The Le Mans 24 Hour race is undoubtedly one of the greatest spectacles in motorsport, and every edition produces as many stories of disappointment as triumph. Indeed some of the sport’s most pivotal moments have occurred at the Circuit de la Sarthe, from Motorsport’s Darkest Day in 1955 which saw 83 lives lost and started a safety push that continues to this day, to the establishment of names such as Bentley and Porsche, famous marques which forged their reputations through Le Mans success. One manufacturer who has arguably had worse luck than any however is Toyota, as this year’s edition has once again so cruelly proved.
Having competed in 18 Le Mans 24 Hours since 1985, Toyota has managed to finish on the podium 6 times, including 5 second places. But had circumstances been ever so slightly different, the Japanese manufacturer could easily have a number of Le Mans victories to its name. Here are some of its tales of woe that have contributed to what some call ‘the Toyota curse’.
Toyota’s 1994 Le Mans effort suffered from terrible luck before the team had even arrived at the circuit – Roland Ratzenberger was supposed to drive for the them in the 62nd edition of the race, but was tragically killed during qualifying for that year’s fateful San Marino Grand Prix. Eddie Irvine was brought in to replace the late Austrian in the two car squad. Despite not qualifying at the front, the 94C-V that Irvine shared with the late Jeff Krosnoff and Mauro Martini ran with speed and reliability, gaining the upper hand over its Porsche rivals as the race unfolded. The team was leading by nightfall, and by Sunday morning the #1 Toyota 94C-V remained over a lap ahead of its closest rival, the #36 Dauer Porsche. As the day progressed victory seemed ever closer for Toyota.
But with 90 minutes to go with Toyota holding a seemingly commanding lead, there were dramatic scenes as the #1 car drastically slowed as it passed the pits, rolling to a stop at the pit exit. Krosnoff managed to get the 94C-V restarted after a push from the marshals, and limped it back to the garage, where he furiously jumped from the cockpit gesticulating at the gear selector. This simple component had failed, and the time lost stopping on track followed by the 12 minute pitstop it took to repair the issue, were enough to drop the Toyota back to 3rd. A late charge saw it return to 2nd, and victory in class, but it was no consolation for a Toyota squad that appeared so close to overall success.
The 1999 Le Mans 24 Hour is best remembered for a series of spectacular flips by Mercedes-Benz’s flawed CLR, but heading into the weekend it was Toyota who were favourites, returning with a trio of its spectacular and innovative GT-Ones. The Toyotas showed the pace expected of them, locking out the front row in qualifying to top one of the strongest grids ever seen at Le Mans, with BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Panoz and newcomers Audi all present with factory programs.
In the early hours of the race it seemed that Toyota’s main rivals for victory would be Mercedes and BMW, but then the attrition began. The #1 GT-One was the first to experience a setback when it was wheeled into the pit box and out of the lead battle with a gearbox issue, however it was able to rejoin after a short delay. Then Peter Dumbreck’s infamous backflip in the #5 Mercedes took it out of contention in the evening and forced Mercedes to withdraw their sole remaining #6 car, ending the marque’s final Le Mans appearance to date. The lead battle was reduced to what seemed to be a two way fight between the #1 Toyota and the #17 BMW.
By morning however, Toyota’s hopes had taken a heavy blow. Once again the #1 GT-One was the first to experience misfortune, a puncture putting Martin Brundle into the wall just before midnight, leaving the car stranded out on the circuit and out of the race. Some hours later it was the #2 car’s turn, another puncture causing a dramatic crash for Thierry Boutsen which left the car destroyed and the Belgian in hospital, prompting his retirement from driving.
As the sun came up it was BMW at the front with its cars running 1st and 2nd, the #17 leading from the #15 which had run a quiet but undramatic race away from the lead battle. The sole remaining Toyota was the #3, its all Japanese driver lineup having run a similar strategy to the #15 – it had been slower than its teammates all week but having stayed out of trouble it was running 3rd, on the same lap as the #15.
This meant that when the #17 crashed out of a 4 lap lead at the Porsche curves, there were only 2 and a half minutes separating the sole remaining cars from BMW and Toyota. By the final hour of the race, Ukyo Katayama had reduced the gap to well under a minute, closing in quickly and setting the fastest lap in the process. But with 45 minutes remaining, while rapidly closing on the #15, Katayama too suffered a puncture. Although he made it to the pits after an impressive save, enabling Toyota to secure second, it was little reward in the end after a race that seemed Toyota’s to lose. Katayama’s heroics in his final stints however did earn him the support of the crowd, and a memorable place in Le Mans history.
It was Toyota’s last appearance at Le Mans until 2012, the team withdrawing in the meantime to focus on its new Formula 1 effort.
The new for 2014 TS040 Hybrid was proving a force to be reckoned with in the World Endurance Championship, having won its first two outings – 6 hour races at Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps. The pace remained at Le Mans, and Kazuki Nakajima took Toyota’s first pole at Le Mans since 1999 aboard the #7 car he was sharing with Stéphane Sarrazin and Alex Wurz.
The team looked very strong, and despite the team’s second car (the #8 which went on to win the World Endurance Championship) being heavily delayed by damage sustained in an accident during an early rain shower, the #7 converted its pole position into a lead which it held well into the second half of the race.
But once again disaster struck the Toyota squad, and just before sunrise the #7 TS040 was stopped on track. An electrical fault had led to a fire in the car, and thanks to the issue affecting the radio Nakajima wasn’t able to hear the team’s calls for him to pit. In a matter of moments, the race was over for the #7. Toyota managed another podium thanks to the efforts of the #8 crew, managing third place behind the triumphant Audis, but again there was an undeniable sense that the team had missed out on so much more.
Having run a reliable but slow race to 6th and 8th in 2015, the Toyota squad returned to Le Mans in 2016 with a new car – the TS050. With main rivals Porsche and Audi scaling their efforts back from three to two cars for 2016, it was a good chance for the two car Toyota team to compete on an even footing. Although Porsche had locked out the front row of the grid in a rain affected qualifying, the Toyotas were never far behind. Indeed once the tricolour was waved and the safety car had pulled in after a wet start to the race, the TS050s appeared competitive, with Mike Conway leading at the end of the first hour in the #6 TS050. The hours that ensued saw a fight for the ages between Porsche and Toyota, Audi falling back due to lack of ultimate pace and then mechanical niggles. The #1 Porsche faltered near midnight and lost a huge amount of time in the pits, dropping well out of contention for victory and leaving a three way battle between the remaining #2 Porsche and the two Toyotas.
After an incredibly close period of racing between Porsche and Toyota, as the race moved into the last 6 hours it seemed that the TS050s were beginning to gain the upper hand. With just over two hours remaining however Toyota had its first real setback of the race – Kamui Kobayashi bringing the #6 car in for a 10 minute stop to repair damage caused in a spin, dropping it down to 3rd with little chance of catching up to the lead duo.
But nevertheless as the race entered its final stages, it began to look like Toyota had finally managed to put its past luck behind it and finally become the 2nd Japanese manufacturer to claim a Le Mans win. Kazuki Nakajima took the wheel of the #5 for the run to the flag and was maintaining a healthy 30 second lead over Neel Jani who was trying everything he could in the #2 Porsche. With only 10 minutes to go, Porsche brought Jani into the pits and changed the #2’s tyres – conceding victory to Toyota by handing them a lead of well over a minute.
What happened next however was unprecedented.
With around 6 minutes remaining, the #5 car curiously began to slow, and Nakajima radioed the team to say he was experiencing a loss of power. Minutes later, just after the car had crossed the line to start what would have been its final lap, the #5 was stopped completely.
Teams, media and fans alike were all in shock as the #2 Porsche swept past the stranded Toyota to take the lead and cruise home to victory. Scenes of a Toyota garage full of grown adults shedding tears were broadcast all over the world as Porsche began to celebrate in disbelief. There were three and a half minutes left in the race, and Toyota had once again clutched defeat from the jaws of victory. The feeling post race was one of profound emptiness as people struggled to allow what they’d just seen to sink in.
The way that Toyota has continued to demonstrate the will to win in the face of so many bitter disappointments shows a strength of character that to me embodies the wonderful sport that is endurance racing, while providing a rather endearing human side to what is a massive international corporation. In all of these unfortunate situations the team has handled itself with dignity and respect for the sport and its rivals, a respect that seems to be reciprocated by current rivals Audi, Porsche and the broader endurance world. This demonstrates the unique camaraderie of the World Endurance Championship paddock that is one of the things that makes it and the Le Mans 24 Hour so special.
The best thing Toyota can do now is come back to fight again next year, and according to Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda they will do exactly that:
‘Having tasted the true bitterness of losing, we will return to the World Endurance Championship arena next year, and we will return to compete in the battle that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For our quest to build ever-better cars… For this, we will certainly come back to the roads of Le Mans. I would like to express my gratitude to all of the cars and drivers who fought alongside us on the track at Le Mans; particularly Porsche and Audi. We will be back next year, reborn, and ready to take you on with all of our might. Look out for the “sore losers,” Toyota, on the track next year. The fight is not over! ‘
I suspect there’ll be plenty of fan support for their efforts.
by Andrew Marshall