The 86th running of the infamous 24 Hours of Le Mans starts in a few hours. Being a part of the WEC's newly organized "Super Season", it will be one of the two 24 hours planned for this 2 year season. One of the favorites to win the race is Toyota, the only manufacturer in the top LMP1 category after the withdrawal of Audi and Porsche during the past couple seasons. Oddly, Toyota has sustained a chain of either coming second, or having their spirits stifled by some accident or failure. So before the flag drops, we'll be looking at Toyota's most recent attempts at the grueling 24 hours.
The 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans was in the tail end of the era of maniacal GT1 racers. Cars like the Mercedes CLK GTR and the Porsche 911 GT1 were about to face each other on the long straights of Circuit De La Sarthe, with other cars like Nissan's R390 GT1 and Toyota's GT-One bringing the technological might of Japan against the German titans. Toyota entered 3 of their GT-Ones into the race, and they all performed admirably in qualifying, taking 2nd, 7th and 8th, with pole going to the CLK GTR.
The race turned out to be an absolute rollercoaster for Toyota, as their #28 GT-One suffered a massive accident forcing it to retire. In the dying hours of the race, Toyota's hopes were destroyed along with the #29's gearbox, while still being in contention for the win. In the end, Toyota had to settle for 9th with the remaining #27, 25 laps down on the winning 911 GT1.
1999: OUT WITH A BANG
1999 saw a major change in the rulebooks, as the ACO and the FIA pushed for regulation changes favoring prototype racing. The GT class now required an extensive production run, putting the obscenely fast GT1 cars out of competition. BMW updated their open top V12 LM into the V12 LMR. Mercedes modified their CLK GTR into the CLR. Toyota's GT-One already resembled a prototype, so there was no need for an extensive redesign of the car.
The upgrades quickly proved to be crucial, as the cars took 1st, 2nd, and 8th while Mercedes was forced to make repairs to their CLR, which had a newfound thing for acrobatics.
The race proved to be disaster for Toyota, as sharp gravel led to multiple failures of their Michelin tires in a spectacular fashion. The first GT-One blew out a mere 90 laps into the race. The second car failed at the halfway mark, leading it to crash at high speed. This only left the #3 GT-One still in contention for the lead. Competition remained the V12 LMR, as the CLR's flips destroyed two of their cars, leading Mercedes to retire the remaining car and to abandon the rest of the season.
The final hour saw the GT-One chasing down the LMR for the overall win. But it was at this time that the tires caught up to the car, and blew out one more time. They managed to recover to the pits for new tires, but lost the ability to challenge the BMW. The Toyota finished in 2nd, a lap down from the LMR. The GT-One was retired at the end of the season, as the management turned Toyota Team Europe, the team responsible for their Le Mans effort, was now in charge of the F1 Team.
2012: THE ELECTRIC EMERGENCE
2012 marked Toyota's return to Le Mans after 13 years with the TS030 Hybrid, one of the first petrol-hybrid cars to compete in the World Endurance Championship. Their hybrids qualified 3rd and 7th, with 1st and 2nd taken by Audi's duo of R18 E-tron Quattros.
Tragedy struck on the Toyota camp at the end of the 5th hour, as the #8 car went airborne after clipping a Ferrari. The accident forced the car out of the race, and its driver Anthony Davidson suffering 2 cracked vertebrae. On the other hand, the sister #7 car was leading the race before the accident, only to crash at the restart of the race. After extensive repairs, the car was sent out again only to succumb to an engine failure 5 hours later. Audi's R18 went on to win the race, the first one for a hybrid.
2013: WET WOES
Toyota qualified 4th and 5th for the race, but were still no match for the R18. The start turned into tragedy, as the #95 Aston Martin of Allan Simonsen spun at high speed. The crash broke part of the roof and the rollcage, and ultimately led to Simonsen's death due to his injuries. After the restart, the race turned into Audi's dominant show of force, until 2 of the R18's ran into problems, handing 2nd and 3rd position to the Toyota hybrids. Rain and tire strategy played into Toyota's advantage, as the #7 Toyota shortened the gap from the leading Audi to a minute.
The win was snatched away from them on the final hour, as the Toyota aquaplaned into the barriers. Even if the sister #8 picked up the stricken Toyota's spot, the Audi was simply too far ahead to make any significant difference. The Toyota crossed the line a lap down from the Audi, while the sister car was able to salvage 4th place.
2014: EVEN MORE WET WOES
Toyota entered the TSO40 Hybrid into the 2014 race sporting aerodynamic improvements and the inclusion of four wheel drive. The #8 car partly spoiled the party for returning Porsche, as one of their 919 Hybrids qualified 2nd, in between the 2 Toyota's. It was the Japanese manufacturer's pole since 1999.
The race played into Toyota's favor until the #8 car spun out from second. Then tragedy struck at the second hour, as the same car aquaplaned under braking in damp conditions, and ran into the barriers head-on. Alongside, the #81 Ferrari 488 GTE also aquaplaned and ran into the back of the #3 Audi R18. Toyota managed to recover the TS040 for repairs, but the Ferrari and the Audi were forced to retire.
The #7 car momentarily lost the lead to the 919 during a pit stop, but it was able to retake the lead at the 4th hour. As the car was 9 hours into the lead, Toyota's hopes of winning the race melted away with the car's wiring loom. When the chequered flag waved, it was a 1-2 for Audi again, while Toyota managed to save face by coming in 3rd.
2015: OUTPACED AND OUTGUNNED
2015 served to be the last race for the TS040, as its successor was introduced next season. Cars 1 and 2 qualified 8th and 7th respectively, behind the trio of R18's and 919's.
Toyota found themselves struggling to catch up with the two German giants, who were battling it out for the lead. In the end, while both Toyota's finished the race, they finished in 6th and 8th, 8 and 9 laps down on the winning 919 Hybrid.
2016: SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR
2016's TS050 Hybrid now had a twin turbo V6 instead of a NA V8 used by the earlier hybrids. The Japanese managed to find their groove again, managing to qualify 3rd and 4th behind the 2 Porsche 919 Hybrids.
Toyota managed to take the lead, and built up a strong lead. It looked like Toyota was in position for a dominant win at the Circuit De La Sarthe. In the closing minutes, the gap of the leading Toyota and the #2 Porsche was a long 1:14.
On the last few laps, the #5 experienced a massive loss of power on acceleration, with the #2 Porsche catching up at a blistering rate. It didn't take long until the car finally came to a halt at the start-finish straight, with the #2 Porsche passing the stricken Toyota seconds later. Porsche went on to take their first win since returning to the race 2 years ago. Toyota saved face by finishing 2nd, 3 laps down on the winning 919.
2017: DOUBLE TROUBLE
Toyota fielded 3 TS050 Hybrids for the 2017 edition of the race. The cars proved to be blisteringly quick in qualifying, breaking the lap record set by the 919 Hybrid 2 years ago. As the #7 took pole, the #8 car took second, while the #9 Toyota qualified 5th.
Toyota managed to pull away early on, while the #2 Porsche was brought in 3 and a half hours later for repairs with its front axle, losing contact with the leaders. The #8 Toyota was brought in an hour later to also make repairs, also losing contact with the leaders in the process.
Disaster struck for Toyota again, this time in the dark. The #7 Toyota was stuck in the pit lane until strangely, LMP2 driver Vincent Capillare ran to the car and gave Toyota driver Kamui Kobayashi the thumbs up, which gave him the impression that he was allowed to exit the pits. Fuel was added to the fire as Toyota called for Kobayashi to stop, burning the cars clutch in the process. It was almost immediately followed with the #9 car collided with an LMP2 car, causing a puncture. The damage from the blowout wrought havoc on the cars gearbox, forcing it to retire.
The leading 919 Hybrid failed and retired with 4 hours to go, handing the lead to an LMP2 car, more specifically the #38 Oreca 07 of Jackie Chan DC Racing. The #2 Porsche managed to recover the lead with 2 more hours, and went on to win the race. Toyota managed to finish in 8th, being the second LMP1 to finish in the race, as all the other cars retired.
Toyota managed to get back on their form last year, securing their 2nd pole in Le Mans with the hybrids and their 3rd pole overall. With both Porsche and Audi gone to contest the Japanese team and with F1 driver Fernando Alonso lending a hand, the odds are in Toyota's favor. But, anything can happen in 24 hours, and Toyota knows this well, especially after 2016. Will 2018 be the year when they finally break their curse and take the win? Only time will tell.