Toyota is going sports car racing, and it intends to enter the hotly-contested LMP1 class from next year with a car powered by a petrol hybrid power-train. Though rumors have predicted a Toyota LMP1 car even before the company closed its calamitous F1 effort at the end of 2009, Toyota's presence appears certain to invigorate Le Mans racing which has been a battle of the diesel cars of Peugeot and Audi for the last few years.
Regulations for 2012 have already restricted the breathing, lowered the fuel capacity and cut the maximum turbocharger boost on diesel race cars, and now at least three major manufacturers (Toyota, Peugeot and Porsche) look set to use hybrid race cars by 2013.
Toyota previously competed in Le Mans racing during the late eighties, and then with a concerted effort in 1998 and 1999. Despite competing in an era of intense competition from big manufacturers (Mercedes, BMW, Nissan, and Audi), Toyota acquitted itself extremely well and in 1999, the exquisite Carbon fiber and aluminum honeycomb monocoque Toyota GT-One was extremely unlucky not to win.
In the end, it finished second after setting pole and fastest lap thanks to reputedly excellent handling characteristics and more than ample power - 600 bhp - from Toyota's R36V 3.6 liter twin-turbo V8.
Sadly, the entire project was shelved at the end of 1999 when it was decided to focus the company's resources on building a Formula One team. Perhaps the decision to pursue success in F1 was based on the quickly achieved success of the Le Mans venture.
The question being asked now, is whether Toyota repeat the immediate competitiveness it demonstrated last time with the GT-One, and maybe even win the Le Mans race in 2012?
Stranger things have happened in motorsport, but I'd suggest that it might take Toyota a year or two to find all the ingredients required for success at this level. Audi has been beaten twice in this race in the last 12 years and on one of those occasions, the Bentley Speed 8 that won in 2003 did so with a lot of Audi technology, an Audi engine and a team of drivers that normally drive for Audi, which is a sister company to Bentley. Audi did not field a works team that year. That's the 2011 winning team from Audi below - Toyota would need an extraordinary effort to get on the pace by 2012.
The overwhelming message is that Audi will be very hard to beat after winning so consistently for so long, and Peugeot got within a few seconds of them this year. Toyota can expect it to be far more difficult to reach competitiveness than it did a decade or more ago.
Secondly, hybrid technology for racing is still under development. The first Le Mans hybrid was the 908 HDi FAP, shown at Silverstone in 2008 for the first time. It was originally intended to race in the 2009 Le Mans Series but expected rules changes designed to nurture hybrid technologies did not eventuate and the project has been part of ongoing hybrid race development by the company ever since.
Hence it's not surprising now that the rules have changed, that Peugeot has its 2012 car, the 908 HYbrid 4, already on track. The hybrid was shown to the world for the first time at the Geneva Motor Show (March, 2011), had its first shakedown run in mid-September, and its first track test at Estoril in Portugal last week. Peugeot's A-team of drivers (Nicolas Minassian, Stéphane Sarrazin and Alexander Wurz) put 300 kilometers on the car as they set about testing every aspect of the vehicle.
Toyota is the world's biggest car company. It has the money to make things happen, and one of the big things in its favor in going sports car racing is that the cars are enclosed, and NOT open wheelers as in Formula One. The aerodynamic complexities of a Formula One car are so great that very few people in the world understand them. Toyota will have no such problems with its LMP1 effort.
It might seem impossible that Toyota's first car, which won't even be in one piece until early 2012, might surpass the Peugeot 908 HYbrid 4 in time to win Le Mans in June, but with so much work done inside computers these days, it's possible that the Toyota might be competitive once it's all bolted together.
Just the same, Toyota is incredibly bullish about its prospects. Toyota Motorsport Chairman, Tadashi Yamashina, was quite clear about the company's intentions at the announcement: "We want to write a new chapter in the history of the Le Mans 24 Hours, as in the FIA World Endurance Championship, through our use of hybrid technology."
They'll also need to be quick, because 16-times Le Mans winner Porsche is also preparing a return to the sport in a car that is rumored to be a hybrid, and the German factory knows how to find the winners' circle.
Full details of Toyota's 2012 campaign have not yet been finalized, though the 2012 Le Mans 24 Hours is definitely on the agenda, along with "other races" in the 2012 FIA World Endurance Championship.
The new LMP1 chassis will be designed, developed and produced by Toyota Motorsport in Germany, at the site of the former F1 Race team headquarters, and the hybrid petrol powertrain will be produced by Toyota in Japan.