Thrift Job - 1996 TOM'S Toyota LMP

By the mid-1990’s, international sportscar racing was in a bit of a shambles. The nefarious schemes of Bernie Ecclestone and his minion Max Mosley had seen expensive and unnecessary Formula 1-style engines introduced for 1991. Ecclestone intended to lure major manufacturers active in the highly popular World Sportscar Championship into Formula 1, which was struggling to keep up.

The rising engineering costs were compounded by an illogically laid out schedule which sprinkled rounds on the other side of the world between the normal European races. As a result almost every team dropped out from the series in 1992, leading to the total cancellation of the World Sportscar Championship for the 1993 season.

Toyota had been a big part of the 3.5L Group C era.

Japanese Le Mans hopefuls Toyota had been deeply invested in the doomed 3.5L Group C series. The company introduced its V10-powered TS010 at the end of the 1991 season in preparation for the banning of traditional Group C machinery announced for 1992. Toyota had been competing at Le Mans since 1985 with the 4-cylinder turbocharged 85C-L, and had only just introduced a 3.2L R32V twin turbo V8 in 1988.

The TS010 project was therefore a very expensive and painful process. The subsequent collapse of the WSC left Toyota with empty hands and a very strained bank account. Seeking some form of damage control, the TS010 was used once more for the 1993 24 Hours of Le Mans before being retired completely. In a sad twist of irony, the hastily updated R36V-powered 94C-V was selected to fill the gap in 1994. The oldschool Group C car was allowed to enter with a special dispensation, and received numerous performance restrictions.

The 94C-V outlived the 3.5L era and helped Toyota save face by finishing 2nd in 1994.

After this unfortunate series of events, things looked rather bleak for Toyota’s top level Le Mans hopes. With the WSC dead and the future of prototype racing unclear, it decided to focus on a GT-version of the Toyota Supra and diversify by building an engine for the American CART championship. However, with introduction of the open-top Le Mans Prototype class structure in 1994, a new window had been opened up for the Japanese manufacturer.

Still itching to finally grab the overall victory at Le Mans, Toyota started looking into the LMP regulations. Not long after the decision was made to further explore the possibilities of such a project. To this end, Toyota’s racing and tuning partners Tachi Oiwa Motor Sport were given a shoe-string budget of just $500,000 to come up with a working LMP prototype. Under the direction of former March Engineering designer Andy Thorby (GB), the team started work on the new Le Mans challenger.

With highly limited resources at their disposal, TOM’S main focus was making the best possible car for the least amount of money. This meant the principle of highly experimental and ambitious design required in the past was now totally totally out of the question. With this in mind a traditional carbon-fiber monocoque chassis was built up, housing a very familiar engine.

The tiny budget didn’t allow for the development of a bespoke engine, so the Group C-spec 2.1L 3S-GTM turbocharged 4-cylinder was pulled out of the mothballs once more. The engine traced its roots back to 1987’s 87C Group C car. Another salvage was the LMP’s gearbox, a manual six-speed X-Trac unit taken from the Peugeot 905. Although the engine was a seasoned design, Thorby felt a lot could be improved in terms of cooling and packaging. The modifications would serve to increase reliability and fuel economy.

Aerodynamically the car was again unremarkable. There was no money available for scale model wind tunnel testing, so Thorby had to come up with the LMP’s bodyshape on the fly. He tried his best to combat the classic problem of trying to reducing lift over the front end without increasing drag too much. The design had to be as smooth and simple as possible, which presented a problem.

Traditionally the front end of a racing car featured big air ducts meant to cool the brakes at speed. While the ducts fulfilled a very useful purpose, they would also complicate the bodywork and cause excess drag. Thorby got around the problem by integrating vertical scoops into the large radiator openings in the nose. These redirected some of the air into the brakes, eliminating the need for separate brake ducting.

The LMP's construction was elegant, simple and most importantly cost-effective.

The strong emphasis on smooth surfaces resulted in a very blunt and substantial looking car. The team at TOM’S therefore affectionately named it “Lumpy“. The finished car weighed in at 790 kg (1741 lbs) due to cheaper, heavier bodywork. Another factor was the 5 mm sheet of stainless steel fitted to the bottom of the monocoque to aid weight distribution.

Andy Thorby and TOM’S knew Toyota had never officially expressed any interest in actually racing the LMP, but were still in high hopes. Despite the unsure future the car entered the testing phase, and was running rather well. Driven by none other than future Mr. Le Mans Tom Kristensen (DEN), the machine proved to be a reliable, efficient and competent package.

The team had no comparison to gauge the new machine’s performance against, but felt that the LMP was reasonably quick and had definite potential. With a bigger budget and much more development work the possibilities seemed endless.

The LMP as a fly on the wall at RTN during construction of an Audi R8C.

Despite three promising test sessions, Toyota took Lumpy to the Toyota Team Europe facility in Cologne, Germany. There it was left to rot under a tarp for a number of years, before Toyota finally decided to destroy it.

TOM’S had done their best to make a viable car out of very little money. A simple but effective design and the best parts they could possibly borrow made for a surprisingly speedy machine. Toyota was pleasantly surprised by TOM’S effort, but decided against racing it. Instead they would turn to their European affiliate TTE, who would go on to develop the blisteringly fast TS020 GT-One.

In a curious twist of fate, the bodyshell of the LMP later showed up on the walls of the workshop of Racing Technology Norfolk, the British engineering company contracted by Audi to build the closed-top R8C prototype.

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