4. TOYOTA GT-ONE
BEST RESULT: 2nd (1999) Several Toyotas could make it onto this list: the 1992 TS010; 1994 94C; or even the TS040 Hybrid, which would surely have won had it not been for a dramatic incident after a rain shower and bizarre wiring loom failure in 2014. The Gt-one’s Nissan R390 rival was also a candidate, but it is the 1998-99 Toyota that really captured the imagination.
Pushing the GT1 regulations to the limit, the GT-ONE qualified second on its Le Mans debut in 1998, but its gearbox would be Toyota Team Europe’s undoing first time out.
When the rapid Mercedes CLK-LMS wilted early, the Martin Brundle/eric Helary/emmanuel Collard Toyota took command. A series of setbacks – including gearbox problems and two accidents – eventually put it out, allowing the Thierry Boutsen/ralf Kelleners/geoff Lees GT-ONE to move to the front.
Gearbox issues plunged Toyota into a battle with Porsche, but the #29 car still looked like a potential winner before the dreaded transmission woes struck with less than two hours to go.
Allan Mcnish, who won Le Mans for Porsche in 1998 before joining Toyota the following year, has no doubts about the car’s pace. “In terms of pure one lap performance it was the quickest car,” he says. “At the pre-le Mans test in ’98 I was the fastest [for Porsche] but I hung everything out.”
Toyota arrived as favourite in 1999 and duly lined up first and second. All three entries were in contention, with the frugal and efficient BMW squad emerging as the main threat.
“Thierry got into the lead and buggered off, but our pitstops were very slow,” recalls Mcnish. “The last time they had raced was the year before; they weren’t totally up to speed and got faster as the race went on.
“I remember three or four hours into the race that we were fighting with the BMW so we could pull enough of a gap to be ahead after the stops. It was nip and tuck.”
As it was, the fastest cars from both squads retired. Brundle’s polesitting GT-ONE had a troubled event before crashing out thanks to a puncture, while the Mcnish/boutsen/kelleners car was taken out by an errant backmarker early on Sunday morning. BMW then lost its lead Tom Kristensen/jj Lehto/jorg Muller V12 LMR when the throttle stuck open and Lehto crashed.
All that left the Yannick Dalmas/ Joachim Winkelhock/ Pierluigi Martini BMW leading, chased by the all-japanese Toyota crew of Ukyo Katayama, Keiichi Tsuchiya and Toshio Suzuki. Former F1 driver Katayama responded to the challenge and set the race’s fastest lap. He was still charging when the Toyota was forced onto kerbs while lapping a privateer BMW and suffered a puncture. For the third time in the decade, Toyota had to settle for second.
Mcnish believes his GT-ONE could have beaten BMW without the traffic mishap. “I think in a straight fight we would have won,” he says. “We had the speed to do it and we had the reliability – we showed that with the Japanese car.”
Mcnish: rapid in 1999 race
Transmission problems hindered Toyota’s ’98 bid