The graceful lines of the GTR-One look as right oday as they did in 1999 (MAIN), so it’s no surprise that plans for Toyota’s new GT bear more than a passing resemblance. The manufacturer prepared for its Le Mans return by supplying engines to Rebellion Racing’s Lola (BELOW).
Toyota’s announcement that it is returning to Le Mans next year with a factory LMP1 car reignites a program
that looked set to lead the way toward a
new era of sports car racing in its first
iteration back in 1998-’99. Not for the first
or last time, that program was cut short
by the manufacturer behind becoming
distracted by the lure of Formula 1. Yet the
technology behind it helped push sports
car development in new directions – some
of which can be seen in the all-new LMP1
now in preparation by the same German-based Toyota Motorsport group that built
and raced the GTR-One.
Toyota had briefly been a player in
Le Mans’ Group C era but, when that
formula became extinct (in large part
because Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz
opted to switch to F1 instead), Toyota
decided to focus its efforts on production-based GT racing. After first running a
Supra in the 24 Hours, Toyota opted to
start from scratch for 1998 with an
all-new carbon fiber chassis powered by a
3.6-liter twin-turbocharged V8.
The car exploited GT rules to the
fullest, even utilizing a loophole which
permitted its fuel tank to serve as the
required “luggage space” for GT cars, as
rival Mercedes-Benz had done with its
similarly radical CLK-GTR.
The GTR-One easily eclipsed the
privately run prototypes that were
supposed to be the premiere class at
Le Mans, although it was not quite on
the pace of the Mercedes. One of the two
entries crashed out early in the race,
while the second overcame a gearbox
failure to finish ninth overall.
While Toyota had fallen short, the GT
class as a whole dominated, taking the
first seven places. This result wasn’t
quite what the Automobile Club de
l’Ouest had in mind, and it revised the
rules to increase the “production-based”
requirements for GT cars. But, as is often
the case, the car builders quickly surged
ahead of the rule makers.
Toyota and Mercedes both redesigned
their G Ts to suit the GTP prototype rules.
While the CLK-GTR required extensive
modifications to become the CLK LM, the
LE MANS, FRANCE,
JUNE 12-13, 1999
looked poised to
victory when a
tire failure in the
final hour ended
GT-One needed only minor revisions to
qualify as a prototype.
Mercedes was throttled at Le Mans in
’99 after its cars developed an alarming
propensity for flipping, but the restyled
GTR-One emerged as the strongest
challenger to the new BMW V12 LMR
prototype that was a joint project
between the German manufacturer and
its future F1 partner, Williams. Tire
failures would prove the downfall of the
GTR-Ones – one resulting in considerable
damage to Martin Brundle’s car that
forced its retirement, and another which
forced a long, slow lap with a flat for
Ukyo Katayama, who’d been chasing the
leading BMW in the closing stages. Yet
the GTR-One recovered to finish second
overall, and the car’s future looked rosy.
However, with Le Mans success came
F1 envy. At year’s end, the GTR-One was
shelved in favor of a works Toyota grand
prix team that would prove a complete
bust. BMW also quit sports cars a year later
to focus on F1 with Williams, but ultimate
glory eluded their association, too.
Now, the shoe is on the other foot as
car makers steer clear of direct F1
involvement in favor of more production-relevant sports cars. So, perhaps the
timing of Toyota’s new Le Mans venture
will be more propitious.