In 2002 one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers went racing in Formula 1, and the largest asset that powered Panasonic Toyota Racing was money. In that 2002 F1 season Toyota scored just two points and embarked on, let’s say, an enlightening seven seasons… It took the Japanese until 2009 to learn that in racing money alone couldn’t buy wins. Toyota left the sport without scoring a single Grand Prix victory, and it hurt.
These days the Japanese are focussing their yen on Le Mans, where Toyota has had much more success than in F1, even if the company’s endurance efforts are famously best remembered for one of the biggest disappointments in racing history.
With the most successful company in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Porsche, back in the fold, last year Toyota was up against two of the most ardent endurance racing teams around, with Audi to fight off besides the Stuttgarters. They stepped up, and occupied the second row of the grid in qualifying for the race start on June 18 when Le Mans’ famous clock struck three o’clock.
Twenty three hours later Toyota remarkably looked like they could defeat the Germans, but heartbreak defeated the Japanese instead. With 11 minutes on the clock Toyota took the lead, and with three minutes to go Kazuki Nakajima was a lap away from racing immortality. Instead he pulled to the side of the start/finish straight and retired, a simple intercooler air line robbing Toyota of what would’ve been only the second time a Japanese team claimed victory at Le Mans following Mazda’s historic 1991 win. A Porsche cruised by and did what Porsches do at Le Mans.
This time, however, Toyota isn’t running away. This time the lesson learnt was of determination, and the fix isn’t some deep pockets. It’s June again, and Toyota will remember last year’s heartache well. The team is back, fastest in Le Mans practice sessions by quite a margin, faster even than 2016’s pole lap set by Porsche. Come three o’clock next Sunday Toyota will be looking to sweep away Le Mans’ most infamous failure into the annals of history. They can only do so if they write that history themselves, and only winners get to do that.