Toyota’s fight for Le Mans victory

A personal testimony from Akio Toyoda

I am sad to say that I have never had the opportunity to be present at the 24 hours of Le Mans because every year it coincides with Toyota’s stockholders' meeting. It was the same last year.

Reliving the heartbreak
At around 10pm, I was in front of the TV in my house in Japan and was anticipating with building joy the moment when Toyota would gain the victory for the first time. My mobile in hand, I communicated constantly with the team in France.

Not only have I competed myself, but I have been to many races and even though I knew well that anything could happen between the start and the chequered flag, this time I felt a sense of victory, of winning. Once the chasing Porsche made a pit stop my feeling got stronger and then, suddenly, our car slowed down - the driver shouted, ‘No power’ on the radio and stopped on the track in front of race control line with three minutes left of the 24 hours.

It was a shocking moment. I remember the heartbreaking feeling and could not find the words I wanted to say to each member of the team: the drivers, mechanics, engineers, suppliers and everyone involved who had put so much of themselves into this magnificent effort.

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I did not understand what had happened immediately but when I saw the excitement and joy of the Porsche crews on TV, I realized that our dream was over for that year.

That was our 18th challenge to win Le Mans last year and, so far, our best results have been silver medals. Our loyal fans continue to support us, for which we send grateful thanks, and they continue to inspire us to “take a gold medal for this year!” year after year. I share their passion, so I also felt sorry for them in that moment in 2016.

Statement of thanks
Mr. Uchiyamada, our father of Hybrid and also father of our Le Mans campaign was at the race last year and, originally, I asked him to issue a statement. After seeing what happened, I decided to issue the statement myself, as the representative of the whole family of Toyota. This heartbreaking episode affected not only the team, but also all members of the Toyota family and this includes our supporting fans.

What I said was this:

“From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank everyone who lent us their incredible support during this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. We of TOYOTA GAZOO Racing put tremendous pressure on ourselves to break our losing streak at Le Mans and fought so hard to make up for the unfortunate results of the past. All of the mechanics, engineers, drivers, suppliers, and everyone else involved with the team made incredible sacrifices and achieved constant improvements to build an even-better car for this year's Le Mans.

Just as our dreams began to come true, we were all made to burn that moment into our minds, as unbelievable heartbreak unfolded before our very eyes. Toyota's cars have become so fast and so strong. But Porsche grew even faster and they were stronger. Throughout the 24 hours of the race―and, indeed, the 30 total hours including qualifying―it is not such an easy thing to continue to drive faster and more powerfully than anyone else on the road at Le Mans.

When I think of what everyone in the team must be feeling… not to mention everyone who supported us… I honestly do not know what to say. I cannot find the words. We at TOYOTA GAZOO Racing are not "sore losers". We do not compete without knowing the feeling of loss. Having tasted the true bitterness of losing, we will return to the World Endurance Championship arena next year, and we will return to compete in the battle that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For our quest to build ever-better cars… For this, we will certainly come back to the roads of Le Mans.

I would like to express my gratitude to all of the cars and drivers who fought alongside us on the track at Le Mans, particularly Porsche and Audi. We will be back next year, reborn, and ready to take you on with all of our might. Look out for Toyota, on the track next year. We hate to lose. The fight is not over!”

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First I sent this to Mr. Murata – the leader of Racing Hybrid Project, apologising that I could not be there in person. I particularly wanted him to read my message as he had devoted himself as project leader to nothing less than victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He pulled forward the car and team’s development by two years and said that “we cannot lose in 2016” after he experienced the double loss at Le Mans and in the WEC series in 2015.  

Later he told me that “The message you sent to me saved me, and I could drive myself to re-challenge for Le Mans in 2017.” He and his team drove themselves even harder, and I truly believe that we can see a victory this year.

Why we race
The reason Toyota is participating in motorsport is to “make ever-better cars”. Back in the 1950s, Kiichiro Toyoda, my grandfather and the founder of Toyota said – “Car racing is more than just entertainment. It is vital to the development of the Japanese vehicle industry. Just as athletes test their capabilities by competing with all their strength in the Olympics, automakers use racing as an opportunity to push a vehicle's performance to the limits and compete for supremacy, enabling them to discover new ways of advancing automotive technology.

This has not changed since then. I believe that new ideas and the effort required to bring them to life can be generated in the toughest of environments – which means racing. If we want to beat our own limits, the race track is the place to try. The lessons of competition make people and cars stronger and better. And that is why I am certain that motorsport is essential for the automotive industry.

The heartbreaking feeling we suffered last year generated a further challenge and brought new technology to this year’s Le Mans and to future Toyota cars.

Respect of the competition
After the sadness of 2016, we were honoured by Porsche and Audi who praised us for putting up such a good fight. Porsche posted: “Competed together for 24 hours. Head to head for 24 hours. Gained our respect forever.” with our TS050 picture on its social networks after the race. I was delighted that the traditional Europe motorsport teams recognized Toyota as a genuine and worthy competitor for the first time.

A few weeks later, I was very honoured and pleased to receive a personal letter from Dr. Porsche to which I responded and our correspondence led to a meeting between us at the Paris Motor Show. I would like to thank Le Mans for bringing me the opportunity to make the connection with the maker of those beautiful cars and I would like to send my sincere appreciation to Dr Porsche at Le Mans which is where we promised to meet again this year.

The fightback
TS050 has evolved from last year and is even stronger. I truly believe we shall be equally competitive with Porsche and I hope the race between us attracts as many people as possible and they too feel the way that we do: “I love cars!”.

This year I absolutely want our cars to run the longest distance of all the competitors in the 24 hours. I want our fans who have supported us for such a long time, including me, to wear the biggest and best smiles ever at 3pm on Sunday.

Thank you.

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