The RC finishes first in class after completing the four-hour race virtually trouble-free.
A much improved car and team will compete in The 24 Hours of Nürburgring.
This year marks the eleventh consecutive year since TOYOTA GAZOO Racing began competing at Nürburgring in 2007. This important activity underpins our efforts towards “making ever-better cars”, and much has changed over the past ten years. First to compete was a used Toyota Altezza, but subsequent entries include the Lexus LFA, the Toyota 86, and Toyota’s C-HR cross-over.
The C-HR in particular is a key element in the evolution and refinement of the TNGA, and “performance-limit testing” is no longer a method reserved for sports cars. The past ten years’ experience and findings are being steadily fed back into the development of production vehicles.
This year’s race signals a fresh start as we go back to the basics of developing people and cars. Thus, the technical team is led by Chief Engineer Chatani, who was competing for the first time, and Chief Mechanic Hirata, who has been involved since 2007. Following last year’s unfortunate retirement, the five mechanics were keen to make improvements. For them, this was a rematch.
The car, a Lexus RC, has improved a lot through its two years of competition. Although many production parts were actively used in the first year, this year sees the introduction of special technologies aimed at developing sports cars for the future such as the power train, drive train, suspension, weight reduction, and aerodynamics. This unprecedented focus on the engineering side is also contributing to developing skilled engineers. In that sense, the Lexus RC represents the culmination of three years’ efforts at the Nürburgring.
That said, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The initial testing, shakedowns, and test runs in Japan at the end of 2016 saw all manner of troubles arise. Each test revealed many issues for the engineers and mechanics to handle. Corrections and modifications were steadily made until, at the final Japan-side testing, the car recorded a time 6 seconds faster than the 2016 version. Positive feedback was received from three drivers about the stable temperature and easy handling.
Testing completed in Japan, the vehicle crossed the ocean bound for Germany’s Nürburgring to compete in Race 1 of the VLN Endurance Championship (VLN1*) on March 25th. The team’s mission was to conduct trials and gather data while gaining actual race experience to establish individuals’ roles and iron out problems in the run up to The 24 Hours of Nürburgring. Basically, the aim was to test the car and the team under race conditions. The two drivers were Takamitsu Matsui and Naoya Gamo.
*VLN is a series of endurance races held 11 times a year at Nürburgring. Many teams enter the VLN1/ VLN2, held in March and April, with the aim of testing and fine-tuning their vehicles in preparation for The 24 Hours of Nürburgring. TOYOTA GAZOO Racing participates every year.
At the previous day’s practice sessions, the team focused on finalizing the setup while closely monitoring the vehicle and course conditions. Various setups were trialed with the aim of tuning the aerodynamics, suspension, transmission, and fuel map to suit the characteristics of the Nürburgring course. Feedback from the two drivers was used to gradually fine-tune the vehicle’s performance.
The much-awaited qualifying race began at 8:30am on March 25 in clear weather conditions. Rather than simply aiming to beat the clock, the team focused on the setup as they had the previous day. Each setup change brought further improvement, with the drivers praising the speed, stability, and easy handling. The RC’s time broke 9 minutes, recording its fastest time of 8 minutes 56.073 seconds and finishing top in the SP3T class. All of the fine-tuning had finally paid off in the results.
The four-hour race began at noon, with Matsui and Gamo taking turns as the driver. In a complete turnaround from the problem-stricken testing in Japan, the team racked up a succession of trouble-free laps requiring only routine pit stops. After completing the full four hours without once losing the top spot, they finally finished first in class. More important than the finishing position, however, was being able to steadily complete each lap while gathering data and fine-tuning the setup in preparation for The 24 Hours of Nürburgring.
Although the car’s tuning was satisfactory, the mechanics still had lessons to learn in terms of proper communication, reporting completion of tasks, and information sharing. The pressure and time constraints of actual race conditions also led to some checks being omitted. However, the mechanics proactively acknowledged these issues without prompting from Chief Mechanic Hirata, so they can be expected to make solid progress before the next race.
Winning is not the project’s main objective, but the Lexus RC must compete against a lineup of tough competitors in the SP3T class. Findings and lessons from the VLN1, as well as driver feedback, will be used to make improvements to develop an even better-performing car within the limited time available. It’s time to step up the pace in preparation for The 24 Hours of Nürburgring.
Takamitsu Matsui, Driver
At this year’s VLN1, I was able to drive the car at its limits from the start line, which has given us a good start ahead of The 24 Hours of Nürburgring. After the Japan-side testing, we thought the setup was suitable for the course at Nürburgring but I just didn’t feel that it was ready when I drove it on the actual course. Having said that, the finished car handles really well now, thanks to the many tests we were able to conduct here. We had a disappointing result last year but, considering the improvement to the vehicle, I am confident that we will achieve great results this year.
Keisuke Chatani, Chief Engineer (Toyota Motor employee)
We had a virtually trouble-free practice session followed by a win in the actual race. More importantly, though, we were able to thoroughly test the vehicle itself and the team. While I was pretty nervous because I had no experience of testing vehicles over long periods or actual races, the efforts and progress made by the team in the lead up to the race really paid off in the results. However, we must remember our ultimate objective: to apply the test results from this race when competing in The 24 Hours of Nürburgring, and also to apply the skills we learned to the development of production cars. Teamwork saved the day when we made mistakes as individuals. Now, we must learn from our mistakes and move on.
Yasuo Hirata, Chief Mechanic (Toyota Motor employee)
The car improved every time we changed the setup from the qualifying race, and this was reflected in the results, so the mechanics were all pretty motivated. As this was the second year they had been involved in the preparation and maintenance, they were all capable of handling any problems that arose. However, they weren’t communicating properly with each other while they worked, and there were many situations where they were unable to think and act independently. Even after two years, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.