Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Forget The Prius GT300, THIS Is The Only Hybrid You Should Care About

2012 Toyota TS030 at the Paul Ricard Circuit
Wow, Toyota are really keen to get rid of their dull image. First they co-produce the GTBRZ86-RS coupé with Subaru, then they make a Prius to enter the GT300 class of SUPER GT, and now we have here their first Le Mans entry since 1999 (around the last time they were this awesome), the TS030. Sure, it's a hybrid, but it's in the Porsche/Williams flywheel-accumulator-cum-KERS kind of way, not the barely-moving Auris HSD kind of way. Toyota, if all goes well come mid-June, you will be one step closer to reclaiming your long-lost awesomeness. Especially as Peugeot have bowed out...

Actually, let's start with the Frenchies first before I continue with Toyota. Peugeot have officially pulled out of prototype racing after a five-year tussle with Audi for the all-important win at Le Mans - which it achieved in 2009 - and the new Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, which it won for the first time last year. Apparently, "This decision has been taken in the context of a difficult economic environment in Europe," according to an official statement. "Peugeot has chosen to concentrate resources on its sales performance in 2012." Bummer. The new 208 had better be good...

Look at those eyes. You couldn't stay mad at it.
While Peugeot focuses on selling hatchbacks and saloons, Toyota is now focusing on their new racing car. Funny how things change. The TS030 is powered by a 3.4-litre V8 (perhaps the same one it uses in its GT500 Lexus SC430, as engine size in SUPER GT is capped at 3400cc, and that would just make sense), which is aided by a new hybrid system imaginatively called Toyota Hybrid System - Racing (THS-R). Little is known about the system at this point, but LMP rules state that the electrical energy it saves up (with a maximum of 500kJ) can only be released through two wheels (or one axle). Another regulation says that, were it to be released through the front wheels, it can only do so "above 120km/h [~75mph]", so as not to give this layout any traction advantages out of corners, particularly slow ones. That's why All-Wheel-Drive systems are banned in most motorsports, after cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R dominated globally with AWD. Toyota are currently reviewing two hybrid systems, a front-motor system produced by Aisin AW, and a rear-motor system developed by DENSO, who have run a Toyota SUPER GT team for years.

Behind those puppy-dog eyes, the body is very reminiscent of the Audi R18 TDI that won the LM24 last year (although it wasn't an easy race), which one could argue is slightly derivative, but then if you're making a new LMP1 car from scratch, the 24 Hours winner isn't exactly a bad source of inspiration. Besides, with diesel still being the faster engine, perhaps using similar aerodynamics will help put the rookie TS030 in range of the soul remaining oil-burner. Without Peugeot bothering them, Audi could walk it this year if the new rules hindering progress aren't enough to stop them claiming their 11th Le Mans win in 14 years. Being a new car, the TS030 isn't realistically in with a shot of winning, but with a proven engine (if I'm right about it being the GT500 engine) and, ahem, proven aerodynamics, who knows? Maybe it could be in with a shot of scoring some decent finishes. Hybrid versus diesel? You wouldn't have expected that to be a real contest in endurance racing 5 or 10 years ago, yet here we are. Maybe in 5 or 10 years' time, it'll be diesel hybrids versus hydrogen. You never know. Its first race is the 6 Hours of Spa, held on the 5th May at, er, Spa.

That's all I can really think to say about this car, except for that name. TS030 may sound as boring as any other prototype racing car name (908 HDI, R18 TDI, AMR-One, ARX-01, B11/40, the list goes on), but actually there's a degree of nostalgia in there. TS stands for Toyota Sport, but the '030' is carrying on from the last 20 years. Kind of:

Note how similar the paint job is to the TS030.
1992 Toyota TS010 (Group C)

The first car to use this name layout was the TS010 (always good to start with a one), entered in the World Sportscar Championship in 1992. This followed major changes in the series, which meant they had to retire the ##C-V car (GT5'ers will be aware of the Minolta-sponsored 88C-V) for this new chassis, built to take the new regulation 3.5-litre V10 which replaced the 3.6 V8TT they were using. It actually debuted in late 1991 (about a month before I did) at a Japanese track called Autopolis, finishing 6th. When it raced for reals in '92, it won the first race of the WSC season at a very wet Monza, after the lead Peugeot crashed out (spooky). Alas, that was its only win that year. At Le Mans, it also did very well, setting the fastest lap of the race and hitting the highest speed in the race as well, although this time the lead Peugeot made it to the end, meaning the lead TS010 came in 2nd, six laps behind, with the other finishing 8th. The rest of the year wasn't great, with reliability problems taking both cars out in the second round (as well as one of them in rounds 4 and 5). They always finished behind one or two Peugeots. In 1993, the WSC was cancelled after manufacturers lost interest following a shaky '92 season, leaving only Le Mans left for the car to enter. Enter they did, with three specially-made new cars. Eddie Irvine and company brought their TS010 home in 4th place, behind a trio of dominating Peugeots. Perhaps Toyota can manage the same result this year behind the Audis? Anything can happen...

1998 Toyota TS020 "GT-One" (GT1/GTP)

In 1994, Toyota decided to change tact and switch to GT racing, with a heavily modified Supra LM and a heavily modified MR2 using a new 600-horsepower 4.0 V8 Twin-Turbo, which became the SARD MC8. After the SARD car proved itself superior to the Supra, Toyota decided to skip 1997 and spend the year developing a pure-bred bespoke racing car for the GT1 class. That year, the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR and Porsche 911 GT1 appeared, fearsome loophole-exploiting cars that dominated the FIA GT Championship (which arose from the ashes of Group C via IMSA in America). These were bespoke cars, with a tiny number sold as road cars to homologate them and officially call them "production-based". Toyota found they only needed two road cars to pass this rule, which they didn't technically sell to anyone, as they both live in Toyota museums. After discovering that Mercedes exposed the loophole of all GT cars having to be able to hold a standard-sized suitcase by putting a useless cubby hole somewhere in the back, Toyota were somehow able to convince ACO officials that the empty fuel tank counted, because technically it could hold a suitcase. It sounds silly, but hey, it worked, and so the TS020 was born in 1998, featuring an updated version of the old ##C-V's 3.6-litre V8TT. 600 horsepower propelled a 900kg bespoke racer to speeds of up to 236mph, and the slippery aerodynamic body (featuring a front diffuser) meant it wasn't nearly as scary as doing the same speeds or more in a lift-producing Porsche 917K. The GT-One, as it became known, looked utterly fantastic, but while it was no slouch, it ultimately went without a win during its two-year career.

Its debut race was the 1998 LM24, and despite qualifying 2nd, as well as 7th and 8th, it didn't go well. Halfway through the race, car #28 suffered a high-speed crash. After that, #29 had a gearbox failure and had to retire from 2nd place, leaving #27 to finish a dismal 9th, 25 laps behind the dominant Porsche 911 GT1. Because these GT1 cars were so fast they actually out-raced the supposedly-faster LMP cars (the fastest of which only managed 8th that year), the FIA closed the loopholes in GT1 and made the GTP class for cars like the GT-One. Porsche left in '99 to make room for Audi, and Mercedes-Benz turned the CLK GTR into the CLR, which, as it turned out, had a habit of back-flipping into the air at very high speed as it went over a crest on the Mulsanne straight, causing them to pull out mid-race before someone was killed. Did this leave Toyota with a clear shot at a win? Well, er, no. While they were fastest in testing at Spa, as well as qualifying 1st, 2nd and 8th at le Mans, the front wheel wells were designed with aerodynamic purposes, and the way they were designed meant that front punctures were fatal (to the car, not drivers). This was because debris and sharp gravel could get into places it shouldn't, which happened twice in the race, one instance of which left a car destroyed after a big accident. The lone car fought against the Williams-BMW V12 LMR through the night, but it too finally suffered a puncture, although it wasn't fatal this time. The lone #3 car had to crawl back to the pits and went on to finish a lap behind the BMW, in 2nd place. After that its only other race was the Fuji 1000KM, in which it was a lap behind the Nissan R391, in 2nd place. It was beautiful, it was devastatingly fast, but it had an Achilles heel, which tripped it up time and again. After 1999, Toyota pulled out and started putting together and equally unsuccessful Formula 1 team, racing from 2002-2009.

2012 Toyota TS030 HYBRID (LMP1)

After running and engine in a Lola LMP1 chassis last year, Toyota are entering a factory-backed car in the top class. The rest is as you read earlier. Many of Toyotas failings during races have been down to reliability, which given the reputation of their road cars seems unusual. Perhaps they can get over this perennial issue this year, as we not only live in a world of bulletproof Toyotas, but of Le Mans Prototype cars that can race flat-out for 24 hours without engine failures or flipping over or anything. Well, some of them can. Aston Martin's car was crap last year. As a new car taking on an evolved version of a winner, it seems doubtful that it could overthrow the R18 TDI, but if all goes well, a podium finish isn't out of the question, if history tells us anything...

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