Toyota’s return to the Le Mans 24 Hours, announced this morning, is fantastic news for endurance sportscar racing.
The Japanese firms hold Le Mans in extremely high regard, and Mazda, Nissan and Toyota have all mounted substantial attempts to win the race in the past.
Only Mazda has been successful – with its screaming, rotary-powered 787B driven by Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler in 1991 – but quite how Toyota’s magnificent GT-One car of the late 1990s didn’t achieve victory is beyond me.
I was at Le Mans in 1999 when Toyota entered three GT-Ones against quality opposition including BMW, Audi, Nissan and Mercedes.
The Toyotas – which had ex-F1 stars Martin Brundle and Thierry Boutsen on its driver team – really took the fight to the Mercs in the early stages of the race. After Peter Dumbreck’s CLR had suffered its horrifying flip into the trees, the German firm withdrew and Toyota looked strong favourites to win.
Two GT-Ones retired, leaving the all-Japanese crew of Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki and Keiichi Tsuchiya as the manufacturer’s sole remaining car.
Katayama sniffed a win, and put in a sensational attack – which was halted when he suffered a tyre blow-out that let the leading BMW escape to victory. It was Toyota’s last top-line bid at Le Mans because it started work on its (embarrassing) F1 project.
Although Audi and Peugeot have waged some memorable battles at La Sarthe in the last couple of years, the return of a Japanese manufacturer will add extra spice to the fight at the front.
The fact Toyota’s new prototype racing car will use a petrol-hybrid powertrain will also add a interesting new dimension to the fight in the diesel-dominated top class. The key to winning at Le Mans is spending as little time in the pits as possible, so a frugal hybrid should be competitive.
Time to book some ferry tickets for next June…