24 Hours of Le Mans: a long story that ends well for Toyota

June 19, 2016, 2:57 p

24 Hours of Le Mans: a long story that ends well for Toyota

June 19, 2016, 2:57 p.m., at the start of its last lap, the leading Toyota driven by Japanese driver Kazuki Nakajima came to a halt on the pit straight, after leading the 24 Hours of Le Mans from the end. morning after an epic fight against Porsche and Audi.

The amazement that gripped the members of the team, their amazement and then their tears, these images have gone around the planet. The injustice of a benign failure – a split air intake manifold – is unanimously recognized. The brand has definitely won the respect of its competitors and the sympathy of the press and the public, including the least informed viewers. The victories will come later, five in a row between 2018 and 2022, and for this 2023 edition Toyota is obviously among the big favorites. But the road has been long, very long.

From the 1970s, Toyota had been occasionally represented in the Sarthe as an engine manufacturer. But the brand's first official entry into the 24 Hours of Le Mans dates back to 1985, with two cars built around an aluminum monocoque and using an engine derived from the series, a small 2.1-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder only. The modesty of their power clearly appears on the time sheet, since the two Toyotas qualify in 24th and 31st places, 30 seconds from pole position, certainly historic because signed by Hans-Joachim Stuck in 3'14''88 in the driving a Porsche 962C at an average of 251.7 km/h. A record that will stand until 2017. But the Japanese engineers were probably right to bet on reliability since, if the No. 38 retired overnight due to clutch failure, the No. 36 led in particular by Satoru Nakajima ( father of Kazuki who will make the headlines in 2016) rallies the finish with an encouraging 12th place.

In 1986, the two Toyota 86C differed from the 85C by corrected aerodynamics in order to obtain more downforce. Qualified 40th, the No. 36 retired shortly before midnight due to engine failure. Hardly better placed on the grid (30th), the n°38 will on the other hand have an honorable race going up to 7th place, before a turbo failure stops it one hour from the end. It begins… The following year, the 87C has a new 4-cylinder turbo whose power has been increased. No doubt to the detriment of reliability… The first retired after 90 minutes of racing, the second at 8:30 p.m.

These dry results should not however hide a continuous evolution of the Japanese prototype which, over the years, has notably lost weight (760 kilos only, against 900 for the Jaguar XJR-9) and gained in agility. In 1988, faced with exceptional opposition comprising no less than 10 Porsches, 5 Jaguars, 4 Nissans and 2 Sauber Mercedes, the two 88Cs went on to finish, finishing 12th and 24th.

To end the decade, Toyota is reorganizing. The Toyota Tom's structure continues to handle track operations, but the cars are designed and produced by TRD (Toyota Racing Development). And the new 89CVs look great. Their carbon monocoque chassis now houses a 3.2-liter biturbo V8. But, in 1989, for their first appearance, the two prototypes were eliminated before nightfall, the first due to engine failure and the second following an accident.

The following year, the team entered 3 Toyota 90CVs with finally a result that went in the right direction, the n°36 avoiding problems to finish 6th, best result until then, while the n°37 had been hit by the leading Nissan at the start of the evening and that No. 38 had suffered engine failure at the time of mass.

The change in technical regulations, establishing from 1991 the use of 3.5 l atmospheric engines instead of turbo engines, caused the sending to the museum of a whole generation of cars, including the 90 CV. Not being ready to meet the new regulations, Toyota refrained from taking part in the event that year. And it's a Mazda that wins, the Hiroshima brand thus signing the first victory for a Japanese car in the Sarthe...

A pretty prototype with a 3.5-litre V10 engine, the Toyota TS010 entered the new World Sportscar Championship in 1992, starting by winning the first race at Monza ahead of a Peugeot 905. Two months later in La Sarthe, one of the three Toyotas driven by the Japanese Masanori Sekiya, the Irishman Kenny Acheson and the Frenchman Pierre-Henri Raphanel manages, at the end of a solidly conducted race, to insert itself between the two Peugeots on the second step of the podium . The other two TS010s have for their part experienced various small problems of youth.

Problems may not all be solved the following year as Toyota (4th) proves powerless against the Peugeot steamroller which celebrates the last appearance of the 905 at Le Mans by achieving the hat-trick.

In 1994, the event welcomed the new GT1 category, which brought together cars originally homologated to circulate on the road. But the regulations do not impose a minimum production. This gave Jochen Dauer the idea of ​​registering a copy of the Porsche 962C, winner six times at Le Mans, and entering the 24 Hours – in the GT category therefore – two racing versions under the name Dauer-Porsche. At the same time, for the sake of equality, prototypes, like the TS010, are slowed down by increasing their minimum mass and limiting their tank size.

During the race, the Dauers also experiencing their share of minor problems, the two Toyotas took the lead before nightfall. The #1 Toyota of crew Jeff Krosnoff, Eddie Irvine and Mauro Martini will keep it until, at 2:30 p.m., it slows down and comes to a stop at the end of the pit straight. The gearbox linkage has failed. The American driver Krosnoff ejected from the cockpit, opened the rear bonnet and engaged a gear by hand before leaving for a full lap at reduced speed in order to return to the pits. Meanwhile, the two Dauers were back in the lead and the commentators said, "It is said that Toyota will never win at Le Mans. Leaving wild, Irish driver Eddie Irvine managed to regain second place on the last lap.

From 1995, prototypes like the TS010 were no longer allowed at Le Mans, GTs took their place along with some spider prototypes. That year, as in 1996, Toyota was represented in Sarthe by the Japanese team Sard, which developed a car based on the Supra by housing in the front compartment the 2.1-litre 4-cylinder previously used on the 87 and 88C prototypes. In 1995, the Supra finished in an anonymous 24th place, far from the victorious McLaren, while the following year, it was eliminated on Sunday morning following an accident.

After a year-long hiatus, Toyota officially returned in 1998 with a new car born out of a new organization. It is the Toyota Team Europe (TTE) based in Cologne which, after having brilliantly defended the colors of the brand in the World Rally Championship (3 titles for manufacturers and 4 for drivers!) is responsible for developing a new car for Le Mans. Very beautiful, very impressive, the Toyota GT-One (TS020) was born under the direction of the experienced French engineer André de Cortanze. A real size, which notably signed the design of the Peugeot 905, the Ligier and the Sauber in Formula 1, after having studied at Renault Sport F1 and Alpine Renault. In carbon, of course, the hull accommodates a 3.6-litre twin-turbo V8 from the previous C groupsets.

After an early start at 2 p.m. due to the France-Brazil Football World Cup final at the Stade de France, the race quickly turned in favor of Toyota against Porsche and Nissan. Driven by crew Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners and Geoff Lees, the #28 led the race for more than ten hours. But it stopped at 12:50 p.m. in Arnage, with a broken gearbox. To top it off, the already very late No. 27 burst a tire a few cables from the goal and finished 9th.

In 1999, Toyota arrived – once again – as the big favorite against the GTs of Mercedes and the LMP1 prototypes of BMW. Moreover, the GT-One n° 1 and 2 occupy the first row of the grid and lead the race for the first hour. But the opposition was fierce and it was the BMWs who then took the lead, while Mercedes finally decided to withdraw when, for the third time this week, one of the CLRs, then driven by Peter Dumbreck, takes off in Indianapolis to land 20 meters from the runway in the middle of the forest.

Then, and as usual, the fate is hounded on Toyota which loses the n°1 around 11 p.m. when Martin Brundle loses control of it under braking from one of the Mulsanne chicanes. At 3 o'clock, it was the n°2, then second, which suffered a serious accident following contact with a slower car in the fast curve which preceded the Dunlop chicane. Injured in the back, the Belgian Thierry Boutsen will end his career as a professional pilot.

Finally, the Toyota n°3, driven by an all-Japanese crew (Suzuki, Tsuchiva, Katayama) finds itself in the early afternoon on the verge of winning the race. It goes up indeed in a very consistent way on the leading BMW and for the commentators, there is no doubt that it will soon overtake it. Until, less than an hour from the finish, the left rear tire burst, failing to send it into the rail. She will still finish second. "It is said that Toyota...blah blah blah", especially since the brand had announced in January that it was going to enter Formula 1. Ten years later, on November 4, 2009, Toyota announced its withdrawal of Formula 1, having never managed to win a Grand Prix after 139 attempts.

Technically laid off after the end of the F1 program, the European team Toyota Motorsport managed to convince president Akio Toyoda to return to Le Mans. A decision facilitated, or made obvious, by the evolution of the technical regulations which admits, from 2012, the hybrid motorization. The brand that invented the Prius could hardly not be.

Struggling with a difficult financial situation, Peugeot suddenly decided to withdraw from the championship in January 2012, which undoubtedly contributed to accelerating the entry of the Toyota TS030, which made its first laps in the race at the 24 Hours. from the Mans. Faced with the Audi V6 Diesel, the TS030 uses a 3.4-litre petrol V8. And while the Audis use the electric motor to drive their front axle and take on the Quattro name, the Toyota motor-generator is located on the rear axle.

Technical definitions a priori very distant which do not however harm the quality of the show. The first quarter of the event was even very animated by a fight at loggerheads between the Audi n° 2 of Capello-Kristensen-McNish and the Toyota n° 7 of Wurz-Lapierre-Nakajima. It looked like a sprint, and at 8:30 p.m. Anthony Davidson at the wheel of Toyota n°8 was hit by a Ferrari from the GTE group at the entrance to one of the Mulsanne chicanes. The Toyota loops before crashing into the protective barriers. Moment of anguish in the Japanese stand, because the British pilot is injured. A double fracture to the vertebrae which fortunately will not compromise the rest of his career. The second Toyota will retire before halfway through a technical problem, but overall the performance of the Japanese cars is rather encouraging for the future. The following year the duel with Audi was even tighter and the two Toyotas made it to the finish, the n°8 climbing on the second step of the podium while the n°7 finished 4th after being delayed by an exit from the road. .

2014 marks Porsche's return to the premier LMP1 category with a 919 Hybrid featuring a small supercharged 4-cylinder V with 2 liters of displacement associated with an electric motor-generator placed on the front axle. Toyota inaugurates the new TS040 which combines a 3.7 l V8 associated with two motor-generators, one on each axle. In total, the power peak reaches 1,000 horsepower!

From that year, we can see the extent to which technical regulations, based on strict control of energy consumption, favor both the creativity of engineers and the spectacle. Between the V6-powered Audi Diesels, the V8 Toyotas and the 4-cylinder Porsches, the battle raged right from the tests. In car No. 7, Kazuki Nakajima becomes the first Japanese driver to take pole position at Le Mans at the wheel of a Japanese car. This will allow his crew to take the lead from the start and hardly let go until the early morning, when bad luck strikes again in the form of an electrical problem which causes the retirement. No. 8 had meanwhile been considerably delayed from the end of the afternoon after being caught in a pileup caused by a storm as sudden as violent. His comeback will take him to 3rd position.

The following year, Toyota arrived in Sarthe with two TS040s whose reliability had been improved. And indeed, the two cars will run like clockwork without knowing any serious alert, but they will also prove unable to keep pace with the Porsches and Audis to finish in very frustrating 6th and 8th places.

What image can we retain of the 2016 edition other than that of the Toyota n°5 immobilized in the straight line of the pits three minutes from the finish? For Stéphane Sarrazin, driver of #6 ranked 2nd: "I'm not a believer, but if there's someone up there, we really had to do something wrong to deserve this. Because until that incredible penultimate lap and Kazuki Nakajima shouting over the radio, "No power, no power!" ", the race had been simply superb, the very intense and very tight fight for the Japanese brand to finally beat Porsche and Audi very nicely. Eventually, the three brands will find themselves on the podium, but in no order: Porsche-Toyota-Audi. That year, Toyota entered two new TS050s powered by a new 2.4-liter twin-turbo V6 developing 500 horsepower combined with two 250 horsepower electric motor generators distributed over the front and rear axles.

After this incredible misfortune, it was clear that the hour of revenge was going to ring in 2017. For the first time the team entered three cars, and displayed its ambitions from practice. At the wheel of the No. 7, Kamui Kobayashi sets the perfect lap and takes pole position at an average of 251.8 km/h, beating the track record which dates back to 1981, before the installation of the chicanes in the Mulsane. . Number 8 completes the first line of the grid.

But this time it's an incredible rout that awaits the Japanese team. It was first the n°8 which, struck by a technical problem on the front motor-generator, spent two hours in the pits. It was then the n°7 which, taking advantage of the entry into the track of the safety car, carried out a routine refueling. When leaving, Kobayashi stops at the end of the pit lane as he intimates the red light on while waiting for the safety car to pass. At this moment an incredible misunderstanding occurs: dressed in an orange jumpsuit, the color of marshals, a pilot springs from one of the boxes at the end of the aisle, making gestures of encouragement for the pilot. of the Toyota. Surprised, he understands that an official is beckoning him to start, and so he runs. Immediately, the stand yells into his helmet that the light is red and that he must stop. In the meantime, the heat engine started up. Panicked, Kobayashi did not take the time to relaunch the starting procedure which required starting in electric mode. At the green light, it therefore starts on the heat engine, which has the effect of instantly burning the clutch, absolutely not designed to withstand this effort. No. 7 will drag itself to the Hunaudières before stopping there definitively. It's 1:15 a.m.

Twenty minutes later, Nicolas Lapierre, in the No. 9, overtook an LMP2 on the pit straight and fell back to the left of the track to attack the curve on the right. Like the other LMP1s, the TS050 is equipped with an automatic thermal engine cut-off and coasting system which, at the end of the straight, saves energy and thus respects the number of megajoules allocated by the technical regulations for each round. This procedure naturally causes a slowdown, slight but sufficient to surprise the LMP2 driver who hits the rear of the Toyota and sends it into the sandpit. That night, Akio Toyoda was not the only one to leave the circuit completely annoyed.

Audi withdrew at the end of 2016, Porsche did the same at the end of the 2017 season after pocketing three straight wins. The only opposition coming from the private team Rebellion, the fight for victory is therefore between the two Toyotas. Temporarily retired from Formula 1, Fernando Alonso came to lend a hand to Buemi and Nakajima to form the crew which, for the brand's 20th attempt, finally brought victory.

Rebelote in 2019, the scenario is the same with a merciless fight between the two Toyotas. Dominating, the No. 7 of Conway, Kobayashi, Lopez is affected by a benign technical problem which forces it Sunday afternoon to give up victory to the No. 8 driven by the same Buemi, Nakajima, Alonso.

In 2020, Fernando Alonso continues with Toyota but this time to experience another kind of competition, the Dakar with a Hi Lux. Due to the pandemic, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is taking place in September and behind closed doors.

As in the two previous years, we replay the play of the two Toyotas which follow one another in the lead, with at the end the n°8 which wins. This brings the number of victories to three for Buemi and Nakajima, accompanied this time by New Zealander Brendon Hartley.

Stop or again? The question did not arise for very long. Toyota wants to win for real, against real opposition. The new Hypercar regulations will give him the opportunity with the expected return to Le Mans for 2023 of Ferrari, Porsche and Peugeot, former winners accompanied by a few other prestigious names, such as Cadillac, while others are expected to arrive later.

In 2021, the Japanese brand still feels a little alone against Alpine engaged with an old LMP1 with a purely internal combustion engine. For Toyota, it is above all a question of breaking in the new Hypercar GR010, designed by the new entity Toyota Gazoo Racing in charge of all sports activities and the design of sports models. An organization set up under the watchful eye of Akio Toyoda himself. As before however, the chassis part remains the work of the European team based in Cologne while the powertrain is still developed in Higashi-Fuji. It is a 3.5L twin-turbo V6 developing 500 kW (680 horsepower) and a 200 kW (272 horsepower) electric motor, figures which, like the value of the total mass (1,030 kg in 2023), may vary during the season according to the evolution of the balance of performance put in place by the new regulations in order to avoid the domination of one car over all the others, which would be detrimental to the spectacle.

In 2021, we have not yet finished with the Covid-19 and the event has been postponed to August with a limit on the number of spectators. For Toyota, the game does not actually look as easy as one might think. Alpine uses a proven car, the old Rebellion, which has largely proven its reliability in the past, while the two Toyotas may experience problems in their youth. This was confirmed in the race, when fuel supply problems broke out in both cars and persisted until the end of the event. To go all the way, the drivers had to adopt a specific driving strategy, developed by the team of engineers installed at the back of the box. That year, it was finally the turn of #7 (Conway-Kobayashi-Lopez) to win.

In 2022, No. 8 took over his property. It was driven by Sebastien Buemi, now four-time winner at Le Mans, Brian Hartley and a newcomer, Ryo Hirakawa replacing Kazuki Nakajima, promoted to vice-president of TGR Europe. If there is in certain teams or in certain drivers, what is called the fear of winning – each time with an error, or a trifle that leads to failure when you find yourself in a position to win – Since 2018, Toyota Gazoo Racing has shown great familiarity with the top step of the podium. So, it goes without saying that, for 2023, Toyota is the first candidate for victory. But the Japanese team is better placed than any other to know that at Le Mans nothing is ever a foregone conclusion.