Why Toyota Takes on 24-hour Endurance Races (Part 1)

2022.06.03

Soon, the motorsports season will see some exciting, sleepless races with the Fuji 24 Hours endurance race from June 3 to 5 in Japan, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans from June 11 to 12 in France.

As a primer on 24-hour races, Toyota Times breaks down what the races are all about. Part one explains the rigors of endurance races and motivations behind taking on the challenge, and part two retraces Toyota’s endurance racing journey.

How far do cars travel in a 24-hour race?

Endurance racing’s place within motorsports is embodied by the 24 Hours of Le Mans, regarded as one of the world’s three great races, along with the the F1 Monaco Grand Prix, which runs over 260km through city streets, and the Indy 500, a circuit race of around 800km. By comparison, cars in the 24 Hours of Le Mans clock distances of over 5,000km.

Toyota has notched up four straight wins at Le Mans since 2018. Last year, the winning #7 car—driven by Kamui Kobayashi’s team—completed 371 laps of the 13.626km course for a total of 5,246km. That’s the same as running eight return trips between Tokyo and Toyota City, or the straight-line distance between Tokyo and Singapore, at full throttle for 24 hours straight.

The world’s three big endurance races are the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, the 24 Hours of Daytona in the U.S., and the 24 Hours of Spa in Belgium. Though not among the top three, the 24 Hours of Nürburgring is also renowned as a special event, and the reason Toyota began to turn its attention to endurance racing.

Endurance races, a place for developing cars

Celebrating its centenary next year, the 24 Hours of Le Mans dates back to 1923, the year of the Great Kanto Earthquake in Japan and 14 years before Toyota Motor Corporation’s 1937 founding.

Car racing with purpose-built cars had already taken off in Europe by then, but the idea behind Le Mans was to hold an endurance race for production models, rather than racing cars completely different from those on the road.

The 13km course consists of both a racetrack section and a section of regular public road. A century ago, with headlights still in the early stages of development, the race’s night-driving element also offered a way to test light-related parts.

As this shows, endurance racing has always been a venue for developing automotive technologies, with particular significance in the racing world. This mindset resonates with President Akio Toyoda’s belief that roads make cars and his pursuit of making ever-better cars through motorsports.

Toyota has used Le Mans as a way to develop its technology, honing the company’s hybrids and boosting engine combustion efficiency. The key to winning the race is figuring out how to drive faster and further with limited fuel in the tank. Similarly, the hydrogen-powered Corolla team has made continuous improvements since its endurance debut last year, seeking to shorten refueling time and extend the car’s range on a single tank of hydrogen.

Taking on the Ring (part 1): A challenging 170-corner course

There’s no doubt that the Nürburgring helped make Toyota what it is today. Taking on the 24 Hours of Nürburgring is a significant part of Toyota’s car-making history all the way to the present day.

Some two hours’ drive west of Germany’s Frankfurt Airport lies the charming town of Nürburg, with its historic castle nestled in the forest. The town’s ring (“ring road” or circuit) is known as the Nürburgring.

The Nürburgring is, in a word, long. It consists of a Grand Prix track (5.148km lap), which has hosted the F1 and WEC, and a northern loop running through mountainous terrain (20.832km lap). For the 24-hour race, these two sections are combined into a course of around 25km, where even racing cars take nearly ten minutes to complete one lap.

Relentlessly undulating, the course has an elevation difference of around 300m. As of 2022, that ranks alongside the height of Japan’s tallest buildings, Abeno Harukas (300m) and the Yokohama Landmark Tower (296m). With 170 corners—against the Fuji Speedway’s 16—simply memorizing the Nürburgring puts drivers to the test.

The North loop features stretches of narrow, winding mountain passes with limited run-off areas leaving little margin for error. The course is even more grueling at night, making the optical axis (direction) of a car’s lights critical, says Juichi Wakisaka, a racing driver who has experienced the Nürburgring. Checking on a pursuing car in the rearview mirror only makes the darkness in front seem even denser.

Taking on the Ring (part 2): A “Green Hell” and a paradise of racing culture

“It’s fair to say that a rainy Nürburgring is the slipperiest circuit in the world,” says Wakisaka. Fickle mountain weather means that drivers on the far side can often find themselves in heavy rain even as their pit crews enjoy sunshine. Past races have even been suspended due to hailstorms.

Wakisaka shared his thoughts on racing at Nürburgring, dubbed “The Green Hell.”

“Even as you tell yourself that you’re never doing this again, the racing driver inside you wants to go after it. Driving the Nürburgring feels different from any other race.”

Though it strikes fear in the hearts of even professional drivers, for fans, the Nürburgring is something of a paradise, with deep roots in motorsport culture. They can be found enjoying trackside barbecues or scrawling messages on the asphalt before the race. Nighttime camps give drivers a welcome source of light to illuminate the road.

Akio expressed his desire to “make Fuji like Nürburgring” when he spoke about the recently announced Fuji Motorsports Forest. “That culture of enjoying motorsports is gradually spreading in Japan as well,” explains Wakisaka, “with children at the Fuji 24 Hours playing soccer on the trackside grass or setting up desks to do homework.”

Taking on the Ring (part 3): The convictions of legendary driver Hiromu Naruse

The name of test driver Hiromu Naruse (1942-2010) may sound familiar. As Toyota’s master driver, he was a key figure who greatly influenced the company’s car development. Naruse is also regarded as the driving mentor of President Akio Toyoda, aka Morizo.

Wakisaka describes Naruse as “a craftsperson who cared about the genba (frontlines of car making). Whenever a problem turned up, he would make the parts to fix it. He had a genuine love of cars and understood the dangers as well. Naruse created cars that have a soul and provide the joy of driving. That’s the kind of test driver he was.”

Hiromu Naruse (right) and President Akio Toyoda, aka Morizo (left)

Wakisaka first took part in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring with GAZOO Racing in 2010. Having claimed his third Super GT crown the previous year, he came in brimming with confidence, only to end up crashing.

Upon returning to the pits after the crash, Wakisaka remembers Naruse apologizing: “It’s our fault for making a car that even a driver of your caliber can’t handle.” Later, even Morizo was grateful that Toyota’s mechanics had a chance to improve their skills by fixing the wrecked car.

“Until then, I had viewed cars as a tool for showing my speed,” recalls Wakisaka. “Morizo and Naruse practiced the idea that people and cars are made stronger on the road, and many embraced their philosophy. After my Nürburgring crash, I too came to see cars less as tools and more as companions fighting by my side.”

Taking on the Ring (part 4): Morizo’s fateful meeting

Morizo’s meeting with Naruse carried a sense of fate. Having just returned from the U.S., Morizo was met with harsh words from the master driver.

Naruse

Somebody in your position, who doesn’t know the first thing about driving, shouldn’t make passing comments about cars. The least you can do is learn how to drive. You should recognize that, as test drivers, we’re putting our lives on the line to make better cars.

If you feel like it, even if just once a month, I’ll teach you how to drive.

So began Morizo’s driver training. He spent entire days braking as hard as possible, trailing senior drivers, and even practicing how to escape from an overturned car.

After training hard and obtaining a higher-level license, Morizo was finally able to join Naruse in tackling the Nürburgring for the first time. “I was terrified to drive the Nürburgring in my Supra with everyone hurtling by at over 200km/h,” recalls Morizo. “Each lap takes about ten minutes. As I drove, I wondered whether I would make it back alive after that ten minutes’ time.”

Taking on the Ring (part 5): In pursuit of true car development

Precisely because the track is so live-or-die demanding, the Nürburgring is regarded as “heaven for vehicle development.” Even cars that have undergone rigorous testing in Japan and seemingly ironed out all problems will soon run into trouble at the Ring. Naruse believed that such an environment is ideal for vehicle development, which spurred him to take Morizo to the Nürburgring.

Naruse

When I first drove the Nürburgring, I realized this was not a place to treat lightly. At the same time, I felt its potential as a site for development. Unfortunately, the circuit’s value was not appreciated within the company.

I believe Toyota’s first car to be tested at Nürburgring was the original MR2. Whereas the pristine roads of Japanese circuits show you a tenth of what’s there, the Nürburgring gives you the full picture. There’s no faking it.

European manufacturers had already adopted this approach to developing cars. Their car-making culture was fundamentally different from that of Japan. Wakisaka imagines that Naruse had pinned his hopes on the possibility of working with Morizo, in whose hands lay Toyota’s future, to create real cars.

United in their desire to transform the company’s approach to car development, Naruse and Morizo set Toyota’s endurance racing journey in motion.

In 2007, that road would lead them to compete in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring for the first time.

(Continues in part two)

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