The curious case of the Lexus IS F Racing Concept
Lexus shocked the world with this racing concept in 2008, but its menacing black body hides an even darker secret
In the late 2000s German supersaloons ruled Europe. The BMW M3, Audi RS4 and Mercedes C63 AMG were the rightful kings of the supersaloon empire. The British perimeter might have been temporarily breached with the arrival of the Vauxhall VXR8. But even that adopted Australian animal stood no chance against the established order.
Meanwhile in Japan, a new in-house performance brand was taking shape. BMW had M, Mercedes had AMG and now Lexus had F. This dedicated "skunk works" team's first assignment was to create a car that would shake up the supersaloon market and take the fight straight to the Germans. The end result was the V8 powered 420 horsepower Lexus IS F.
By early 2008 the IS F had made its fair share of appearances at various international venues and was already for sale in the Japanese market, albeit for only a couple of months. It was a surprise then that when the IS F showed up at the 2008 Tokyo Auto Salon it brought with it an unusual companion: The Lexus IS F Racing Concept.
Lexus, and parent company Toyota, were incredibly secretive of the car. No spec sheets or performance figures could be found. But it didn't take long for people to realize what this car was meant to be. The overall look and size of its aerodynamic components pointed to one specific part of motorsport: The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters better known as DTM.
This raised hopes that DTM could have a third manufacturer competing again after Opel left the series at the end of the 2005 season. Now only Audi and Mercedes were left. To avoid any rampant rise in costs and attract a third manufacturer, or a potential new team, DTM didn't push through any major regulation changes and forced any team who wanted to sell their old 2004 car to do so at a lowered price.
Everyone assumed that Lexus had taken the bait. Making their new flagship performance car take on the Germans at their own game seemed like an amazing marketing opportunity. But the surprise swiftly turned into a disappointment. A Toyota motorsport representative told the press the option to race in Europe was left open but never explicitly stated there was a full DTM effort coming.
Further comments by Lexus stated that the car was just a test and development vehicle. Everything that was learned on the track would translate over to real world driving conditions. Engineers could drive the Racing Concept themselves and use whatever knowledge and skill they gained on track in the development of its road legal counterpart. The added "racecar for the road" PR talk was a nice bonus.
What nobody saw coming however was what popular German car magazine Autobild said. Its reporter had taken a closer look at the car during the show and concluded it wasn't a Lexus at all. He claimed the IS F Racing Concept was an old Opel Vectra DTM car in disguise. Going as far as saying it still used the original Opel V8 under the bonnet. Other car magazines swiftly reported Autobild's findings and the Racing Concept got seemingly bullied into obscurity.
There are a few problems with this. The blind following of Autobild's claims is perhaps something worthy of another article but the main issue here is that Autobild never gave any solid evidence. Everyone just took their word for it. Despite there not being any reason for Autobild to lie about it, one can be forgiven for being at least a bit skeptical and wanting some proper evidence.
The alleged donor car in question: the Opel Vectra GTS V8 DTM
Since the alleged exposure more than 10 years have passed. Now it's time for much needed clarity and more importantly; proof. That's easier said than done though as even when the car was initially revealed, almost no high definition pictures were available to the public. By now the car has gone missing. It is most likely stashed away somewhere in a secret Lexus depot, if it even still exists in the first place.
So how does one gather intel on perhaps one of the strangest and most secretive "Japanese" race cars in the world? Cross referencing pictures of the real world cars is one thing, but perhaps the virtual world can help. Specifically the one created by Polyphony Digital: Gran Turismo.
When the highly anticipated Gran Turismo 5 game released on the Playstation 3 in 2010, it came packed with 1000 cars. The majority of which were fairly disappointing low detail ports from the previous games. But 200 cars received the so called "premium" treatment. These were highly detailed cars featuring fully modeled exterior and interiors. One of which was the Lexus IS F Racing Concept
To achieve such high detail the game's programmers must scan in the physical car inside and outside. With this data gathered they can start working on translating it into a virtual shape. This means every car you see in Gran Turismo looks exactly like it does in real life.
First off we need to clarify that only the looks of the virtual car are the same as the real car. The performance figures of the car in game are purely fictional as nobody, including Polyphony Digital, was ever truly able or permitted to find out what the car's engine was. The made up in-game horsepower figure of 533 reflects this as no DTM car of that period, Including the Vectra, made more than 500 horsepower due to regulations.
It didn't take long before the first match between the virtual Lexus and the real life Opel was found. Despite the sponsor-less livery there is one manufacturer name visible on the car. The brake calipers spell out AP Racing DTM. The exact same type of brakes used on the Vectra. What's truly a hard hitting piece of evidence is the ECU found in the passenger footwell.
It's not just any ECU, it's the official Bosch Motronic DTM ECU as found in every DTM car. Seeing as you can't just borrow one of those, and the denial of Lexus on the car being aimed at racing in DTM, it must mean this particular one came from a previous DTM race car.
But when comparing the rest of the visuals, such as the rollcage, no further similarities can be found. The Lexus features a different dashboard and steering wheel compared to the Opel. The interior parts could have always been developed in-house. Also, it would be ill-advised to not change the interior as failing in doing so would immediately reveal the car's secret identity.
As far as the body goes, that should have been pretty easy to change. Race car body parts are easy to make as some are bound to become damaged during race day. So far its looking like the Lexus is indeed an Opel in a fancy dress. But we can't know for certain unless we compare something that can't be easily changed. Seeing as a peak underneath the hood is impossible, we have to look to the next best thing: the wheelbase.
Making a car slightly longer or smaller is usually done by morphing the body. Changing the entire wheelbase is out of the question as that requires all of the internals to move with it. So what happens when we line up a side profile shot of both cars with each other? We get a perfect match.
This is without a doubt the strongest evidence we can find considering the limitations. The wheelbase combined with the official DTM brakes and ECU are more than enough to back up Autobild's original claim. This also means we finally know the technical specifications off the Lexus IS F Racing Concept, the exact same as the Opel Vectra GTS V8 DTM.
Underneath the Lexus body lies an Opel 4.0L naturally aspirated V8 producing 476 horsepower mated to a 6 speed sequential transmission by Xtrac. Overall weight off the car should be just above 1000 Kilogram as the 2004 Vectra weighed 1080 kg while the updated 2005 model weighed slightly less. As previously mentioned, the 2004 season DTM cars were sold at a lower price. Despite this there is no way to find out if the Opel acquired by Lexus was the '05 or '04 model.
It's fairly safe to assume that Lexus did indeed aim at a full DTM entry at some point with the recycled Opel being used as a starting point in development for an all new car. After all, the car was spotted driving around Paul Ricard with Belgian ace driver Marc Duez behind the wheel. The program obviously fell through and the IS F was turned into a simple marketing tool.
The reason why nothing ever came of the ambitious project could be the massive economic crisis. Toyota, who were already planning on leaving F1 as a manufacturer team at the end of the 2009 season, most likely saw entering an entirely different overseas racing effort as an un-wise financial decision.
The IS F Racing Concept never fully evolved into a proper Lexus. It never had the chance to shake its German roots and because of it, it got shunned by automotive media alike. The only place then where you'll see the Lexus in a competitive environment now is in that of Gran Turismo. As a final piece of evidence for it being a pseudo-Opel take a look and listen to both of these videos.