24 Hours Centenary – Toyota's long road to victory

24 Hours Centenary – Toyota's long road to victory

24 HOURS CENTENARY – MAKES, MARQUES and IMPRINTS ⎮ Though Mazda was the first Japanese manufacturer to triumph at the race (1991), Toyota's track record now boasts five wins in a row. Given its rookie participation took place in 1985, this is a stunning example of perseverance in the face of many disappointments.

Toyota made its rookie appearance in the 24 Hours in 1975 with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine powering a Sigma chassis. It wasn't until 10 years later that the marque took the start with a full factory team, and two 85C prototypes. One was forced to retire, the other finished 12th driven by Kaoru Hoshino, Masanori Sekiya and Satoru Nakajima. The last two drivers went on to make history at the race: in 1995, Sekiya became the first Japanese driver to win the 24 Hours (with a McLaren F1 GTR), and Kazuki Nakajima (son of Satoru) earned three consecutive victories (2018, 2019 and 2020) and two pole positions (2014 and 2018) with Toyota.

The 1990s | Glory just beyond reach

At the beginning of the 1990s, Toyota began edging its way to victory. In 1992, after a long duel with the winning Peugeot, Masanori Sekiya, Kenny Acheson and Pierre-Henri Raphanel secured the marque's first podium finish with second place.

Two years later, Toyota figured at the top of the classification for 20 straight hours before Eddie Irvine, Jeff Krosnoff and Mauro Martini, the solid leaders since dawn on Sunday, suffered a failed gearbox less than three hours from the chequered flag. The trio still managed to salvage second place in the final laps.

The 1998 24 Hours saw the first appearance of the Toyota GT-One designed by French engineer André de Cortanze, creator of the Peugeot 905 winner in 1992 and 1993, and main Toyota rival at that time. TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Technical Director Pascal Vasselon: "The GT-One is unique for three reasons. It was of a new aerodynamic generation but remained very beautiful, it embodied a new conception of endurance...and it never won the 24 Hours of Le Mans!" In 1998, the GT-One was forced to retire at the end of the race with victory in sight, and Martin Brundle clocked Toyota's first pole position in 1999 with a GT-One. But only one of the three GT-Ones fielded crossed the finish line, with second place for Toshio Suzuki/Keiichi Tsuchiya/Ukyo Katayama, the best result for a Japanese crew at Le Mans.

2012-2022 | Resilience and reward

After having spent the 2000s in Formula 1 under its own colours and as an engine supplier, Toyota returned to endurance racing in 2012, the year of the re-establishment of the discipline's world championship. The world's leading manufacturer of hybrid touring cars was always on the cutting edge of performance, but the road to victory was strewn with setbacks.

In 2014, the 14 hours spent in the lead by Alex Wurz, Kazuki Nakajima and Stéphane Sarrazin ended in retirement, with a fire for good measure. Two years later, Nakajima came to full stop on his way to victory just one lap from the chequered flag.

Toyota finally reached the top step on the podium at the 24 Hours in 2018, quashing what seemed like veritable curse. Sébastien Buemi has won the race four times, along with Kazuki Nakajima (2018, 2019 and 2020), Fernando Alonso (2018 and 2019), Brendon Hartley (2020 and 2022) and Ryo Hirakawa (2022). In 2021, the trio Mike Conway/Kamui Kobayashi/José María López gave Toyota the first win of the new Hypercar era.

Toyota is now the fourth manufacturer in history to clinch five consecutive victories after (in chronological order) Ferrari, Porsche and Audi. In addition to eight pole positions (1999, 2014, then from 2017 to 2022), the marque has held since 2017 the circuit's absolute lap record thanks to Kamui Kobayashi in 3:18.604, at an average of nearly 252 kph. A possible sixth win on 11 June for the Centenary would certainly be icing on the cake for the Japanese constructor, firmly cementing its place in the 24 Hours pantheon.


PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO/Archives): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 1992-2022 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. From top to bottom: Toyota won its fifth victory in 2022, its fourth with the #8 that also scored the marque's eighth pole; powered by a naturally aspirated 3.5 liter V10 engine, the TS010 gave Toyota its first podium, in 1992 (#33); the car driven by Japanese trio Suzuki/Tsuchiya/Katayama was the only GT-One to finish the 1999 24 Hours (#3); the two crews representing Toyota for its return to Le Mans in 2012 after a 13-year absence, with from left to right, Sébastien Buemi, Stéphane Sarrazin, Anthony Davidson, Nicolas Lapierre, Kazuki Nakajima and Alex Wurz; Fernando Alonso and Sébastien Buemi (with Kazuki Nakajima at the wheel of the #8) clinched Toyota's first win at the 24 Hours in 2018 with the TS050 Hybrid; in 2021, the Toyota GR010 Hybrid (#7) won the first 24 Hours of the Hypercar era.

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