When Group C racing came to a close in the early 1990s, Toyota moved into the production-based GT classes for the 1995 season. Not putting all their eggs in one basket, Toyota built two different styles of cars for competition. The first example was a modified turbocharged six-cylinder Toyota Supra that became known as the Supra LM. The other entry was a custom built car designed specially for competition. To comply with racing regulations, a small number of production cars were required to be built to meet homologation regulations. The car was a modified Toyota MR2 and dubbed the SARD MC8-R. It was powered by a custom built Toyota turbocharged V8 engine and performed rather well in competition during the 1995 and 1996 seasons.
As time progressed, so did the development of supercars for the GT classes. Toyota made the decisions that a car similar to the MC8-R would be better suited to continue Toyota's GT car program. Toyota skipped the 1997 24 Hours of Lemans to focus their attention on building a new GT car for the 1998 seasons.
During the 1997 season, the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR and Porsche 911 GT1 were exceptionally quick and dominated their classes. Each car was a custom built super car with only a small number of examples produced. Toyota's absence from the sport allowed them to examine the competition and the rules in an effort to exploit them. The team learned that only a single production car was required in order to meet homologation regulations, thus allowing them to have a car that would never truly be sold to a customer, meaning that it could be void of luxury amenities and non-essential items. Another loop-hole which Mercedes-Benz had exploited was that cars were required to have storage space, capable of holding a standard sized suitcase. Mercedes had side-stepped this rule by putting a small cubby hole into an unused area underneath the rear bodywork. Toyota went one step further in creatively exploiting this regulation, but convincing Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) officials that the car's fuel tank was the trunk space. Since the fuel tank was normally empty during inspection, Toyota was able to demonstrate the tanks ability to hold a suitcase.
The road version and the racing version were nearly identical. In the road-going model, the suspension was raised and the rear wing was lower. The road version also had a smaller fuel tank and had catalytic converters to comply with emissions regulations.
Toyota Team Europe (TTE) and Dallara designed and manufactured the car's carbon fiber chassis and bodywork. Toyota supplied the modified engines originally found in their Group C cars. The power-plants were the R36V 3.6-liter turbocharged V-8 that were placed mid-shipped and mated to a TTE 6-speed sequential gearbox.
The completed car, known as the GT-One (also known as the TS020), began testing in December of 1997, less than a year after the project began. Early testing and development was handled by Martin Brundle, but later all nine drivers of the Toyota LeMans team were given opportunities to put the car through its paces.
The first competition appearance for the GT-One was at the 1998 LeMans race, where it qualified in second place. The #28 GT-One was involved in a high speed accident mid-way through the race. The two other entries remained in the race and continued to contest the top ten positions. Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners and Geoff Lees maintained a second place position until the final hour of the race, when the car was forced to retire due to a transmission problem. The car driven by Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki and Keiichi Tsuchiya finished in 9th place in the lone #27 entry, which ended the race 25 laps behind the winning Porsche 911 GT1.
Rule changes for the following year meant Toyota was required to make changes to their GT-One, as were all its competitors in the class. Mercedes-Benz complied by evolving their CLK-GTR into the new custom built CLR in the closed cockpit LM-GTP prototype class. Nissan and Panoz went with an open cockpit LMP. Porsche dropped out of the competition altogether. Audi, new to the scene, built cars for both the GTP and LMP class. Toyota followed a similar route that Mercedes-Benz had taken, by evolving their GT-One into a GTP class prototype.
During the testing session at LeMans, the GT-Ones proved they were fast, by taking 1st, 3rd and 5th fastest lap times. During qualifying, the GT-Ones took 1st, 2nd, and 8th position. During the race, the cars battled for the lead. Unfortunately, the tires proved to be one of their Achilles' heals. When the Michelin tires were blow due to sharp gravel on the course, this would cause extensive damage to the mechanical linkages inside. After just 90 laps, the first GT-One was lost when it suffered an explosive tire puncture and was unable to return to the pits and was un-repairable. Another GT-One was lost in a tire puncture half way through the race that led to a high speed accident, destroying the car. The remaining car, the #3, continued to contest the top 10 position. During the final hour of the race, the sole-remaining GT-One suffered a tire failure and was forced to slowly make its way around the track to return to the pits for a new set. During this crawl to the pits, the car lost the chance to challenge for the lead. The car would finish in second place overall, one lap behind the winning BMW. It did, however, win the GTP class - though it was the only car in the class to actually finish.
The GT-One would race once more, a single entry in the 1999 Le Mans Fuji 1000km. At the end of the race, the car had finished in 2nd place and only one lap behind the winning Nissan R391.
By Daniel Vaughan | Jul 2011
The GT-One program did not continue into 2000 and would mark the end of Toyota's attempt at LeMans, which had started in 1985.