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An In-Depth History of Toyota’s Le Mans Curse

Photo Credit: Toyota Great Britain

Everybody loves a winner! The familiar title of a William Bell song of the 1970s, the words would imply Japanese auto giant Toyota attracts a great deal of affection. Residing either at the top or around the top for the world’s leading automobile seller, the company’s reputation is also bolstered by efforts in the competitive test of auto racing. Once again, Toyota turns focus towards the French town of Le Mans and the Circuit de la Sarthe in an effort to find love at a famous daylong sports car racing event. With a fleet of three TS050 Hybrid prototype race cars, Toyota looked to capture their highly-sought first overall win at the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Victors two big American races, the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, Toyota’s racing credentials over the years are included past successes in rally car racing and desert off-road racing. Sports car racing also is an avenue of competition where the Japanese brand enjoyed triumphs. A collaborative effort with Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers, the Toyota MKIII sports car was a dominant force in the IMSA GTP class. From 1991 to 1993, the All-American Racers’ entry won 21 of the 27 races the MKIII entered including the 24-Hour race at Daytona in the latest year.

Entering the 2017 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota had a good sporting chance to claim its first-ever overall victory at the historic endurance challenge adding to the manufacturer’s motorsport clout. With only six total entries on the top-tier LMP1 category for 2017, Toyota’s three cars would contest against two Porsche 919 Hybrids and an Austrian-based ByKolles Racing Team running a Nismo-powered vehicle. As apparent by the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans field, no plans materialized for a customer-backed competition running the Audi R18 e-tron quattro race car that was parked when the German factory pulled funding for their Audi Sport Team Joest organization after last year.

Photo Credit: Toyota Great Britain

As I was proceeding to pursue my original intentions for this article, I intended to have it finished before or during the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans. However, as the race entered 10th hour of competition, top two Toyota TS050 prototypes in contention to win the event was victims of the auto brand’s curse in the French endurance classic. After leading much of the early part of the event, the #7 Toyota Gazoo Racing car has been retired after suffering a suspected clutch failure. Minutes later, the #9 team car suffered a left rear tire puncture after contact with a P2 class competitor. Catching on fire briefly as it limped back to its garage for serving, the #9 Toyota fell short of returning to pit lane on electric power. As of the 10th hour mark, the #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing race machine is still registered as running but is well off from the lead lap. Sebestian Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Anthony Davidson did last the whole 24 hour timed distance. Nine laps behind the overall victor of the 2017 race, The sole remaining Toyota race car picked up spots as the race progressed to finish 8th place overall recorded as one of two who has completed the event (other being the winning #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid shared by Timo Bernard, Brendon Hartney and Earl Bamber). The recently completed 24 Hours of Le Mans race only solidifies the curse for Toyota competitors.

First appearing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1985, Toyota was originally supported by the Japanese  Tom’s Team and Dome. In the final two years of the C2 class, Toyota won in 1992 with Trust Racing Team and with the Y’s Racing Team/SARD in 1993. The 1992 24 Hours of Le Mans would also be the first time a C1 class Toyota entry with a 3.5-liter V-10 engine competed for top race honours. Competing in the car called the Toyota TS010, the Toyota Team Tom’s racer finished behind the winning Peugeot 905 Evo 1B in the overall runner-up position (the first of five occasions that manufacturer would settle for second place with the latest coming in 2016). The third iteration of the car was also prepared for the 1994 24 Hours of Le Mans. The SARD race team entered the Toyota 94C-V in the newly-formed LMP1 category taking class honours as well as the runner-up spot. The 1994 effort featured the driving team of Italian Mauro Martini, future Formula 1 star Eddie Irvine and Jeff Krosnoff who died in a crash two years later at the Molson Indy in Toronto.

Photo Credti: Toyota Great Britain

While class victories would be enough to satisfy many manufacturers such as Chevrolet’s Corvette Racing program, Toyota has been coveting ownership of an overall win title at the 24-hour race since the first runner-up finish in 1992. After finishing in second-place again in the 1994 race, the automaker or its partners were led to the realization they needed a new kind of race car to win at Le Mans. The radical GT-One vehicle was developed for competition based on the GT1 rules at the time. An advanced closed-cockpit race car was styled by Dallara and ran a twin-turbocharged R36V V8 engine. The Toyota GT-One was campaigned at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in association with the Toyota Team Europe organization (now known as Toyota Motorsport GmbH). While intended to be a production car category for high-performance machines, GT1 regulations were heavily exploited by manufacturers to create a purpose-built race car. Toyota was no exception to creatively translating the class rules building just two road legal versions of the vehicle.

Debuting in 1998, the Toyota GT-One was without doubt a pure assault against the competition for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Entering a three-car team, Toyota Team Europe’s opening effort with the GT-One revealed tremendous speed and pace. In the final hour of the 1998 event, the #29 team car was in contention for the elusive overall victory for Toyota but suffered a transmission failure. The #27 Toyota GT-One driven by an all-Japanese driver lineup of Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki and Keiichi Tsuchiya finished 9th. Returning the next year again with three cars, the Toyota GT-Ones returned as an even stronger force. Claiming the top-two spots in qualifying for the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans, hard luck again fell for two of their vehicles in the race. Tire problems plagued all three cars with only one GT-One surviving for the end. Again, it was the Japanese driver squad that survived to finish second despite a late-race tire failure. Before the tire issue, that Toyota GT-One machine was gaining on the lead BMW V12 LMR. The 1998 and 1999 races were the only times the GT-One would compete at the track but cemented the early notion that Toyota may be cursed or jinxed at the sports car race. It would not be until 2012 that Toyota would again challenge Le Mans.

Photo Credit: Jack Webster

A competitor in the newly-formed FIA World Endurance Championship in 2012, Toyota revealed a gasoline/electric hybrid-powered prototype sports car. Represented with two entries, the Toyota TS030 Hybrid LMP1 machine’s debut at the year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans ended in a double retirement early in the event. The car performed better in the 2013 endurance race grabbing 2nd and 4th splitting the Audi Sport Team Joest organization’s three-car team. An updated TS040 Hybrid LMP1 took pole at the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans race but would again lead to speculation of the Toyota curse. Leading the race, the #7 car suffered an electrical failure prior to the 14-hour mark. After an unremarkable 2015 effort, Toyota reinvested into the TS050 Hybrid that mated a turbocharged 2.4-liter V-6 engine with an electrical power unit. Proving to be a fast race machine in  the 2016 race, the #5 Toyota TS050 Hybrid led into the very late going of the event only to be victim of horrible fortune. In the final minutes, the Toyota race car suffered a power loss that was later caused by a failed connector between turbocharged and intercooler. The #5 car failed to finish as a Porsche 919 Hybrid flew to the win. The remaining #6 Toyota TS050 Hybrid grabbed second place overall for the fifth time for the manufacturer.

Photo Credit: Toyota Great Britain

When two of the three Toyota TS050 Hybrid cars retired in the 10th hour of this year’s Le Mans, the anguish of the defeat was something that was felt beyond just the team’s personnel. After all these years, other teams and the general sports car racing following public sensed and expressed hurt for the Toyota racing effort. While auto racing doesn’t provide any guarantees for a victory to a well-deserving team, it’s obvious there would be a fantastic celebration if fortunes lift the Toyota curse at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2018.


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