Why Toyota’s first-ever Le Mans win continues to elude

There was no sweep of the podium, or a podium finish at all. During the course of this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the oldest active—and possibly most grueling—endurance race in motorsports, the painful ending suffered by Toyota Gazoo Racing at the famed circuit in 2016 would only continue to ache.

Four of the top five lap times during the 24-hour sprint were set by Toyota.

Last year saw Toyota’s return to the France’s Circuit de la Sarthe with an all-new engine, new numbers, and even a new team name for the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) series. We were there, incidentally, eager to see car tech put to the test. Although not considered favorites to win, with impressive control and poise, the Toyota Gazoo Racing team’s #5 and #6 cars were in a three-way battle with Porsche’s #1 car for the lead, with the #5 car poised to win on the final lap.

But the race was for 24 hours, not 23 hours and 58 minutes as it was during the last lap that the Toyota #5 lost power and stopped on the start-finish line. Unable to restart in time, the lead and podium-topping finish vanished as Porsche #1 seized the opportunity for the overall win with Toyota #6 finishing second. The #5 would eventually restart but did so too slowly and, as if a final dagger to the gut, would not be classified as a finish. History at Le Mans would have to wait another year.

The last time a Japanese automaker took the overall win at Le Mans was in 1991 with Mazda’s rotary-powered 787B. It was the first and only appearance for the manufacturer as the rotary engine was subsequently banned from competition (but that’s another story for another day). Since then, German cars have won a commanding 18 times followed by France (3), the United Kingdom (2), and the United States (1). 2017 would mark a 19th overall win for the Germans in 26 years, and the third straight for Porsche.

Le Mans 24 Hours Race
Toyota Motorsport
Toyota Motorsport

This is not to say that the Japanese entrants have not been competitive. For Toyota, this was its 19th appearance at Le Mans since 1985, where it has garnered a podium finish six times—five of which being for second place. And the hybrid powertrain of its WEC race cars is nothing like the more familiar Prius.

What’s in the box?

In 2016, Toyota’s then all-new TS050 Hybrid showed the huge potential of its combination of a 2.4-liter V6 turbocharged gasoline engine and 8 megajoule (MJ) hybrid system when it debuted in the WEC series, replacing the TS040 Hybrid which featured a 3.7L V8 gasoline engine. The downsized internal combustion engine meant less weight, more efficiency, and, ultimately, fewer pit stops. The hybrid system of the TS050 also featured a different setup.

Race car technology trickles down into road cars. Toyota took the opposite approach.

Traditionally, race car technology and development is trickled down into road cars. The motorsports circuit generally becomes a test bed for what automakers internally call QDR, which stands for quality, dependability, and reliability. In the case of the TS050, the Toyota team took the opposite approach and utilized technology from existing everyday commuter cars: regenerative braking.

Like the TS040, the rear-mounted engine is paired with a Denso-sourced electric motor to operate the rear wheels. An electric motor from Aisin AW powers the front. However, unlike the TS040 which utilized a super capacitor to store its electric energy, the TS050 front and rear generators recover energy while braking and store it within a Toyota-developed, high-powered lithium-ion battery. The total power output of the TS050 is 735 kilowatts, or roughly 987 horsepower. Interestingly, the power output is equally produced between the internal combustion engine and hybrid systems.

But 2017 was supposed to be different. With motorsports R&D operating almost as quickly as its vehicles, at least when compared to consumer cars, the TS050 had already been updated for this season. The TS040 already proved to be a winner in 2014 as the then-named Toyota Racing team campaigned to win the overall WEC title in both driver’s and manufacturer’s categories. So, with high hopes encouraged by the supporting science, the new TS050 was the race car to beat.

Optimized and optimistic

The combustion engine and overall power output remain the same but the efficiency of the overall TS050 system has been improved for 2017. A new combustion chamber, cylinder block, and cylinder head were developed to increase the compression ratio and subsequently improve thermal efficiency. Also, the motor generator units (MGU) of the hybrid system are more compact while the lithium-ion battery has been refined.

toyota racing woes 2017 le mans wec thursday quali 16
Toyota Motorsport
Toyota Motorsport

However, new WEC regulations actually required that the vehicles to be slower due to safety concerns. To reduce the aerodynamics, the front splitter of the TS050 was raised 15 millimeters and combined with a narrower rear diffuser. The sidepods also feature a sharper undercut. Additionally, side mirrors must display a wider visibility and hybrid cars must display green safety lights to indicate normal powertrain operation.

Other restrictions also now limit the number of allowable aerodynamic configurations from three to two as well as the number of tire sets per qualifying and six-hour races. Yet, even with safety rules place, the low-downforce TS050 Hybrids have only gone on to achieve the fastest lap times of the season.

Can’t stop, won’t stop

Toyota Gazoo Racing will field two cars (#7 and #8) for most of the nine-race WEC, with three-vehicle efforts (#9 added) occurring at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and Le Mans’ Circuit de la Sarthe in France. All but Le Mans are six-hour races, with Spa being a sort of warm-up for 24-hour race. The #7 car is piloted by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López; the #8 car by Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson, and Kazuki Nakajima; and Stéphane Sarrazin, Yuji Kunimoto, and Nicolas Lapierre helm the #9 entry.

So, how fast have the TS050s been? Fast. Very fast.

For starters, the UK’s Silverstone circuit saw the #7 achieve the fastest lap ever recorded by an LMP1 car for WEC competition. Suffice to stay, the #7 achieved pole position with the #8 car following quickly behind in position two. In the end, the #8 won the first race of the 2017 season while the #7 finished 23rd due to an extended pit stop following a crash.

The action at Spa-Francorchamps was similarly speedy. With the #9 car setting the fastest lap times in practice, an accident-laden qualifying made for a challenging affair. Average times saw the Toyota hybrids starting second (#7), third (#9), and fourth (#8). The #8 car would later earn its second win in as many starts with the #7 car finishing second. The #9 car crossed the line in fifth.

With quick runs and excellent starting positions, finding a TS050 in the front of the starting grid was becoming the norm. At Le Mans, the biggest race of the year and, for some drivers, of their careers, Toyota Gazoo Racing’s #7 earned pole, #8 pulled up in second, and #9 would start fifth. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Kobayashi set the fastest lap time ever recorded at Circuit de la Sarthe, besting a 32-year-old record previously held by Porsche by 2.096 seconds.

Excitement, expectations, and exasperations

“Keep calm and carry on,” as the saying goes for satisfactory practices and excellent starting positions seemingly go by the wayside once the green flag is dropped. Even more unpredictable is a race that goes on for 24 continuous hours.

FIAWEC/Youtube

Hopes were high and expectations elevating when a third of the race was done and #7 continued to lead with #8 in close contention. But then at hour eight, the #8 car had to pit after suffering a front motor issue. Two hours later, the lead-car #7 would be forced to retire due to a clutch problem. And #9? Just minutes after #7 was officially pulled from the race, #9 was struck from behind by an LMP2 car, spun out, and suffered damage to its hydraulics thanks to a puncture.

After a couple of jumpy starts on the side of the track, there was an unbelievable determination to get the vehicle into the pits for repair. But those feelings turned into despair as, just a few hundred meters shy of the pit entrance, its lights visible around the corner, the #9 could no longer shift gears and was towed off the track. At 1:35 a.m., there were no Toyotas left in the race.

The sound of deflated hearts was deafening.

Eventually, after two hours in the pits, the #8 did return to the race, climbing from last place to finishing ninth overall. The irony? Four of the top five lap times during the 24-hour sprint were set by Toyota, including the #8 car doing so late in the race.

Moving forward

According to Team Director Rob Leupen, the performance of TS050 vehicle itself is not a concern during races but rather the management of its components, such as the battery, fuel, and tires. Just knowing which compound type of the “dry” tire can create anxiety.

For the long-range future of racing, particularly of the endurance kind, Leupen can see automakers moving toward hydrogen once the teams reach peak hybrid, if you will. Autonomous technology of road cars won’t trickle up and find a place in racing either, or not anytime within the next decade. “The software is important for consumer cars,” Leupen told Digital Trends, “but race cars are limited to things like a dual-clutch transmission and traction control. So, the focus has to be on other areas of technology and development.”

Toyota Gazoo Racing has found itself to be neither David or Goliath in this narrative. The points leader coming into Le Mans, the team now finds itself a distant second due to the 24 Hour of Le Mans being worth double points. But with six events to go, and knowing full well anything can happen, a series championship is not yet completely out of reach, even if a Le Mans win this year is. After all, it is only a matter of time before a fastest-lap pole position is matched with a top-of-the-podium trophy raise. Being able to program a dash of luck into the race car system wouldn’t hurt either.

Product Review

While other crossovers dabble in dirt, Toyota's truck-like RAV4 doubles down

The 2019 Toyota RAV4 gets a clean-sheet redesign, ditching the previous generation’s car-like styling for truck-like toughness. Toyota’s compact crossover also gets more tech and new powertrains.
Cars

2019 Crosstrek Hybrid has something no Subaru has ever had

The 2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid is the Japanese automaker's first production plug-in hybrid vehicle. It will go on sale before the end of the year. Subaru relied on plug-in hybrid tech from Toyota to make the Crosstrek Hybrid a reality.
Home Theater

The best movies on Netflix in November, from 'Buster Scruggs’ to ‘Dracula’

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Cars

Born to run (forever): The most reliable cars you can buy right now

We all dread the thought of our car turning into a money pit, but choosing a dependable vehicle from the start can help us rack up countless care-free miles. Here, we've rounded up some of the most reliable cars available.
Cars

Drool over Lamborghini’s latest dream machine: The one-off SC18

The Lamborghini SC18 was built by the automaker's Squadra Corse racing department at the request of a customer. Based on the Lamborghini Aventador, it features upgraded aerodynamic aids and reduced weight.
Cars

Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn ousted, arrested after whistleblower cries foul

Nissan will oust chairman Carlos Ghosn after an internal investigation revealed he underreported his salary to Japan's financial authorities for years. Greg Kelly, one of Nissan's representative directors, will leave for the same reason.
Product Review

A Mercedes so sophisticated, it connects to your watch to plan your massage

The mid-size luxury SUV segment is a must-win competition, and the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE is the newest contender. With active suspension, driver assist, and even a connection to your watch, this is more than an SUV, it’s a mobile device.
Cars

Tesla owners will soon be able to summon a repair van in a few taps

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted out plans to expand the Tesla mobile app so Tesla owners can request on-demand service for common problems from Tesla Ranger mobile service vehicles in just a few taps.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Nissan turmoil, product designer Jae Yoo of Nerf, and more

For today's episode of Digital Trends Live, we turn our attention to the L.A. Auto Show and Lamborghini's race-ready version of the Urus. We also speak with Jae Yoo of Nerf and MLS defender Zarek Valentin about their origins, modern tech…
Cars

Mini’s most extreme hot hatchback will hit the streets in 2020

The Mini John Cooper Works GP concept first seen at the 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show will go into production in 2020, Mini has confirmed. The John Cooper Works GP is the ultimate performance version of the basic Mini Cooper.
Cars

Jaguar can take the next F-Type in one of two completely different directions

Jaguar needs to decide what the future has in store for the F-Type. Its options include turning the next-generation model into an electric car aimed at the Tesla Roadster or pelting it into the ring with a twin-turbocharged V8 from BMW.
Cars

With lessons learned from racing, Mercedes-AMG takes GT R sports car to next level

Mercedes-AMG keeps finding ways to make its GT sports car even more hardcore. If you thought the GT R variant was as good as it got, get ready for the GT R Pro, which will race into the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show.
Cars

Volvo will be at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, but it won’t bring any cars

Volvo has declared that it won't unveil any new models at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, and that its display at the show won't feature a single car. Instead, Volvo plans to focus on mobility services.
Cars

How a village in Italy caught 58,000 speeding drivers in just 10 days

A village in Italy knew it had an issue with cars speeding through it, but data from a newly set-up speed camera left residents utterly gobsmacked. In just the first 10 days, the camera recorded more than 58,000 speeding offenses.