some three laps behind the Porsche 919 Hybrid that had inherited victory in a manner that even the German firm found scarcely believable. The sympathy and camaraderie towards Toyota, particularly from Porsche, which saluted its rival’s effort in an advertising campaign, was incredible and only strengthened the team’s and its fans’ resolve for 2017…

Photography courtesy of LAT

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