A mythical venue – rumours of legendary contents, hidden away from prying eyes. Secretive. Whispered. The occasional nugget of information would surface. A fleet of F1 cars. A GTE version of the Lexus LFA. A Mars landing mission being planned. Access? Impossible!
Speedhunters credentials allowed me inside Toyota Motorsport GmbH’s HQ in Cologne, Germany to see the definitive collection, and ongoing journey across the top tiers of motorsport, in all its metal and carbon glory. Having emerged, I can tell you that these were not rumours, but real – and I wouldn’t put a Mars mission past them either.
Why the secrecy then? Sadly, the real reason is far less exciting, just a direct result of operating a successful business in the automotive world. Toyota might be the name writ large across the building as well as the name of the road that the factory sits on, but what’s inside this commercial operation operates around the principle of strict confidentiality. Simply put, it’s the names on the uniforms of customers walking through the front door that Toyota don’t want to shout about in public.
That means that this stunning collection of cars remains closed for general viewing – for the time being at least. More’s the pity, it’s a breathtaking thing to witness. It’s a comprehensive chronology of TMG’s competitive calling.
Even the location of the collection is rather awe-inspiring, sited as it is below the industrial overload of a massive wind tunnel that’s in constant operation above you, filling the air with its roar. The cars are dwarfed by the enormous mass; you have to duck under pipes and climb up stairs to get around the floor space, which just adds to the experience.
The environment feeds the idea of this being a hidden collection – and to an extent it is. This is a labour of love by TMG, who have not only saved more recent cars but even started sourcing older machines to complete the display.
It’s an incredible fact that a lot of car companies can be surprisingly unemotional about their histories, often dependent on interest from the ebb and flow of senior board members – and this is especially so in the case of racing programmes. They can often be dependent on the passion of a particularly CEO; enter a new head, and projects can be killed overnight, racers seen as a satellite irrelevance to the road-car core.
So it’s great to see TMG lovingly care for their flock. And what a flock they have… Formula 1. The Le Mans 24 Hours. The World Rally Championship. There aren’t that many companies who have scratched their motorsport itch across all three of the top tiers of motorsport, but Toyota are one of them. I’ll be taking you around the modern, world class TMG facility in a following story, but here we get to see what led up to the present day. And it includes some pretty special road cars along the way.
Some very special ones in fact.
The TMG story started back in 1972, with the smell of dust and a taste for gravel – and a Swede who would be a guiding light for so much of the team’s successes. Ove Andersson had been driving at the top levels of rallying for a decade, but as the WRC came into being in 1973, he swapped to a new Toyota Celica (coincidentally, he had a certain Mr. Jean Todt co-driving for him on occasion). This was the beginning not just for the Celica becoming a byword for rallying success, but it also led to the creation of Toyota Team Europe (TTE), the forerunner to TMG.
Ove’s team took on the TTE name in 1975, operating independently in Europe to make running the Japanese cars easier, and subsequently moved from Sweden to Cologne in 1979 with, wait for it – 11 team members. From small beginnings come great things. After a couple of intermediate steps, 1983 saw the introduction of the fearsome Group B Celica TA64 Twin Cam Turbo, which went on to win three consecutive Safari rallies – perhaps the most gruelling event on the calendar – of which the late, great, Björn Waldegård took two.
This example shows the painstaking restorations that TMG carry out. We’ll take a look at another Twin Cam Turbo in Safari-spec that’s awaiting work over in the factory in the next story.
Amongst all the legendary Toyotas here, there was one machine that was both unexpected and dazzling: the MR2-based machine TMG built for Group S, the ruleset that was due to follow on from Group B and somehow be even more extreme.
Very few cars were built to the still-born regs, with the Lancia S4 the only other one I can think of off-hand, but this – the 222D – was to be Toyota’s offering.
TMG took a 1,000hp Group C engine and detuned it to ‘only’ 600hp, which should have made it bulletproof – though the turbo lag is reported as being utterly uncontrollable. Push the pedal, wait an hour or so, and then you’re fired into orbit; that typical kind of early turbo thing. Even now drivers get out of the car looking a little pale.
The late 1980s saw TTE reap the success of the Celica’s next evolution, with the introduction of the four-wheel drive Celica GT-Four ST165. Having a driver by the name of Carlos Sainz also helped – he took the 1990 Driver’s Championship.
This Celica was in Tour De Corse livery: Sainz won the event in his ST165 in 1991.
The chariot-style outboard spinners on the OZ Racing wheels are an interesting feature, as are the diagonally-orientated front spots. It’s all about going sideways.
In 1992 the ST185 took up the baton, and the following year the Toyota mothership took over TTE, which was then renamed Toyota Motorsport GmbH. The team’s cosmopolitan make-up was on full display with 300 staff representing 17 nationalities.
This ST185 is in a very appropriate Safari specification, a place that Toyota made their own over the years. The ST185 took up where the TCT and ST165 (which also won in Africa) had left off, with an incredible four consecutive Safari wins between ’92 and ’95.
Safari cars are instantly recognisable. Jacked-up suspension with struts that might as well be made of iron and concrete to try and survive the pounding, bull bars out front and a big breather pipe to cope with the flood of dust that would penetrate into every pore of the car. It’s incredible that vintage cars still tackle a version of the event, when the big boys in the WRC don’t…
There are some holes waiting to be filled in TMG’s collection, though some of the missing cars were also out on loan. So, we jump ahead to the final glory period of Toyota’s WRC involvement with the Corolla, which ran between ’97 and ’99.
Although the Makkinen/Lancer combination was basically unbeatable in period, Toyota still managed to nab the manufacturer’s championship in their last year of competition, 1999. Sainz and Didier Auriol racked up the points all year to pip Subaru and Mitsubishi. Fifteen years later, and now TMG are taking Toyota back into rallying with the Yaris: Cologne are developing and testing a new car, starting the next chapter of their rallying story. It might be a couple of years before one makes its way into this space below the wind tunnel though…Road-Based In The Loosest Possible Sense
When you’re competing at the top level in one sport, it’s unusual to think that you can just drop into another. However, that’s exactly what Toyota Team Europe did in 1998 as the WRC programme was winding down. The result was what is likely my favourite ever Le Mans car: the Toyota GT-One. With an internal designation of TS020, following on from the Japan-originated TS010 of the early ’90s (TMG’s example of that car was another away on loan), TMG took a decade-old V8 from an even earlier Le Mans programme and together with their partners in Japan created this work of art.
They came so close to success. Always fast and always up front on the grid, the GT-Ones were typically the fastest cars at Le Mans, blitzing the straights at almost 240mph and setting fastest lap during the race in 1998, then taking pole and setting both the fastest race lap and speed trap figure in 1999.
It was insane. The GT-One was built to the theoretically road-car derived GT1 ruleset – this the same spec that also spawned the equally outrageous Porsche GT1 and Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR – cars that the real road-going McLaren F1 had let in.
Well, whatever, the GT1 rules dictated, we got to see some of the most extreme cars ever at Le Mans. The liveries were perfect: the 1998 cars with their base red streaked with white; the purity of the 1999 trio with their white arrow noses.
The rear deck is the size of a football field, swooping down from the cockpit to create this huge swathe of bodywork.
1999 was my first year at Le Mans, and two GT-Ones locked out the front row of a grid which can still provoke a near breakdown of joy with sportscar fans. Admitting that the GT1 nomenclature was a bit of a joke, beating as they were the bespoke and in a way more honest prototypes, the cars were reclassified as LMGTP for ’99. They just got even more extreme.
The Toyotas fought with the – unfortunately literally – flying Mercedes CLRs until breakdowns and accidents claimed all three entries. There’s a classic clip of the surviving Japanese-crewed GT-One getting a puncture on the run to Indianapolis which still puts the fear of god into me. Fast forward to about 7m30s. How Ukyo Katayama controlled it I don’t know…
For just two years the Cologne-based Toyota GT-One programme burned brightly, before being extinguished by the implosion of the rules the cars were built to. The car only raced once outside Le Mans, at the 1999 Fuji 1000kms, where again trouble struck and a second place was scant reward. Following on from an initial prototype, five racecars were built, with one chassis competing in both ’98 and ’99. I’ve only seen a GT-One literally once or twice in the wild since 1999, but at TMG were not just cars from each of the Le Mans years, but also something else very special and even more rare.
Those GT1 cars I mentioned all required a run of 25 road-legal cars as a sop to the homologation rules. Porsche, Toyota and Mercedes produced a car each to ‘prove’ they could – but not necessarily would – build such a run. (As an aside, Mercedes actually completed their required run of CLKs in the mid 2000s.) But this is the sole Toyota GT-One road car in existence.
As you’d expect from something based on a GT1 of this period, it’s anything but a sensible road car – it’s just lunacy with some leather inside.
The cockpit is spartan, but it does have some concessions to street use. Like a fan for the air and a cigarette lighter. Okay, those are all the concessions. Apart from that, you’re sitting in the carbon-fibre monocoque of a 900kg prototype built for Le Mans – not something that you can easily pop to the supermarket in.
Buried behind you is a 3.6-litre twin-turbo V8 putting out over 600hp; the suspension double wishbones with push-rod actuated springs and dampers, and you stop using carbon-ceramic brakes.
There is a little pop-up flap for fluids on the nose, so who can say the car isn’t practical and easy to maintain?From F1 Nightmare To Another Le Mans Dream
As the Le Mans tilt came to a premature end, so once again a major change in tack was announced: Toyota’s move into Formula 1. The stats don’t speak well of TMG’s experience, which could maybe be best described as bruising, but that wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of TMG, or the amount of budget allocated by Toyota themselves.
Eight seasons of competition with Toyota Racing were represented here, from the initial development car through to their final, farewell racer from 2009.
It’s definitely a case of the good, the bad and the ugly – and that’s more a reflection of the state of F1’s rules during this period than Toyota’s cars.
As ever, it’s really interesting to see a year-by-year evolution, starting with the 2001 test car that seems incredibly simplistic in design compared to the riot of aero appendages shown by later cars of the ‘legality box’ era.
Literally you get a back-to-back comparison – the narrowing of the bodies, the sprouting guide vanes and winglets, the emerging dorsal fin down the engine cover.
Then there are the front wings, which go from what seem almost child-like simplicity of linear dual elements to ornately bulging, complex curves, over-wings like moustaches and multi-element cascades.
The sad end to Toyota’s F1 involvement was poignantly demonstrated by this 2009 car signed by drivers, team personnel and fans.
Something particularly interesting in the collection – and a sign that stopping racing wasn’t the final chapter in Toyota’s F1 involvement – was this raw carbon car in a corner. The Pirelli logos gave its use away: this 2009 car spent its life as Pirelli’s development mule for their entry as F1’s tyre supplier.
It’s thought to be the highest-ever mileage F1 car – it’s pounded around over 30,000km of Europe’s tracks – and was modified over time to better represent the effect of the incoming big front wing, narrow rear wing rules, without actually having to redesign the car to be technically legal.
TMG used every approach to add downforce without creating extra drag, adding old school skirts, chopping holes in the diffuser and generally bolting on bits to chase extra performance. Next to this car, there was also the 2010 effort – nothing materialized for 2010, though that was one of many more F1 cars that were scattered around the main factory next door.
The latest chapter for TMG has seen a return to La Sarthe – not only that, but the full World Endurance Championship as well. However, in between the withdrawal from F1 and the new Le Mans programme came this beast, the Lexus TMG-650. Working to a brief from Japan, TMG applied all their accumulated expertise to create a super-extreme road car. It would be big and bluff, but it was to be silly quick.
The first idea was to put an F1 engine into an LS460, but the logistics of then creating a production version meant this was shelved. Instead, the 2UR-GSE five-litre V8 was chosen and twin turbochargers added to increase power by a frightening 68 per cent (650hp) and torque up by over half. Everything from the badge back was modified by TMG, as their engineers gleefully went to work. It saw the inside of the wind tunnel it now sits below, the aero heavily modified with carbon parts and originally a big rear wing was added. However, that just created too much downforce and was shredding the tyres…
Despite still being a big, heavy car, weighing in at around 2,000kgs, TMG have made this monster able to shift – it can post a sub four second 0-60mph and easily powers to over 200mph. Although the acceleration was to be brutal, the idea was for the car to be relatively benign when cruising: equally good enough to set a lap record around the Nordschleife as to cruise the autobahns. Sadly, the project wasn’t then moved into production, and this remains the only surviving example. It’s now used as a calling card for TMG’s road car expertise, showing that they’re about more than just race tracks. Or rally stages. So they’re basically showing they’ve got everything covered.
So as the market shifted towards hybrid technology, Toyota once again needed a marketplace to show off their expertise. Le Mans was back on the menu for 2012, and with Peugeot’s shock withdrawal Toyota manfully stepped up to the plate a year early with their TS030 Hybrid.
As with the GT-One, speed, technology and dedication haven’t been in question, but a relatively limited programme with the TS030 against the might of Audi didn’t quite deliver – in terms of a Le Mans win at least. The car was typically the bridesmaid, though it did win five times in its two year career. The baton has now been handed over the seriously fast, 1,000hp TS040 Hybrid, which won the first two races of the season and finished third at Le Mans. The LMPs are amazing pieces of kit: four wheel drive, 480hp of electric punch to add to 520hp from the V8; I’m excited to see how they perform in the next five WEC races.
Ove Andersson retired from actively running TMG in 2003 and sadly passed away in 2008, killed whilst competing in a vintage rally in South Africa. But the competitive spirit he instilled in Cologne doesn’t look likely to ebb. The hard lessons of the F1 years have definitely been learned: this is a leaner, meaner operation now. The LMP is on the cusp of delivering – and then there’s the promise of the Yaris WRC project. They don’t have the limitless budgets of before, but you get the idea that’s a good thing. I wonder if TMG’s engineers take a stroll down here every so often, just to remind themselves of their long heritage: what they’ve achieved, and what they want to achieve in the future. Having looked round the factory and its cutting edge facilities, it’s no surprise that they’re able to step up to running two major programmes. In fact, let’s go there next…