Wednesday’s Flashback : TOYOTA’s first endurance World Championship season

Do you remember the first time? For TOYOTA, its first full season of participation in an endurance World Championship was certainly memorable – it started with a remarkable one-two in qualifying. Welcome to 1989… Japan was in mourning following the death of Emperor Hirohito, George W. Bush has just taken over as President of the United States, a young Sébastien Buemi was edging closer to his first birthday – and TOYOTA is ready to take on the world in endurance racing.

TOYOTA Team TOM’S had a busy schedule for 1989, combining the FIA World Sports Prototype Championship with the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship. The national series began first at Fuji Speedway and the TOYOTA 89C qualified on pole position, but Geoff Lees and Hitoshi Ogawa would go on to finish fifth.

Then it was on to the World Championship, with an opening race at Suzuka. This time Lees teamed up with Johnny Dumfries in the #37 car and made it two pole positions from two attempts.  On home ground, the Japanese celebrated a clean sweep of the front row when the #36 TOYOTA, driven by Paolo Barilla and Ogawa, took second. A third 89C for Roland Ratzenberger and Toshio Suzuki was down in 20th. TOYOTA was celebrating after qualifying but race day would prove to be very different. There was to be no home victory, with the #36 finishing sixth, while the pole-position car was down in 20th. Ratzenberger and Suzuki finished 24th.

The next race at Dijon in France saw an improvement after the team reverted to the one-year-old 88C. Only Lees and Dumfries entered; they started second and finished fourth.Back in the 89C, another strong qualifying at Jarama put the pair fifth at the start but by the chequered flag they were down in 10th. A trip to Brands Hatch in England, when John Watson partnered Lees, brought only a retirement after running out of fuel. Dumfries was back at the Nürburgring and a solid sixth place in qualifying translated to seventh at the end. At Donington Park in September ex-F1 drivers Watson and Dumfries came together but could only finish 10th after qualifying fourth. Spa followed but the pattern continued and the TOYOTA 89C lost positions compared to its qualifying performance. Fifth on the grid became eighth at the flag, but the little did TOYOTA realize their season highlight was just around the corner.

Back in the All-Japan Championship and at Fuji Speedway, Ogawa and Barilla qualified second. Confounding the pattern of the season, the pair took victory after 1,000km – it was TOYOTA’s fourth in Group C racing.

Back on the world stage, all that was left was a season finale in Mexico. It was not a memorable finish – a driveshaft problem ended the challenge of Watson and Dumfries after qualifying third.

For all the raw speed shown by TOYOTA Team TOM’S during 1989, seventh place in the championship was poor reward. The 2012 chapter of TOYOTA’s endurance story will surely end better…