Entering the 2019 Season with the GR Supra and Lexus LC ―  VLN Test

Entering the 2019 Season with the GR Supra and Lexus LC
VLN Test

The Toyota A90 Takes Part in VLN9 2018

On October 20, 2018, a certain pre-launch sports car took part in VLN9 (Round 9 of the VLN Langstreckenmeisterschaft Nürburgring, also known as VLN Endurance Championship Nürburgring). The entry list read as follows: Entrant – TOYOTA GAZOO Racing; Vehicle Name – Toyota A90. There was a precedent for this; both the Lexus LFA and the Toyota 86 had participated in similar races before going on sale.

President Akio Toyoda said: "We must strengthen and nurture performance-focused cars at the Nürburgring. It is not enough to simply look at the NVH while the car drives on a test course. In addition to the cars, we must also change the thought processes of our mechanics and engineers."

Although new car development is typically kept top secret, Toyota's approach was to strengthen the car through competition. This was the complete opposite of prevailing attitudes.

"It's so incredibly fun to drive"

The GR Supra was disguised in a camouflage pattern consisting of TOYOTA GAZOO Racing's colors of white, red, and black; it was almost identical to the production model—only the necessary race and safety equipment had been added. The car had clearly been modified less than the other competing machines, but there was good reason for this: the goal of participating in VLN9 was to carry out one of the car's development tests—namely, to see how it performed in the ultimate conditions. The driver line-up comprised two GR Supra evaluation drivers—Herwig Daenens and Hisashi Yabuki—and Morizo—President Toyoda—himself.

In the morning qualifying session, the team recorded a time of 9 minutes 31.235 seconds for three laps, which was good enough for 94th out of 162 entrants. The race itself took place in the afternoon and, apart from an issue involving grease leaking from the driveshaft with one hour to go, the car performed smoothly, finishing in 116th position. The team took six pit stops during the race, but they were not due to problems with the car itself; rather, since the racecar used the same fuel tank as the production model, it could only complete four laps even when full.

After the race, President Toyoda told Chief Engineer Tetsuya Tada: "It's so incredibly fun to drive." Tada was relieved. This was confirmation that the GR Supra had passed its Nürburgring graduation test.

The Team's Schedule for the 2019 Season, and the Significance of Working Together with TMG

At the Tokyo Auto Salon, which took place from January 11 to 13, 2019, President Shigeki Tomoyama of the GR Company announced that the GR Supra would take part at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. It would compete alongside the Lexus LC, whose participation had already been confirmed at the 2018 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Festival. On February 7, TOYOTA GAZOO Racing announced its race schedule for the 2019 season, and clarified the GR Supra driver line-up for the 24 Hours of Nürburgring: Masahiro Sasaki, Uwe Kleen, Herwig Daenens, and Hisashi Yabuki.

While the fundamental goal of TOYOTA GAZOO Racing's Nürburgring activities—"to refine both people and cars"—remains unchanged, the team implemented a new approach to machine development with the GR Supra. Previously, Nürburgring activities had typically taken place under the supervision of Toyota's Japanese headquarters; the GR Supra, however, was developed in collaboration with Toyota Motorsport GmbH (TMG).

Nobuaki Kanamori, who oversees Toyota's Nürburgring activities, said: "TMG had previously provided support for our Nürburgring activities; this time, however, it also collaborated on the development of the vehicle. The primary reason for this was that when TOYOTA GAZOO Racing and TMG were considering their customer motorsports activities, TMG expressed a strong desire to participate at the Nürburgring—and this desire accorded well with our own activities. The Lexus LC was designed and produced in Japan; however, the GR Supra is manufactured in Germany, and incorporates elements proposed by TMG."

The GR Supra Encounters Problems at the March 16 VLN Test

The GR Supra that will line up at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring is based on the model that participated in VLN9, but various modifications have been made: aerodynamic parts added, a safety tank fitted, and various components lightened.

The updated GR Supra appeared at the VLN test on March 16, 2019. It looked more like a racing car than the machine that took part at VLN9 in 2018. However, instead of being decked in TOYOTA GAZOO Racing colors, it retained the same Ice Grey Metallic color scheme of the production model.

The VLN test was positioned as a shakedown for the modified GR Supra, and the priority was to confirm that each of the parts functioned properly. Herwig Daenens, Hisashi Yabuki, and Uwe Kleen smoothly racked up lap after lap. During the morning session, there were no significant problems; in the afternoon, however, it was reported over the radio that the car had stopped on the Nordschleife due to a problem with the transmission. The car was picked up and transported back to the pits by a recovery truck. The engineers and mechanics identified the cause of the problem, but they were unable to fix it on-site. The test was therefore cut short.

We asked Chief Mechanic Hideyuki Tanaka about the positives and negatives from the test. "We encountered a number of small issues," he said, "including with the automatic transmission. However, the priority for this test was to check whether the car that we had assembled worked properly. The fact that issues arose during the test is, we think, a good thing. We have identified the cause of the AT problems, so we are planning to fit a measuring device, make checks, and implement measures before the next test. Also, this was a first taste of the Nürburgring for some of our team—I have no doubt that it was a good for them to experience the circuit first-hand."

Upon being asked the same question, Yabuki replied: "First of all, we were able to confirm that everything worked as expected—this was a major success. With regard to the suspension, we changed the spring rate and damping a little from what we had calculated beforehand; this made the car easier to drive, so if we can carry out a few more tests then I think we will be able to find an optimal setup. We were also extremely interested in the revised aerodynamics. While the addition of aerodynamic parts made the car more stable than it had been at VLN9, our maximum speed was slower. We now have to find the correct balance between the two.

"The issue with the AT arose while I was driving, but I think it was a good thing the issue arose during the test. There have been a number of instances in the past where the tests are trouble-free, but then problems occur during the races themselves. Identifying any issues, and improving the car step by step, is critical to making cars."

The LC Enters its Second Year

This year will mark the second year at the Nürburgring for the Lexus LC. Last year, both the tests and qualifying runs ended without issue, but the car encountered problems during the race itself. Determined to overcome the disappointment of last season, the team has significantly revised the machine. While the exterior simply appears to be an updated version of last year's model, the inner workings of the car have been almost entirely overhauled.

The car takes last year's 5.0-liter V8 engine as its base, but features a larger displacement and incorporates high-speed combustion technologies: this new engine is the 2UR-GSE Kai. The 2019 Lexus LC also adopts torque characteristics that have been matched to its restrictor; this minimizes losses and makes the car easier to drive.

The position of the engine has been both moved closer to the center of the car and lowered. For this reason, the car foregoes a subframe and uses the engine as a stress-bearing structural component. The Lexus LC now utilizes a transaxle which is located at the rear of the car, so improving its front-rear weight distribution. The suspension has also been completely revised, with new parts used. In addition, the car is equipped with an updated version of the digital side-view monitor found on the Lexus ES, in order to provide assistance to the driver.

The Lexus LC was driven at the VLN test by racing driver Naoya Gamo and Yasuo Hirata of the Advanced Technical Skills Institute. Both the morning and afternoon sessions ended without issue, and the team even managed to try out different components.

Chief Mechanic Toshiyuki Sekiya said: "Everything went according to plan. Last year's race machine took advantage of the production car's characteristics; this year, however, we have taken a further step forward. We encountered problems last year, but this year we have implemented measures against any foreseeable issues. However, we believe there is still room for improvement, and we intend to make further advances before the next test."

How does the 2019 Lexus LC compare to the 2018 version? Gamo provided the following analysis: "I can say it now, but last year's car was not easy to drive; it felt as if I was constantly fighting the car. However, this year's model is both easy to drive and fast. This was something I felt during pre-testing, but my impression at the Nürburgring has been the same."

The TOYOTA GAZOO Racing team intends to make the most of the limited time available, and use the data acquired during this test to improve both the GR Supra and the Lexus LC. The Lexus LC will compete at VLN1, the GR Supra at VLN2, and both cars will compete in VLN3 and the qualifying race. As the 24 Hours of Nürburgring approaches, the team will do its best to ensure that further improvements are made to both machines.

Toyota's Nürburgring car-making has its roots in the Supra