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Le Mans Win Turns Hybrid Race Car Dreams Into Reality

Jun 25, 2018

Two years ago, Kazuki Nakajima was on the cusp of glorious victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the first victory at Le Mans for Toyota and their GAZOO Racing division, but it was only two years later that he crossed the finish line a champion. While mechanical failure robbed the team of victory in 2016, nothing would stand in their way in 2018, with him, two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso and Sébastian Buemi driving the #08 TS050 hybrid race car.

The victory is a long time coming, and no doubt fulfills the dreams of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda, who wrote in 1952 that, “Manufacturers must participate in auto-racing to test their vehicles’ durability and performance and display their utmost performance.”

Winners at Toyota Gazoo Racing

The Quest for Le Mans Victory

Toyota has been racing at Le Mans off and on since 1985, scoring five second-place finishes, including in 1992 and 1999, before taking a long pause from Le Mans, but it wasn’t until a new generation of hybrids arrived that paved the way for their ultimate victory. After introducing the Prius hybrid road car in 1997 and various models based on Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, Toyota launched its hybrid racing program with the Denso Lexus GS450h hybrid in 2006 and the Denso SARD Supra HV-R the following year, which proved themselves in the Tokachi 24-hour races in Japan, the Supra winning the overall victory in 2007.

Japan wasn’t the only country where Toyota went racing with the GS450h, as Toyota Canada entered the Lexus sport sedan in the famed TARGA Newfoundland with barely any modifications. The GS450h’s Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain was completely stock, while the interior was stripped and performance exhaust, suspension, plus safety roll cage were added. Veteran journalist and former racer Marc Lachapelle piloted the GS for both years in which it competed in the six-day, 2,200-kilometre rally, winning the Hybrid division in its inaugural year in 2007 and placing 18th overall out of 57 entries, then finishing an impressive 6th overall out of 65 cars in 2008. Not once did it experience any mechanical failures.

In 2012, Toyota returned to Le Mans with the TS030 Hybrid, the pinnacle of its hybrid racing program, which had its roots in knowledge accumulated based on the track record of hybrid road cars. Although they did not earn a podium at Le Mans in their first year back, they did score three victories in six races of the FIA World Endurance Championship thanks to the TS030’s innovative full-scale capacitor hybrid racing system.

After the disappointment of 2016, the team took nothing for granted and, last year, Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda said: “We can't win Le Mans if we only care about making a fast car! What we do not have is strength.” He instilled a sense of kaizen, or continuous improvement, and the team embraced it, the teams in Toyota’s Motor Sport Unit Development Division at Higashi-Fuji Technical Centre in Japan focusing on the power unit while Toyota Motorsport GmbH (TMG) in Cologne, Germany was tasked with the chassis and rest of the car.

TOYOTA GAZOO Racing. Le Mans 24 Hours Race, 11th to 17th June 2018 Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France.

The Hero Car

Toyota has continued to refine the Le Mans Prototype race car, this year’s edition designated the TS050, powered by a 2.4-litre twin-turbo direct injection V6 engine with dual electric motors – one on each axle. With eight megajoules of electric power stored in a lithium-ion battery pack allowing it to leave the pits in pure EV mode and 1,000 system hp overall, the TS050 puts down instantaneous torque coming out of corners and powering down straights, but because it’s a hybrid it recaptures energy under braking, allowing it to go farther on each tank of gas. This year the #08 TS050 completed 388 laps of the 13.6-km track for a total of 5,286 km, but using 35% less fuel than in 2012.

And with a focus on reliability in development over the past year, the TS050 was bulletproof this year: The #07 TS050 car of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and José María López finished second, with the lead changing several times between the two Toyotas. Ultimately, Alonso, Nakajima and Buemi drove a brilliant race to take home the victory.

While history at Le Mans is a huge milestone and celebrated by everyone from Toyota founder Toyoda to the drivers and every member of Toyota GAZOO Racing, Toyoda had a greater vision for racing: “The aim of racing is not just to satisfy our curiosity, but rather to enable the development of the Japanese passenger vehicle industry.” While Toyota plans a wild “hypercar” based on their Le Mans Prototype race car, it is the lessons in reliability, materials and aerodynamics that can be passed on from Toyota GAZOO Racing to Toyota’s road car development teams, with stronger, lighter materials, more efficient powertrains, and a spirit of joy in driving that Toyota aims to deliver in every vehicle it builds.