2018 Reports - Vol.2 VLN
The LC finished its Japanese tests at the end of February and crossed the seas; the Nürburgring, Germany, was now the stage for car-making.
Even when engaged in car-making in Japan, the team’s ultimate goal had always been the Nürburgring. The harsh environment of the Nürburgring presented an entirely different challenge to Japanese circuits, and the teams were keen to verify through actual race tests whether the LC had developed into a machine that was capable of running both quickly and with peace of mind.
The mechanics were the first to depart for Germany, where they prepared the race car and incorporated improvement plans; the engineers remained in Japan to perfect the car—some working on design adjustments, others manufacturing parts in response various issues.
The first race test was round one of the VLN Endurance Racing Championship Nürburgring (VLN).
VLN is an endurance series that comprises 11 races held at the Nürburgring over the course of a year. Many teams participate at the races that take place before the 24 Hours of Nürburgring in order to carry out actual race tests and make modifications—TOYOTA GAZOO Racing enters the series every year as well.
The team’s goal at VLN was to try out various setups and accumulate a variety of data for the 24 Hours of Nürburgring; it also wanted to identify areas for improvement both among the team members and the vehicle itself through actual race experience.
Kazuyoshi Ogata is lead engineer and a member of Toyota’s GR Development Management Division. Before the race, he was driven around the Nordschliefe (the north course of the Nürburgring) by Yasuo Hirata, who has participated in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring as a mechanic for a number of years, and who ordinarily assesses production vehicles at the circuit as an evaluation driver.
Ogata said: “My impressions changed completely as I sat next to him. I saw at first hand how close the drivers skirt with death. I understood the importance of ensuring nothing went wrong with the car. We had to further improve the car so that the drivers would not feel afraid, even for a moment.”
With regard to the evaluation of the race car, the drivers’ opinions also changed completely. At the Japanese tests, the body rigidity and suspension of the LC—which incorporates technologies for next-generation production cars—was evaluated as “this is ok,” and “this will be fine at the Nürburgring.” It was even suggested that the engine, which the team had great confidence in, might even be better than the Super GT engine. Overall, the LC had been given an evaluation of 80 points out of 100 in Japan. However, at the Nürburgring, those same evaluation drivers said: “This is no good at all.” Issues that remained hidden in Japan were being exposed at the Nürburgring.
Lead driver Takeshi Tsuchiya commented after the first day’s practice: “We thought the car was in a good position after the Japanese tests but, after actually running at the Nürburgring, we have realized the true situation—it is not something that we can rectify easily. The Nürburgring has invisible barriers. However, during our short practice runs, I feel we were able to find the right direction—what we ought to do with the car going forwards. There are many things we have to do. Specifically, we have to connect the movements of the car body, suspension, and tires more directly to information received by the driver. Unless we do this, it will not be possible to drive with peace of mind at the Nürburgring. Good cars are fast wherever they are driven; and they are easy to drive wherever they go. For this reason, we have to continue to focus, and ensure we provide accurate feedback to our mechanics and engineers.”
Ogata was of a similar opinion: “Now that we have come to the Nürburgring, we have encountered many pitfalls. As it happens, there was an issue that cropped up at the very end of our domestic tests—we had implemented countermeasures, but instead of identifying the cause ourselves, we left it up to our supplier. But the same issue reemerged at the Nürburgring. The Nürburgring will expose anything you’re even slightly worried about. I now understand that we have to get on with things regardless of our individual fields or areas of responsibility. In addition, we managed to significantly reduce the vehicle weight of the LC to 1,380kg—with a corresponding increase in competitiveness; at the same time, this led us to see improvements we wanted to make to the base production car, to the front-rear and left-right weight distribution, or the way we approached vehicle rigidity. The LC has no doubt undergone a variety of improvements and challenges as a production car; however, there are many more realizations to be had trackside, where the pace is higher and the environment is more severe. These are issues that we must overcome in the next generation of production cars.”
Chief mechanic Toshiyuki Sekiya of Toyota’s Advanced Technical Skills Institute demonstrated his desire to improve the LC: “Together with the engineers, we will do everything we can think of in response to the comments of the drivers. Please speak honestly—we will assuredly not say anything is impossible.”
At the VLN qualifying session, the course conditions changed from wet to dry. Even though the team treated it only as a test to check various setups, the LC finished 28th overall. This was the moment when the team glimpsed the true potential of the race car.
Following feedback from the qualifying runs, the team changed out the suspension for the race itself. During the race, a broken electric rear-view mirror necessitated a pit stop; and, while they managed to fix the mirror by restarting the system, the problem reoccurred, forcing the car to pit for a new mirror unit. Thereafter the LC performed steadily but, at the car’s final scheduled pit stop, an unexpected issue required the stabilizers to be replaced.
Chief mechanic Sekiya commented: “At this race, we had originally planned to make setup adjustments during the pit stops anyway; however, we encountered some problems during the first half of the race, so we ended up attempting some larger-scale work as well. It was extremely positive to see that the mechanics had the flexibility to adjust to sudden changes. We are treating our participation in VLN as a series of tests, so I feel that we have managed to make the most both of our time and of the Nürburgring itself.”
The LC came 101st out of 120 finishers. Significantly, however, the team achieved their primarily goals of attempting different setups and gathering data for the 24 Hours of Nürburgring itself.
Tsuchiya said: “Two days is not very long, but we were able to try a variety of different setups—both the range of the setups and the process was extremely positive. On the other hand, we were forced to recognize that there are still many things we have to do. The question is how far can we focus in the short time we have left until the 24 Hours of Nürburgring itself. I feel as if the Nürburgring has opened our eyes. It is the people who manipulate the cars. There are still many things the Nürburgring has to teach us.”
With regard to the mechanics, who carried out their work swiftly and accurately in their first year at the Nürburgring, Tsuchiya commented: “I feel they have adapted to this environment extremely naturally—I can’t believe this is their first year here. No doubt they are all absorbing at first hand those experiences that can only be provided by the Nürburgring.”
On the other hand, chief mechanic Sekiya indicated there was still room for improvement: “They moved well, but they were all overwhelmed with their own tasks. I would like them to develop the composure to see what’s going on around them, to be more proactive, and to anticipate what’s going to happen next.”
Afterwards, the team rapidly implemented measures against the problems they encountered in VLN1, before participating in the qualifying race for the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. After the qualifying race, Tsuchiya said: “We have now completed two races, but I honestly feel we have done nowhere near enough running. However, I am also aware that we have made steady progress.”
The harsh environment of the Nürburgring is on an entirely different level to domestic circuits. It exposes in a variety of ways those aspects of both people and cars that are unsatisfactory.
There is not much time until the 24 Hours of Nürburgring begins, but the team now knows what it has to do. Neither the mechanics nor the engineers will stop making improvements to the LC until just before it is time to line up on the starting grid.