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The Story of Gazoo Racing; The All-out Assault on Motorsport Transforming Toyota's Image

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The Story of Gazoo Racing; The All-out Assault on Motorsport Transforming Toyota's Image

Gazoo Racing supra


From Donnington to Dakar, it's impossible to escape Toyota's assault on all arenas of motorsport. But where did the rubber stamp come from for such excessive expenditure? Right from the top, as Finlay Ringer explains


There’s a video lurking in the darkest and most niche depths of the internet. Simply titled ‘The Touge’, it very casually depicts the driving talents of Keiichi Tsuchiya - otherwise known as the Drift King – as he hurls his vehicle around the demanding bends of the almost mythical Touge mountain roads in Japan. The two-part film was produced by Pluspy Films in 1987 and distributed on tape across Japan; it instantly became a significant part of Japanese car culture, with Tsuchiya becoming a driving sensation.


But for me, watching it on YouTube many years later, it was Tsuchiya’s weapon of choice - an almost completely standard Toyota Corolla AE86 - that had an even greater effect. The sub-tonne, rear-drive JDM icon is the most unlikely of heroes. It doesn’t have masses of power or a fetishized performance brand behind it, but it shined a light on a phenomenon that was criminally underappreciated: Toyota could be fun.


It is this same sentiment that the incredibly successful Toyota empire carries today with its Gazoo Racing brand. Toyota have always had a fun flare to their product, even if the bulk of the cars they make are mundane and unattractive. We can trace back nameplates like the Celica, Supra, MR2 and even the achingly beautiful 2000GT to see just what they were capable of when they put their minds to creating a product meant to convey the thrill of driving. They’ve also contested rallying, sports car and endurance racing, and even Formula One with varying degrees of success.



Gazoo Racing Hilux


They already had motorsports acclaim before Gazoo Racing, but it’s what the GR brand has done for Toyota in a relatively short timeframe, and how the brand was created that makes it one of the most exciting performance divisions to date. It is a product brewed from the enthusiast's perspective, not that of faceless businesspeople sitting around the boardroom table.


Its conception has been most closely associated with one man; he feels most comfortable when sitting behind a steering wheel with a lengthy stretch of road in front of him. His name is Akio Toyoda, he is the grandson of Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda, and he’s been President of Toyota Motor Corporation since 2009.



Former Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda


Aside from his managerial duties, Toyoda is the motorsports equivalent of an addict, as he can be seen poring over the world’s greatest performance cars, just as you or I might. The charismatic businessman has his own leadership style, which blends company and family heritage with his own interest in fun, driver-focussed vehicles. He, like us, rhapsodises about the joy of driving – Akio is the sort of person whom I imagine sits back in his office on the most monotone of days, staring longingly out of the window, just waiting for his next fix of adrenaline as he hurls his car up a rally stage or clips curbs at Fuji Speedway.


The story of both he and Gazoo Racing are wonderfully intertwined. It began when he was appointed to the Toyota board of directors in June 2000. He was soon introduced to a man called Hiromu Naruse, Toyota’s Chief Test Driver. He had been a wheelman for Toyota since 1963, with his testing record reading like a greatest hits record of their most coveted sportscars; he even developed the AE86 that would eventually appear in ‘The Touge’.


Naruse was fundamental to shaping Toyoda’s ethos; he encouraged the executive to have a more hands-on approach in the company by becoming a better driver. Akio cut his teeth on the roads of Japan and later on the Nürburgring, all under the tutelage of Naruse. It would be wrong to present this as purely self-serving, for Toyoda had minimal engineering experience and wanted to become a skilled driver because he needed a common language in which to communicate with his engineers.



Gazoo Racing hypercar testing


This is just one of many examples where Toyoda and Naruse took the extra step that manufacturers conventionally wouldn’t take – they developed a penchant for perfection, in what Gazoo describes as the pursuit to “make ever-better cars”.


This became their creed. One of the most important tools in their development process was the Nürburgring, which Naruse and his team started using to test cars when he was refining the MK3 Supra. Nowadays, testing performance cars at the Nürburgring is almost expected, but Toyota has been doing it for decades. Toyoda and Naruse first worked together to test the MK4 Supra in the 1990s, later shifting attention to the Lexus LFA project.


It began as an R&D study in 2000, before morphing into a bespoke development programme under Lexus chief engineer Haruhiko Tanashi. Naruse obsessed over this new halo car, testing it with the same drive for flawlessness that he put into every endeavour. He enlisted Toyoda’s help in convincing the board to greenlight the project for production, which he duly did in 2002. It was the biggest sportscar project for the Toyota Motor Corporation since the 2000GT released in 1967, and it was part of a considered effort to regain Toyota’s enthusiast reputation.



Gazoo Racing hypercar

Toyota Gazoo Racing Hypercar concept


The memories of the fizzy, fun, exhilarating Toyota were beginning to fade by 2007, and the situation was dire. Toyota’s racy repertoire was part of a bygone era and, as revolutionary as products like the Prius were, the Toyota badge wasn’t going to win a round of supercar Top Trumps anytime soon. So, what was the logical thing to do? Toyoda decided to reinvigorate his company’s racing efforts, choosing to enter the gruelling Nürburgring 24 hours of that year.


Part of his responsibilities included overseeing the creation and supervision of gazoo.com. The website was a virtual storefront for Toyota goods and services and was designed to resell used cars. It was the first of its kind to use images to support adverts for cars. The Japanese word ‘gazo’ means ‘image’ when translated into English.


Seeing as Toyota wasn’t officially racing at that point, Toyoda entered two race-prepped Toyota Altezzas, both sponsored by gazoo.com. His exploits were kept under the radar, so much so that he raced under the pseudonym ‘Morizo’, taking the wheel alongside Naruse. Neither the eight drivers nor the team of mechanics were racing veterans; the race was an inevitable struggle but both cars successfully ran for the full 24 hours, merely hinting at the success that was to come.


"It became common practice for Gazoo to enter prototype cars in the N24, as they also developed the GT86 by entering it between 2012 and 2014, also scoring a third in class in 2019 with a prototype MK5 Supra, with Toyoda at the wheel"

The team enjoyed further positive results after their first Nürburgring outing; in 2008 the LFA made its public debut, with prototype vehicles being entered in the N24 of both 2008 and 2009. It was seen as the ultimate endurance test – it took their car to its extremes. The race brought problems to the surface, allowing them to be identified in real time. The engineers could then manufacture solutions, feeding back data to the development team post-race to iron out creases in the car’s design that otherwise may not have been found.


The idea to create a factory racing team had been brewing for a while, with both Naruse and Toyoda championing the creation of TOYOTA GAZOO RACING. The deed was done when Toyoda took the reins of the company in June 2009. They claimed Gazoo’s role was to “return to the starting point of motorsports”, promoting the performance of their vehicles (production cars in particular) and using racing to develop the best version of their product. They certainly delivered on that manifesto…


It became common practice for Gazoo to enter prototype cars in the N24, as they also developed the GT86 by entering it between 2012 and 2014, also scoring a third in class in 2019 with a prototype MK5 Supra, with Toyoda at the wheel. They made sure to test cars that were as close to the products found in your local Toyota showroom as the race regulations would allow.


Just look at what this process did to the LFA. It had been an arduous ordeal to create (as well as a headache for the finance department, as the LFA wasn’t profitable) and it didn’t exactly release to glowing reviews. Many considered it to be out of place in comparison to its cheaper rivals, but that wasn’t the point. Like the Gazoo brand itself, the LFA was simply a passion project, meant to represent the best a car could be. And it has stood the test of time in that way; nowadays it’s a cult hero, with its spine-tingling V10 engine and immaculate construction. We all remember how Jeremy Clarkson preached of its brilliance on Top Gear - “If somebody were to offer me a choice of any car that had ever been made, ever, I would take a dark blue LFA. That’s how much I love this thing.” It was rhetoric like that which sold many on the product Toyoda and Naruse had worked so hard to deliver.



Gazoo racing lexus LFA

Gazoo racing lexus LFA


Tragically, Naruse would not be able to revel in the fruits of his labour. Whilst testing the limited-run LFA Nürburgring Package, he was killed in an accident on the roads just outside his favoured test track on June 23 rd, 2010. It was a cruel gut punch for Toyoda, who considered shutting the whole Gazoo programme in the wake of his mentor’s demise.


Thankfully, he realised the Naruse would want it to live on. We wouldn’t be talking about Gazoo had it not been for Toyota’s master test driver; poignantly, the Nürburgring Package LFA that Naruse had been testing would later set a lap record of 7:14.46. Production of the LFA started in December of 2010, and factory race-prepped LFAs took a third in class at the N24 in 2011, later taking the class win in 2012.


Hindsight is often a cruel thing, as it normally highlights the promise of the path not taken, but in Toyoda’s case, I think he can look back at his decision to continue the work of the brand he’d worked to build as one of the best he’s made. Today, Gazoo Racing is an empire, with interests across the motorsports spectrum. For what is a relatively new entity in racing, it is remarkable how quickly their success has spread.


From their Toyota Team Europe facility in Cologne (which has been repurposed from their exploits in F1), they have coordinated an all-out assault on sportscar racing. The Toyota name first entered Le Mans in 1985 with the TOM’s 85C Prototype racer, and they contested the race in some form for almost every year until 1999, with a best finish of second. The marque burst back onto the scene in 2012 with the TS030 Hybrid – they didn’t finish that year, but returned with a fighting spirit in 2013 to match their career-best finish at Le Sarthe.



Gazoo racing hybrid hypercar


They raced with some success in the World Endurance Championship with the TS030 and later the TS040, winning the championship in 2014, until the regulations change in 2016 signalled the appearance of the mighty TS050 Hybrid LMP1 car (they were shockingly creative with their naming conventions). With its twin-turbo V6 Hybrid powerplant, it surged into the lead at Le Mans, and it very nearly won had it not been for a heart-wrenching breakdown, where Kazuki Nakajima famously rolled the car to a halt on the start/finish straight on the last lap with just three minutes left of the race.


Nevertheless, they were eventually vindicated with a 1-2 finish in both 2018 and 2019 with Nakajima, Fernando Alonso and Sébastien Buemi finally taking the top step of the podium. Oh, and their cars also won in 2020, 2021 and 2022 as well, so it’s fair to say they’ve got the hang of this endurance racing thing. Since the introduction of the new Hypercar regulations in the WEC in 2021, Toyota have remained the class of the field, and despite tough competition from the likes of Alpine and Glickenhaus, they have still taken the WEC title in both seasons. In just ten years of racing, they’ve won the title five times, taking class wins in 39 of the 72 races they’ve entered. Not too shabby.


But Toyota still isn’t satisfied. Despite the raft of Hypercars (bearing names like Ferrari, Porsche, Cadillac and Peugeot) coming with the aim of usurping them and take their crown in 2023, they still have the most developed team and car, hoping to retain their winning streaks just as they have in the past.


This victorious spirit is prevalent in their exploits in the World Rally Championship too. In fact, Toyota’s first racing venture was at the Mobilgas Rally Australia in a Toyota Crown Deluxe, which they entered in 1957. It was a brutal race, with 50 of the 102 competitors not finishing, but the Crown soldiered on to the finish line.



Gazoo racing WRC


This first taste of off-road success is the reason they would compete in the WRC from its first year (1973) in the energetic Celica 1600 GT. Their first win came at the 1,000 Lakes Rally in 1975 with the Corolla Levin TE27. It was just the start of Toyota’s victories, as they made a name for themselves at the Safari Rally in the famed Celica Twin-cam Turbo – they dominated the event, taking consecutive wins between 1984 and 1986.


It was Carlos Sainz who would secure them the elusive Drivers’ Title in 1990 in the Celica GT Four ST165, with the Manufacturers’ Title coming in 1993 in the Celica Turbo 4WD. Toyota would be the first Japanese brand to take that coveted Manufacturers’ trophy, and the success didn’t stop there – by the time they left the WRC in 1999, they had three Drivers’ Titles and four Drivers’ Titles to celebrate, with names like Sainz, Kankkunen and Auriol to thank for them.


They reopened that chapter of Toyota history with a return in 2017, based in Finland and under the guidance of four-time champion Tommi Mäkinen. Since their return, they’ve bagged a further four Drivers’ Titles and three Drivers’ Titles, giving the rallying legends of our era (Tänak, Ogier and, most recently Rovanperä in the new GR Yaris Rally1) the materials to continue Toyota’s impressive streak of success. Now, with ex-driver and 18-time rally winner Jari-Matti Latvala at the helm, they’re showing no sign of stopping, taking the first win of the 2023 season in Monte Carlo to take their total to 34.


And Toyoda isn’t done there. You’ll find the Gazoo name everywhere from the dunes of Saudi Arabia in the Dakar rally (which they’ve won overall three times with Nasser Al-Attiyah) to the undulating bends of racetracks such as Suzuka where they contest the Super-GT Championship with the Supra in GT500 guise, or even tracks like Spa where it can be seen racing in the GT4 class.



Toyota GR line-up at goodwood


So, what becomes of Gazoo Racing now? Their trophy cabinets are filling up rapidly and their brand is masterfully plastered across the liveries of cars and overalls of drivers of the highest calibre in racing, evoking ideas of success and triumph. Yet, somehow, they still manage to enthral us with their will to win.


There’s no denying the fact that when they race, they’re often dominant. To some that may seem dull, yet I think there’s so much more to it than just their results. As you’ve read, it wasn’t a straightforward battle to build the team we see today, no matter how big of a company the Toyota Motor Corporation is. With their story in mind, I find that I still smile when the Toyota nameplate takes victory, no matter how many times they’ve done it before.


They still face challenges, and it is these challenges which they crave. To build these “ever-better cars”, they have to face adversity, whether that be on the stages of Safari Rally Kenya, or the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. Without this attrition and eventual success, they wouldn’t have the road car lineup that we see today.



Akio Toyoda


Perhaps it’s the Supra (which you can read about in Issue XP1) that takes your fancy, or is the affordable GR 86 more to your liking? And let’s not forget the formidable GR Yaris, which left journalists slack-jawed at its capability when it was released in 2020. “It’s the kind of car that I thought people wouldn’t make any more” said Andrew Frankel, which sums up perfectly why we love what Gazoo is doing. Their racing exploits allow them to create the cars that they’re passionate about, and that many of us believed were impossible to make anymore.


Nobody can be more contented with this result than Akio Toyoda who, in January of this year, announced that he would step down as Toyota CEO, giving the position to President of Gazoo Racing and Lexus, Koji Sato. Toyoda has become Head of the Board of Directors, whilst maintaining the title that he inherited from his late teacher: ‘master test driver’.


If you take anything out of his endeavours, it should be that out there somewhere, there are a few key individuals in the industry that are still devoted to the performance car, whether it be in racing or on the road. We’re very fortunate that - as we’ve seen with Toyoda and Gazoo - they have the capacity to support this spectacular, nonsensical world that we call cars in a very big way.

Written by

Finlay Ringer

Published

14 April 2023

Last Updated

14/04/23

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