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Friday favourite: The ill-starred Toyota that was quick but struck out at Le Mans

Toyota’s GT-One was described by Autosport in 2015 as “the ultimate fast failure”, but such was its impact on Vincenzo Sospiri that he picks it as his favourite car.

#1 Toyota Motorsports/ TTE, Toyota GT-One: 
Martin Brundle,  Emmanuel Collard,  Vincenzo Sospiri

#1 Toyota Motorsports/ TTE, Toyota GT-One: Martin Brundle, Emmanuel Collard, Vincenzo Sospiri

Gavin Lawrence / Motorsport Images

It would not have been a surprise if Italian Vincenzo Sospiri selected the Reynard 95D in which he dominated the 1995 International Formula 3000 championship, or the Ferrari 333SP that he and Emmanuel Collard took to consecutive Sportscar World Cup titles in 1998 and 1999. But despite racing the “so well designed and built” Toyota only once, at Le Mans in 1999, it made a huge impression.

“If you take the car and dismantle it to pieces, it was actually a Formula 1 car!” recalls Sospiri. “It was a monocoque with a lot of bodywork attached to it. And the car was really nice to drive, very fun, very fast. It responded very well to everything you asked for.”

Sospiri had joined the Toyota Team Europe (TTE) programme for its second crack at La Sarthe with the GT-One, replacing Eric Helary alongside Collard and Martin Brundle. The Andre de Cortanze-designed car, built in Cologne at the home of Toyota’s future F1 effort, had performed well at its first attempt in 1998 as Geoff Lees, Ralf Kelleners and Thierry Boutsen came within 80 minutes of a debut win before gearbox problems intervened.

And Toyota was taking no chances for 1999, a year of unprecedented manufacturer involvement in the great race from Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Panoz, Nissan and Lola. Extensive renovations were made to the aerodynamics, while a hydraulic gearshift was also added to address the problems of 1998.

“Every aspect of our car is better,” remarked Brundle after he’d lapped five seconds faster than 1998 in pre-qualifying, and outpaced the qualifying efforts of Audi and Nissan while running in race trim.

Despite snow forcing the cancellation of a final 24-hour test at Spa, the GT-One had completed enough mileage that Autosport declared it “is better prepared than every one of its rivals this year”.

“We simulated the 24 hours two or three times, we did a lot of running in that car,” confirms Sospiri. This was especially helpful for getting him used to driving with a turbo engine - for the first time.

The GT-One was extensively tested at Paul Ricard prior to the 1999 24 Hours, leaving its crew in confident mood

The GT-One was extensively tested at Paul Ricard prior to the 1999 24 Hours, leaving its crew in confident mood

Photo by: Sutton Images

“We were in Paul Ricard testing, for some reason I was two or three tenths off Martin and I was using more fuel than him,” he says. “I thought, ‘this doesn’t make sense. He kindly said to me, ‘Vincenzo, I looked at your data and at the moment you are fiddling with the throttle too much, like if you have an aspirated engine. But a turbo engine is either off or on, never play with the throttle; that way you’re using fuel.

“‘Whenever you go on [throttle], you never come back off. If you go on 50% or 30% or 100%, whatever you go on, never come back. So decide yourself how much percentage to go on’. He helped me a lot to understand that car, to understand the way to work with the turbo engine. And everything else for me was very easy, it was a car which suited me very well.”

"We were just cruising around at the beginning, waiting for the moment to push" Vincenzo Sospiri

Sospiri had injured his shoulder at the end of 1998, but never mentioned to his employers that he “drove with one hand basically for all of 1999”. After an operation late in the season, he decided to end his full-time career, but feels his performance in the Toyota wasn't impacted.

“No, I don’t think so, my performance in the Toyota was good,” he says.

Despite a lack of competition mileage, having focused entirely on testing in the interim, Toyota was the clear pre-event favourite for 1999 and it didn’t disappoint in qualifying as Brundle led Boutsen in a GT-One 1-2, his the only car to dip under the 3m30s mark.

“We had the speed to win, we knew it,” Sospiri says, describing his car as the hare that “was supposed to push all the time to make the other manufacturers push as well and try to break down”.

But Sospiri recalls that Toyota management wasn’t keen on potentially sacrificing its best win chance.

“Through the weekend they decided to set a bench lap time to stay on it all the race, or at least the beginning of the race, because we were too fast and they didn’t want us to break,” he says. The result was a target lap time that the crew could easily meet.

“We were just cruising around at the beginning, waiting for the moment to push,” he says.

Brundle (left) claimed pole in the #1 machine he shared with Collard and Sospiri

Brundle (left) claimed pole in the #1 machine he shared with Collard and Sospiri

Photo by: Sutton Images

But in the race things went wrong in Sospiri’s first stint, four and a half hours in. After a delay caused by a refuelling problem, Autosport reported that “a hydraulic failure robbed the car of its power-steering and forced the drivers to abandon the paddle-shift in favour of a conventional gear lever”.

That necessitated a long pitstop to repair the hydraulic system and replace the damaged gear ratios, costing nine laps, and putting Brundle 12th upon rejoining. The power steering could not be revived. So even before the puncture that sent Brundle into the barriers approaching the first Mulsanne chicane, causing damage that meant he was only able to drag the car as far as Arnage, it would have been hard to fathom a result for the pole-winning crew.

The all-Japanese third car of Ukyo Katayama, Keiichi Tsuchiya and Toshio Suzuki did eventually finish second, while the #2 machine shared by Boutsen, Allan McNish and Ralf Kelleners was in the thick of the lead fight with BMW's leading entry until Boutsen was sent hard into the Dunlop chicane barriers by inattentive Porsche GT2 driver Michel Maisonneuve.

The GT-One only raced once more, in an end-of-year contest on home turf at Fuji when a plethora of penalties allowed Nissan to claim an improbable victory. Somehow, it never won a race.

“The problem is that the plan was for two years – 1998 and 1999,” says Sospiri. “It was already agreed and decided to do only two years with that car. I believe even if they stayed in 2000, the car was fast enough to do well.”

The only other machine that figures in Sospiri’s personal debate is an F1 car - although unsurprisingly not the pitiful Lola he and Ricardo Rosset failed to qualify at Melbourne in 1997.

The year before, Sospiri had been a tester for Benetton as the reigning F3000 champion failed to find a competitive F1 race seat. Without its double champion Michael Schumacher, who had been lured to Ferrari, the Renault-powered B196 didn't win a race - although victories for ex-Ferrari drivers Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger slipped away with a broken spring at Monaco and rare engine failure at Hockenheim.

The #1 Toyota led early on, but power steering failure and gearbox problems meant it was already badly delayed before a puncture sent Brundle into the wall

The #1 Toyota led early on, but power steering failure and gearbox problems meant it was already badly delayed before a puncture sent Brundle into the wall

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Sospiri felt it was “the maximum expression of a racing car”, despite feeling “very nervous” on the limit.

“It was incredible to drive,” he says. “We had three days testing at Silverstone and after the two days which we did all together - me, Gerhard and Alesi - the third day they asked me to test the car with the set-up of Berger, the set-up of Alesi and then another set-up that they didn’t tell me at the beginning.

“I preferred the other set-up with a small adjustment for me, and they said ‘this is the car Schumacher liked last year’. For me, it was the fastest car, but it was quite difficult to drive it.”

The Benetton B196-Renault, pictured at Silverstone with Berger at the wheel, was the only car that came close to the GT-One in Sospiri's estimation

The Benetton B196-Renault, pictured at Silverstone with Berger at the wheel, was the only car that came close to the GT-One in Sospiri's estimation

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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