Viva forever – Toyota in rallying

Rallying is a brutal mistress, punisher of the smallest mistakes, and a world where tenths of a second are all that is needed to propel a driver or car from ordinary to extraordinary.  Toyota knows the highs and lows of rallying all too well, and they are one of a few manufacturers who found success in Group B, Group A, and WRC.  I heard there were a few old Toyota rally cars sitting in a café on the edge of Tokyo that were worth a look at should I just happen to be in the neighborhood.  I couldn’t resist the chance to see what historical surprises awaited so I grabbed the camera and set off.

The Toyota in rallying story started in Sweden back in 1972, when the well-established Swedish driver Ove Andersson was asked to drive a Toyota in the RAC Rally.  Ove had no idea of what these cars even looked like, so he jumped on a plane to Japan to see if he wanted to sign on for the rally.  A deal was struck and he subsequently won his class in the event, which lead to more rallies throughout Europe in 1973, just as Toyota was pushing production cars into the European markets.  With the European market already a tight ship, gaining trust with the people was best achieved by beating the European cars on the rally stages, the true test of rugged reliability and performance.

When Toyota got cold feet with the fuel crisis of 74’, the manufacturer really wanted to cease competition despite very promising results.  Ove flew to Japan and returned with $250,000 worth of spare parts, several cars and a garage purchased just outside of Brussels, TTE (Toyota Team Europe) was born.  As the rallying world screamed sideways up the yellow brick road to Group B, this is chronologically where the Tokyo-based collection kicks off.  The TA64 Celica was introduced at a time when the rallying world was about to be rocked by the introduction of four-wheel drive, but the TA64 had an ace up its sleeve that others didn’t throughout the group B era.

Traditional engineering offered up both ruggedness and reliability, both of which the TA64 had in abundance.  This unbreakable reliability meant that Toyota won the one event that everyone wanted from 1983-1986 – the Safari Rally.  So dominant was the team in the rough conditions that the Celica received the nickname ‘The King of Africa’ at the hands of Juha Kankkunen, Per Eklund and Björn Waldegård.  As Group B reached its pinnacle in 1986, TTE was finally on the 4wd bandwagon with development of a monster to replace the TA64 in full swing.  Codenamed ‘222D’, the MR2 weighed in a 750kg and was tested with 750bhp giving it an insane 1 kilogram per horsepower figure.  Eleven prototypes were produced, with many being written off in testing accidents.  Group B was cut at the end of 1986, and the Group S program would never see competition.  Ove Andersson stated that in testing the car had three seconds of lag before the power came on, and when it did the car was violent and very scary to drive. The 222D is a perfect example of where rallying as a sport was heading, there was lots of power and a total disregard for safety. Only three of these insane cars remain today and one of the mythical monsters calls Tokyo home.

As Group B was culled off, Toyota’s adventure in the WRC would forcibly shift with the now legendary Group A Celica GT-Four, which was coincidentally developed alongside the 222D in the same workshop.  The ST165 came onto the scene in Corsica of 1988 and was the first 4wd car fielded by TTE.  Initially niggles with the 4wd system held back results, but by 1990 and with Carlos Sainz & Luis Moya securing the drivers’ championship, Toyota finished second in the manufacturers championship which gave the team reason to feel confident.

As the 1992 season approached, the ST165 that had done so well with Carlos Sainz and Björn Waldegård behind the wheel was retired and the ST185 came into active service.  This was undoubtedly the most successful Toyota of the teams rallying history.  Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen, and Didier Auriol won the drivers title with this car from 92’ to 94’ and Toyota was manufacturers champion in 93’ and 94’.  This era ushered in their most well-known livery when the team partnered up with Castrol to create the iconic white, red, and green cars that would adorn the World Rally Championship until 1999.

1995 would prove to be a year that the team would rather have totally forgotten.  TTE were banished from the WRC from midway through the 95’ season to the end of the 96’ season for a cheat so elegant, and so devious that FIA President Max Mosley labelled it as ‘the most ingenious thing I have seen in motorsport for 30 years.’  A cleverly developed turbo that gave 25 percent more airflow than regulations allowed, allowed a competitive advantage of as much as 75 additional horsepower which made the ST205 a formidable opponent.  In a year where Didier Auriol and Juha Kankkunen were head to head with Subaru, the two TTE drivers did at times wonder why their cars were always so lightning quick.  Upon scrutineers realising the cars turbos were illegal, an instant ban was enforced Toyota lawyered up but the ban still stood. Many credit the ST205 as being the odd Toyota out, as while it was for many the prettiest Celica, the cheating scandal will always loom over that particular model like a dirty dark cloud.

As soon as the ban was lifted in 1997 the team returned, and this would be the third era of rallying TTE had competed in during World Rally competition.  The WRC-era of rally car had arrived, and while the Celica was out, in was the all-new Corolla.  The Celica was based on a bigger sports car, but the Corolla was bred under the new WRC regulations that took shape from a front wheel drive mass-produced model.  The Corolla was visually smaller, with shorter overhang but had an almost identical wheelbase to the Celicas.  The small, compact size produced some issues with fitting all the equipment in the car so the engine was fitted transversely and mated with the new XTrac sequential gearbox.  Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol were drafted back to drive through to the end of the 1999 season upon which a shift in focus was announced when Toyota entered the Formula One circus.  For many this was the end of a very long and glorious era that saw the demise of rally in 1986, and then a rebirth of a new golden era through the 90s’.

It is an impressive resume that Toyota wrote across 27 years of competition, they became legends with a raft of iconic cars in all corners of the globe. Amassing 46 rally wins, 5 drivers’ titles and 3 manufacturers titles is no mean feat for anyone at the top level of rallying.  Many fans still remember through the 90s’ the sights and sounds of these cars in competition.  Standing on a narrow embankment in the Motu special stage, ankle deep in mud you could hear the cars well before they appeared.  The angry anti-lag, crackling and banging as it echoed through the air was like an approaching thunderstorm rolling across the farmland.

In the blink of an eye the iconic Castrol livery appeared, then in a hail of stones and mud it was gone again while a special smell of exhaust fumes and hot brakes was left hanging in the air as the crews danced through the dips down to the stage end.  It was an era where as a spectator you knew you were witnessing a cross over in legends, the old hands such as Kankkunen, Waldegård, and Schwarz doing battle with the new breed of driver in Mäkinen, Burns, and McRae.

Now, a couple of decades on from the heat of competition, the next era of rally fan has the chance to come face to face with some of the most iconic cars that have ever snaked and slithered up the worlds’ most famous special stages.  Names such as Waldegård, Kankkunen, Auriol, and Sainz on doors instantly command a sense of awe and admiration from fans, while rallies such as Monte Carlo, Safari, and Corsica demonstrate the range of conditions that Toyota was capable of winning in.  Toyota is extremely proud of their rallying history and this display is a powerful symbol of that.  To have such a raft of the same manufacturers rally cars in one place is a rare thing in itself.  Vinyl liveries peeling, dented doors, rollover damage, and faded paint makes the story these cars tell as bright and colourful as their liveries.

The place these cars call home is known as Toyota MegaWeb and is a showcase of the new, futuristic, and past of all things Toyota.  The complex inlcudes a large shopping mall with a café situated at the end so fans can grab a coffee and something to eat while admiring the cars. If you imagine hard enough, you could almost smell the champagne that was sprayed across them when they won rallies and championships.  The great thing about this display is that there is no charge to see them, there are no glass walls between the exhibits and the public, and there is plenty of seating around the cars so you can just grab a seat, sit down and soak it all in.  Many fans were initially disappointed when these cars arrived on the scene after the Group B era, but what many of them didn’t know was that Group A was to throw up an exciting platform which would reignite interest in the sport all over again.

Despite the 90s’ seeming to be a long time ago, all the cars at MegaWeb are maintained and are still able to be turned over and driven, and they do get taken out for demonstrations and moved around for the public to see them in person.  The lone staff member said that when the cars are taken in and out of the complex they are usually driven.  ‘The 222D sounds incredible driving through the shopping mall after hours’ he laughed.  ‘Even now that Toyota is back in WRC with the Yaris, I think these are the cars we will be remembered for, even though the new car is competitive we will never see a comprehensive calendar like we did in the 90s.’

This was an era where the cars returned to their real roots, fans were able to go and purchase a GT-Four Celica which actually resembled something like the one they would see on the stages.  You had a raft of drivers who were more like gladiators, and the championship wasn’t decided until the last day on the final rally of the season.  It was a time where a rollover meant you kept going with no windscreen and half the car fallen off, and retirements were punished with championship-destroying levels of severity.

The cars were tough, and after the demise of Group B, rallying needed new heroes.  The 90s’ stepped up the plate and delivered in terms of cars, drivers, and on-stage action.  As a rallying fan, standing in front of these cars brought back all those memories, growing up leaning against a fence at Rally New Zealand waiting to see my motorsport heroes once a year.  Despite no flying gravel or anti-lag, the same goosebumps came flooding back and that is a true testament to the importance that Toyota played in the story that is the ‘World Rally Championship’.

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One thought on “Viva forever – Toyota in rallying”

  1. Awesome info on this collection of rally legends! I went there back in April of 2018, but only briefly as I had to meet a friend afterwards. How I wish I could have stayed longer and soaked everything in! I wrote a bit about it in a story, but I will definitely have to make another trip there.

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