Race cars come and go almost as quickly as the races themselves. A championship or award winning car may be admired for a year or so, but as soon as it becomes retired or is phased out, the fame and recognition that went with it seems to fade as well. Although this is a sad fate for many cars, it is also undeserving, as many race cars represent the present pinnacles of performance and design, the hard work and dedication of many individuals, and sometimes even the spirit of a nation. While this may not be the case with every race car to fall by the wayside, it is definitely the story of the Toyota GT One, an incredible car that deserves to be remembered for more than one reason.
The Toyota GT One received most of its fame, and saw the most action racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, but it was originally conceived for an entirely different reason. When the GT One prototype was first built, it was intended for grand touring, although the design of the vehicle, as well as its performance specifics definitely suited it towards more straight forward racing.
To understand the GT One, and what makes it so special, we first need to understand the other ventures that Toyota was undertaking at the time. With two main production sports cars rolling off the lines, being the Supra and MR2, Toyota decided that it was time to enter the GT racing category. Having seen mild success with a high performance model of the Supra, Toyota decided to switch out the engine in the MR2 and build it from the ground up to be a superior racing machine. The MR2 in question had incredibly heavy change, and would be fitted with a twin turbo charged eight cylinder engine and a dramatic restyling of the body. With intentions to enter the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans competition, Toyota skipped out on the 1997 race in order to further their research and development on what would become known as the GT One.
The GT One was designed with a twin turbo V8, 6-speed manual transmission, an independent double wishbone suspension in both the front and back of the car, and a chassis constructed of carbon fiber and aluminum. The GT One ran Michelin radial tires in almost every race it was entered in.
Although certain aspects of the GT One’s development may have been questionable, such as building only one actual production car, and using the gas tank as a luggage compartment, the car was ready to compete in the 1998 Le Mans. Initially things went very well for the GT One, the three models entered into the practice rounds placed 2, 5, and 10. Following that, the cars did equally well in the qualifying rounds for the race, getting places 2, 7 and 8. However, the problems came during the actual race. Of the three cars entered into the race, only one would actually finish. One of the cars was totaled in an accident, another suffered a crippling mechanical failure, and the remaining car finished in ninth place, but managed to keep in the top ten for almost the entire race. The race was ultimately won by the Porsche 911 GT.
The losses and overall poor performance prompted a long and ardous redesign and testing period by Toyota. However, even in the following year’s Le Mans, the car would still suffer hardships. Two of the GT Ones entered in the race suffered tire blowouts (one causing an accident that destroyed the vehicle), and both were forced to quit the race. The remaining GT One finished in second place, despite also having tire difficulties and some mechanical problems.
The GT One would appear in one more Le Mans race, competing against Nissan and a host of other Japanese Le Mans teams. However, the GT One did not have the power or technical design to match Nissan’s superior R391 machine. Following the GT One’s final loss, Toyota would permanently move out of the Le Mans races, and begin research and development on F1 models.
Although the GT One did not have the most prestigious racing record, it certainly incorporated advanced technology, and became one of the most powerful and best produced machines ever put out by Toyota. The car’s 3.6 liter twin turbo V8 is widely regarded as a massively powerful engine, and the around 700 horsepower put out by the vehicle during it’s final race is something that is still respected by car companies attempting to build cars for the Le Mans.
The GT One is certainly a legendary car, and it should be a vehicle that is much more widely remembered than it is. However, any Le Mans or Toyota fans are likely very well aware of the superior GT One, it’s legendary history, and its unlucky record.