How Toyota overcame a traumatic trio of Le Mans 24 Hours defeats

Filip Cleeren

At the end of 2020, the Le Mans 24 Hours will bid farewell to the current hybrid LMP1 cars, which ushered in a new era of innovation in the FIA World Endurance Championship since its 2012 inception. Toyota has been there from the start, and has faced a rollercoaster ride that rivals any great sporting drama.

In 2011 Toyota found itself on a crucial crossroads, stuck in between two motorsport programmes that both represented unfinished business for the Japanese giant. 

Two years earlier, Toyota was one of the three Formula 1 teams that cleverly interpreted the new-for-2009 regulations and came up with a double diffuser. 

The Cologne-based outfit came out of the gates strong and while it couldn't match the fairytale Brawn GP in the opening rounds, the Bahrain Grand Prix should have been the race where the operation finally scored its first victory in F1. Despite Jarno Trulli taking pole, the team shot itself in the foot with an unfortunate strategy call and lost the chance to break its duck. 

That first win never came. At the end of the year Toyota decided to pull the plug on its expensive F1 programme, while the development of its 2010 challenger was already in an advanced stage. It was a source of great frustration for Toyota, the unraced TF110 chassis on display at the team's headquarters a daily reminder of what could have been. 

Le Mans 1999: the Toyota GT-One of Allan McNish, Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners

Le Mans 1999: the Toyota GT-One of Allan McNish, Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners Toyota Racing

Toyota Racing

In the second half of 2011 the team in Cologne got the green light from Japan to focus on a new challenge that, much like F1, was an open-ended chapter in the company's history: Le Mans.

Toyota had finished second three times at the Circuit de la Sarthe, with the TS010 prototype in 1992, the SARD-entered 94C-V two years later and with the spectacular Toyota GT-One in 1999. The latter paved the way for its Formula 1 entry in 2002, but a decade on the Japanese marque decided to switch its attention back to the world's largest endurance race. 

"It was a difficult time after the withdrawal," Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe's managing director Rob Leupen reflects. "We did several things before we started working on the LMP1. We were looking into the GT class, but it was good to go back to Le Mans with an organisation that already tried to win it in 1998 and 1999. We ticked all the boxes. The people, the technology and the mentality were there."

"The team was extremely motivated," Toyota's technical director Pascal Vasselon adds. "F1 was unfinished business for us. We were extremely frustrated about stopping in F1 at the moment when the team was coming together. The team was really keen on demonstration what it was able to do."

Toyota took on board French endurance specialists ORECA to help them with the transition to 24-hour races. Toyota’s biggest challenge was solving the drivetrain puzzle. For the new World Endurance Championship in 2012, the FIA and ACO had introduced a hybrid rules package which went far beyond anything any other championship featured at the time.

Vasselon audibly lights up when asked about the technical challenge he and his team faced at Toyota's state-of-the-art Cologne facility. 'The degree of freedom was amazing. We made our simulations to select the best hybrid system, which was an extremely interesting and rewarding process for the engineers."

Anthony Davidson and Alexander Wurz

Anthony Davidson and Alexander Wurz Alexander Trienitz

Alexander Trienitz

Toyota decided on using a super capacitator charged by a KERS unit. Its next task was to source the best possible drivers. The operation's pedigree and enthusiasm was an enticing proposition. One of its first recruits was Peugeot's LMP1 ace Alexander Wurz, a two-time Le Mans winner with a decade of F1 experience as a racer and test driver.

"I was at Peugeot, who had the fastest car at the time," Wurz recounts. "I had a good time there, but I got a phone call from Pascal and we met for dinner. He explained the programme and instantly my instinct told me that this was the new technology you needed to have to win Le Mans in the future. 

"Knowing Toyota's capabilities and the wind tunnel experience they had from F1, for me it was a no-brainer. We agreed terms very quickly. 

"I remember some of my Peugeot teammates told me I was crazy to depart, because we were winning. But I was very sure about the project."

Wurz would later be joined by former Peugeot colleagues Anthony Davidson and Stephane Sarrazin, while Toyota also recruited Sebastien Buemi, Nicolas Lapierre and Kazuki Nakajima for 2012.

Uncharted territory

Despite all its know-how, developing and racing a high-powered hybrid unit was still uncharted territory for Toyota and it made for some exciting moments in early testing.

"It wasn't that difficult managing reliability," Vasselon explains. "In F1 we had processes to guarantee reliability for 300 kilometres and it is relatively straightforward to use them to develop a car for 6000 kilometres.

"The hybrid part was a different story, it was really unknown territory. We were obsessed by safety. You have a lot of concerns when you send your drivers out on track, that they don’t risk anything. We achieved it, but it was difficult. Sometimes we stopped during testing because we were not happy with our estimation of the risk level."

"The testing was extremely interesting, driving out of the garage for first time on hybrid power, completely silently," Wurz shares. "We had some electronic teething problems. For example, the brake by wire caused electromagnetic interference, which triggered a failsafe mode. We knew the car was safe, but we couldn't run properly for seven days. 

"We were lucky to have a Toyota engineer from Japan with us who had worked on the Prius. He said they had the same problem when that car crossed the Tokyo underground and we fixed it by changing the wiring loom.

"That's one of many examples. During our first night session the team asked me to change a switch and I said I couldn't see anything because the steering wheel wasn't back lit. So in the end we just took a torch and glued it to the roof! We had to improvise along the way because we were under a lot of time pressure."

Wurz added: "We also had to change our driving style. Braking was no longer about how late you can brake, but how efficient and how long you can extend it into the corner. It was a bit weird at first but it was very clear that it's such an amazing extra performance. 

"We did lap times that were as quick as the Peugeot V12, but with 50 percent of fuel and tyre consumption. To me, that tells you why hybrid technology was really the next step in racing and also in normal road car technology."

Le Mans 2013: the Toyota TS030 of Alexander Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre, Kazuki Nakajima

Le Mans 2013: the Toyota TS030 of Alexander Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre, Kazuki Nakajima Eric Gilbert

Eric Gilbert

Taking Audi by surprise

If developing a complex hybrid prototype wasn't challenging enough, Toyota had to move up another gear when Peugeot decided to pull out of endurance racing in January 2012, leaving just Audi as the sole manufacturer for the full 2012 season. Toyota, which had planned to just start in selected rounds in its first year, was pushed by the ACO to expand to a full-season two-car effort. 

To complicate matters further, a testing crash ahead of the TS030's planned Spa debut destroyed the only available monocoque at the time, meaning Toyota would have to debut its sleek prototype at Le Mans.

"We had some very high ups and very low downs in our first Le Mans and we had so many things to learn" says Vasselon. "We took the lead after six hours. After that we lost one car after the other. It started with a huge crash for Anthony [Davidson], then at the restart Kazuki [Nakajima] collided with the Delta Wing. 

"But somehow we achieved something against the absolute reference that was Audi. We took them by surprise."

"For me Le Mans 2012 was the most exciting moment after the bumpy road we had to that race," adds Leupen. "It was a huge learning curve, but I look back on it as a very pleasant and rewarding time."

Leupen relished the fight against Audi and Team Joest, who had been the gold standard in endurance racing for over a decade. "It was an enjoyable fight with a lot of respect. For us they were the benchmark because they had been there for so long and they were experienced. 

"We were always carefully looking at them to see how they prepared and set up their garage, how close their drivers were with each other. It was good to look at the others, but it was also good to see your own team develop into a very strong team. That was one of my biggest moments of joy of the whole era."

Wurz and Lapierre went on to take three wins - including an important home victory in Fuji with Nakajima - in the second half of a promising 2012 campaign.

 If Toyota had taken Audi by surprise in 2012, that benefit was well and truly gone for 2013. Audi struck back and poured copious amounts of resources into its next evolution of the four-wheel drive R18 e-tron quattro, which featured a Williams designed flywheel system and advanced electronics.

"It was a terrible year," Vasselon remembers. "We won a couple of races, but we were not competitive at Le Mans. They reacted with the powertrain in a way that was not sustainable for us. The Balance of Performance at the time between diesel and petrol hybrid was welcome, but there was no real engineering process behind it."

A first blow to the chin

Audi took another Le Mans win - a ninth and last triumph for Tom Kristensen - while Toyota shifted attention to the 2014 season, which would feature revised regulations and a new challenger in Porsche.

The level of competition and technology would reach its zenith between 2014 and 2017 and Toyota was determined to be at the forefront with the new TS040, an evolution of the TS030. 

"In many aspects the 2014 regulations were incredible, including a well-engineered Balance of Performance," Vasselon explains. "It put in place an incredible playground for engineers with a complex equivalence between the different hybrid systems. The competition with Audi and Porsche was very close. For me it was the best period of LMP1 with incredible sports cars."

Le Mans 2014: Toyota's TS040 had the pace to win

Le Mans 2014: Toyota's TS040 had the pace to win Eric Gilbert

Eric Gilbert

Toyota's TS040 proved extremely capable at Le Mans, with Nakajima claiming Toyota's first pole since 1999 in the #7 car he shared with Wurz and Sarrazin. When Lapierre crashed the sister car in the rain, all hopes were pinned on the leading #7 car, but it too faltered. After 14 hours an FIA sensor melted a wiring loom, which caused a fire and forced Nakajima to abandon the car.

It would prove to be the first of several wins that got away, and the first blow the Cologne squad took on the chin. 

"We were very fast, we knew our competitor would be the sister car," Wurz says. "The balance I had in the car was the best I've had at Le Mans. It drove like a dream, Tertre Rouge was almost flat. I put the hammer down from lap one to mentally hurt the competitors.  

"And then we had an issue that we actually understood earlier in the race. We already debated changing the wiring loom. We were going to lose a minute, but we had more than that to spare. Then the sensor came back and we thought we didn't need to change it anymore. Unfortunately it then shorted and started burning when Kazuki was in the car. It was a real low, but that's Le Mans."

Le Mans 2016: Kazuki Nakajima grinds to a halt with one lap to go

Le Mans 2016: Kazuki Nakajima grinds to a halt with one lap to go Simon Winson

Simon Winson

After a winless season in the abyss, Toyota's ebb and flow of competitiveness continued with a stronger showing in 2016, when the three LMP1 constructors converged towards a similar hybrid technology to power the most advanced race cars ever made.

At Le Mans 2016, Toyota and Porsche delivered a thrilling battle while Audi hit trouble. On strategy Toyota managed to keep up with the slightly quicker race pace of the sole surviving Porsche. 

When its sister #6 car had to stop to repair damage, all pressure was on Toyota's #5 crew of Nakajima, Buemi and Davidson to defend a healthy one-minute lead and bring home the win for Toyota.

With just six minutes to go the Le Mans paddock collectively gasped for air when Nakajima started slowing down. Building elation turned into agony in Toyota's garage, the team powerless to watch Nakajima coast at an excruciatingly slow pace. As he crossed the line two minutes later, his Toyota gave out completely. 

Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe director Rob Leupen consoles Kazuki Nakajima

Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe director Rob Leupen consoles Kazuki Nakajima Alexander Trienitz

Alexander Trienitz

Lightning strikes twice

If 2016 was the most memorable defeat in Le Mans history, then 2017 was the most puzzling. With a team desperate to set the record straight and Audi now gone from LMP1, Toyota took a trident of TS050s to France to face off against two entries from its remaining competitor Porsche. 

Toyota arrived at Le Mans in dominant form, too, with Buemi, Nakajima and Davidson winning the first two rounds at Silverstone and Spa. At Le Mans Kobayashi took an astonishing pole in  the #8 entry he shared with Sarrazin and Mike Conway, his 3m14.791s smashing the lap record. Lapierre shared the third #9 car with Jose Maria Lopez and Yuji Kunimoto.

Despite confirming their dominance in the early stages of the race, Toyota's three cars all faltered in different ways. 

First the #8 car dropped out of contention after seven hours with an MGU issue, which was later attributed to a manufacturing error.

In the tenth hour lightning struck twice for the other entries. The #9 car of a charging Lapierre was hit by an LMP2 competitor. The Frenchman made an attempt to beeline it back to the pits, but a puncture had wreaked too much havoc on the car to continue.

What happened moments before with the #7 car of Kobayashi, however, has already gone down in Le Mans lore. As Kobayashi was waiting to enter the track at pit exit during a safety car period, he mistook a cheering Vincent Capillaire for a marshal, and the Frenchman's thumbs up for a go signal. He then stopped and started a second time, which damaged the Toyota's clutch. On the first full racing lap, Kobayashi ground to a halt.

And just like that, Toyota's revenge run was over before half-time. 

Pascal Vasselon, Toyota Gazoo Racing technical director, with Porsche's Fritz Enzinger and Audi Sport's Dr Wolfgang Ullrich

Pascal Vasselon, Toyota Gazoo Racing technical director, with Porsche's Fritz Enzinger and Audi Sport's Dr Wolfgang Ullrich Audi Communications Motorsport

Audi Communications Motorsport

Rather than cutting its losses, Toyota indeed doubled down on its commitment to Le Mans, even though it ended up being the only manufacturer in the top class in the 2018-19 super season. 

Porsche's withdrawal meant Toyota would race for the win against non-hybrid privateers, who were unable to challenge the TS050s despite a new Equivalence of Technology formula.

After three gut punches in four years, the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours was the race that had to be won, failure was no longer an option. 

Vasselon explains how Toyota went to great lengths to train its crew for a wide variety of unforeseen circumstances, including recovery laps on three wheels: "We knew we had the fundamental reliability, but we didn't always react the right way when we were facing unexpected circumstances.

"We spent a lot of track time and sacrificed a lot of mileage to train the team to manage extraordinary circumstances. We simulated a lot of faults where nobody knew what would happen in advance, and then we would monitor and review how the crew and drivers would react."

"It was a bit of madness"

In the face of diminished competition, Toyota would have been forgiven for taking its foot off the throttle and focusing on finishing the race. The team, which was bolstered by the addition of two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso, had different ideas however.

The #7 and #8 teams both went flat chat to try and be the crew that finally lifted Toyota's curse, featuring several jaw-dropping night stints by the likes of Alonso and Conway.

"Considering the circumstances we should have managed the race and played it safe, which is exactly what we didn't do," Vasselon continues. 

"We were not interested in winning a slow race, we absolutely wanted to show that our car was able to beat any other car. That is why we had incredible pace in 2018. 

"It will probably always the fastest ever Le Mans if you consider the green lap pace. We really pushed the driver crews to be as fast as they could."

Le Mans 2018: Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso finally win for Toyota

Le Mans 2018: Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso finally win for Toyota Paul Foster

Paul Foster

Advisor Wurz was glued to the timing screens in the garage as he followed the inter-team battle: "Maybe you couldn't see it from the outside, but it was one of the most intense internal team battles I have ever seen. And I have been involved in top F1 teams for a decade. It was super sensational. 

"The drivers had team orders, but there's always a bit of a grey zone. It was tough, I can tell you. And they all drove like hell without mistakes. It was one of the most stellar performances of any racing team I've ever seen.

"If you look at the lap times, it was a bit of madness."

As Nakajima took the chequered flag on Sunday afternoon and finally brought the victory home in the car he shared with Alonso and Buemi, the burden of history and the weight of Toyota Motor Corporation's expectations finally dropped off the squad's battered shoulders.

Toyota's past peaks and lows were crystallised in the team's mixture of elation and relief, emotions which were also visibly coursing through team boss Leupen in the pitlane.

"The relief was big, but it was also a feeling of 'job done', reflects the Dutchman, who has worked at Toyota since 1995." As we saw in 2016 and 2017, you don't just have to beat the competition, you also have to beat Le Mans and yourself. It was also a confirmation that it was worth continuing all this time and experience all the pain and the ups and downs."

Toyota added a second Le Mans win at the end of the unique 2018-2019 super season and has since pledged its commitment to continue as the LMP1 era draws to a close and Le Mans switches to the new-for-2021 hypercars, which will be matched with a cheaper LMDh ruleset to bring in a much-needed injection of new blood. 

Just like many other series, the World Endurance Championship is evolving towards leaner teams and smaller budgets, with Toyota and ORECA deciding to part ways at the end of 2020.

The outfit is relishing the prospect of facing new opposition, but not because any additional success would make up for its traumatic trio of near-misses.

"In my mind we should have already won Le Mans four times right now, the two wins don't compensate that for me," Leupen states firmly. "Not at all." 

"We look towards the future with a cry and a smile. A cry because we are putting the quickest cars to rest without having explored their full potential at Le Mans.

"The smile is because we give the organisation a chance to build a new car and showcase what Toyota can do. We want to drive and race against other teams and manufacturers, not only amongst ourselves.

"It's not only about technical dominance, it's also the management, to manage the BoP, and to get advantages through your drivers and through your race engineering. I think everybody is looking forward to that."

Le Mans 2019: Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso do the double

Le Mans 2019: Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso do the double Paul Foster

Paul Foster