Persistence, Murphy’s Law, and the Importance Thereof – Toyota at Le Mans 2012 – 18

The year is 2012, the month January. While punters on the internet speculate as to the likelihood of the world ending sometime in December, and London readies herself for the Olympics, things are not looking good at Peugeot, the French car manufacturer.

Following numerous profit warnings, PSA Peugeot Citroen Chief Executive Philippe Varin announces that the car maker is to save €800 million, and cut 6000 jobs. Worst of all, at least for car fans, Peugeot announces that they are pulling out of the greatest car race in the world – the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The fast, diesel powered Le Mans Prototypes Peugeot had spent years developing and perfecting, even winning with in 2009, will no longer compete.

Le Mans is split into four categories. Two are for cars built specifically for endurance racing – LMP1 (Le Mans Prototype 1) and LMP2, with LMP1 cars being faster. The other two are for GT cars, based on fast road cars like Ferraris or Porsches – GTE Pro, for teams with professional drivers, and GTE Am, for teams with a mixture of professional and amateur drivers.

Into this vanguard steps Toyota. Toyota, in 2012, had not competed at Le Mans for 13 years, and even then they had come second. This entry was all the more surprising given that the world financial situation, and the great expense (several tens of millions of euros) required to build a competitive LMP1. That’s right, they decided to plump for the most expensive category, and against the extremely experienced Audi team.

Toyota’s first car, the TSO30, was a reasonably competitive machine. It had a 3.4 litre V8 engine and a a hybrid system that used supercapacitors to recover energy during braking. At the 2012 24 hours of Le Mans, the No. 7 TSO30 led the race briefly, before crashing into another car and retiring from the race. The No. 8 Toyota was not quite as successful, being clipped by a GTE Am car (driven by an amateur driver) resulting in both cars crashing.

Two TSO30s were again entered for the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans, and this time they did rather better. The TSO30, though slower than the Audi R18s in the dry, was quicker in the wet, and lady luck decided to shine (or rather rain) on Toyota that night, and then again in the final hour. Not only had Toyota finished, they had also come 2nd and 4th in the race, quite the achievement in their second year.

However, this would be the end of the TSO30, because of the one constant in endurance racing – rule changes. Minor rule changes (increasing minimum weight of LMP1 cars by a small amount) had meant that the TSO30s in 2013 were not the same as those in 2012. In that year, the rules had been changed, to start in 2014. This had led to the development of a new Toyota – the TSO40, which first competed at the 2013 24 hours of Le Mans.

The TSO40 was an aerodynamic improvement on her predecessor, but used the same engine, albeit with a slightly larger displacement. Modifications to the engine meant it now kicked out a touch over 500 hp, sent to the rear wheels, but it could also send electrical power to the front wheels, making it 4 wheel drive.

However, now Toyota had more competition. Porsche, who had competed with GT cars (their 911s) in 2013, had decided to build a hybrid LMP1 car of their own. This eventually appeared as the Porsche 919 Hybrid, a car that had a small 4 cylinder petrol engine, but a very powerful battery hybrid system, a potent mixture that we’ll come back to later.

However, at the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans, the formidable new Porsche was pipped to the post by the new Toyota for pole position, with the No.7 on pole and the No.8 in third. Things were looking up for Toyota, when one of the TSO40s, the No. 8, managed to aquaplane into a barrier in the rain, and though she recovered, she was now out of the running for the lead, and would go on to finish 3rd.

But this is not unusual at Le Mans, hence why teams bring 2 or even 3 cars, and, despite some early battling with Porsche, the No. 7 led for several hours. It was at this point that Lady luck, who had shone before on Toyota, decided to change her mind. An electrical fault burned out part of the engine control, leading to the car rolling to a stop and being retired. Needless to say, this was a great embarrassment for Toyota. It would not be the last.

2015 was an interesting year for the LMP1 class. Not only were Audi, Toyota and Porsche coming back, a new entrant had also come along, with a radically different idea of how to win, and they also hailed from the land of the rising sun – Nissan. Nissan’s new entry was the GT-R LM Nismo, also a hybrid car, but this time with the engine driving the front wheels. This in theory would give more grip in the rain, which might just tip the balance. Unfortunately for Nissan, 2015’s race was very dry, apart from a small oil spill from a Porsche GT car. This would not have mattered in any case since the Nissan proved hideously unreliable, the cars spending a very long time in the garage and only one out of 3 actually finishing, but not covering enough distance to be classified.

I tell you this side story to illustrate the difficulty of Le Mans, and of motorsport at this level. Nissan were not some poorly funded privateer team of amateurs, they had invested enormous amounts of engineering time and money into their effort, and yet still failed spectacularly. This just goes to show that Murphy’s law is very much in play, as it was with Toyota’s failed No.7 car the previous year. If it can go wrong, it has 24 hours of hard racing to go wrong.

2015 would also not be a happy year for Toyota. Both Audi and Porsche had redoubled their efforts, both bringing 3 cars to the competition, and their pace had increased significantly. It was not that Toyota had stood still – the TSO40 had been tweaked and fettled, with newer aerodynamics being the key change – the competition had simply advanced further. So it would prove, with Toyota simply not being quick enough to catch the front runners. Their best effort managed 6th, with the other TSO40 managing only 8th.

This did not deter them, however. In the works was a newer, quicker Toyota, the TSO50, to be ready for 2016. Again a hybrid, this car had a radically different biturbo V6 engine, backed up by a lithium ion battery system. I should say, has, rather than had, because this car is still in use by Toyota (more on this later).

At the 2016 24 hours of Le Mans, the 2 Toyotas, the No.6 and No.5, qualified rather better, in 3rd and 4th respectively, behind the 2 Porsche 919 Hybrids. However, in the race, the Toyotas managed to do better, with one Toyota, the No.5, thrashing out a lead of over a minute on the best Porsche, the No.2. At this point, with just a few minutes left of the 24 hour race, surely, Toyota would finally win, only the second Japanese manufacturer ever to do so. A magnificent victory for a marque that had stepped in to save a dying category from an ailing French stalwart,  an engineering giant, truly, a well deserved triumph…

Murphy’s Law struck once again – the leading Toyota began to experience a lack of power, due to an electrical fault. It was not necessarily fatal – if the No.5 could just hold off the Porsche for 3 more laps, they could still win. It was not to be. The Porsche caught the sick Toyota rapidly, with the TSO50 finally coming to a complete stand on the last lap of the race. If the experience so far had been unhappy for Toyota, this was the ultimate heartbreak. So close, and yet, so far.

But of course, Toyota were undeterred by such an experience, and came back for 2017, this time with 3 cars, the Numbers 7, 8 and 9.  Audi, having already won several Le Mans races, decided to leave to concentrate on Formula E, no doubt put off by the enormous cost of LMP1. Porsche announced that this would be their last Le Mans with the 919 Hybrid, again to concentrate on Formula E. They brought only 2 cars, not the previous 3, and there was an air of legacy surrounding the Porsche garages that year.

In qualifying, it was a Toyota 1, 2 and 5, with the Porsches stuck in between. Everything was looking great for Toyota, with a win surely this year guaranteed, and a strong start to the race. This year, an interesting spanner was thrown into the works – both a Porsche and a Toyota had hybrid system problems, necessitating a lengthy stop in the garages. Here we see another factor – the human factor. Porsche’s hybrid system could be changed merely by taking off the nose of the car, whereas the Toyota system required deconstructing parts of the cockpit, making it much more difficult to change and prolonging the stop.

Suffice to say, the No. 8 Toyota was now out of the running for the win. But this was okay, because Toyota had brought 3 cars to the race, and they still had 2 out on the track in competitive positions, which could catch up to the lead. Toyota’s drivers were to have a night of hard driving, but they would be rewarded with victory the following afternoon.

Or so they thought. It was at this point that Lady Luck turned from negligent to downright cruel. The No. 7 Toyota, in first place, suffered a clutch failure, leaving her only on battery power. This would not necessarily be the end for her, if she could make it back to the pits for repairs. Unfortunately, the track at Le Mans, the Circuit de la Sarthe, is over 8 miles long, and the poor TSO50 could not quite make it past the white pit lane line, from where the team could have jacked her up and brought her back in.

But again, this is why Toyota had brought 3 cars. The final remaining competitive Toyota, the No. 9, could still potentially win the race, despite having qualified 5th. Toyota were very shortly to be denied a third time that night, with the No. 9 suffering a collision with an LMP2 car and a puncture. The driver of No.9 at the time, understandably frustrated, went too fast through a gravel trap, making the puncture worse, to the point where the gearbox was damaged. No.9 came to an embarrassing halt, Toyota’s dreams having been halted in less than an hour. Porsche went on to take another victory.

As 2018 dawned,  Toyota were now the only manufacturer team in LMP1. The only competition came from much poorer Privateer teams like Rebellion and SMP racing, and so there was no question as to who would be fastest. At Le Mans this year, they brought just 2 cars, but by this time, the bugs had been ironed out.

2018’s Le Mans 24 hour was a much more boring, but ultimately happy, experience, for Toyota, with the No.7 and No.8 Toyotas running a near-flawless race, finishing second and first respectively. At the 7th time of asking, Toyota were finally victorious.

So why did I share this long, overcomplicated story with you? Let this serve as an example to the world – no matter how important, well funded or experienced you are, Murphy’s law can always strike, and that, despite this, one must keep on trying. One must keep trying because ultimately, the shame of not quite achieving the goal would far outweigh the struggle of coming back for another go.

But there we are. With that, I shall wish you an excellent day.

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