You cannot buy motorsport heritage; you have to actually win races to get it. Toyota is doing just that.
I cannot really say when I began to develop this obsession about cars, but I know it was pretty early. I have this image of watching F1 with my dad on Sundays and I remember playing with his miniature models as if they were the most valuable things we owned.
I can see now that probably by my 10th birthday, I was already lecturing my dad on cars and not the other way around. From then on, this petrolheadness has just become worse (or better, depending on perspective) with age and today I would say about 60% of my professional life revolves around cars.
So, time for a confession: ever since cars have become part of my imagination, I have been absolutely sure about two things: one, Ferrari is the greatest, most fascinating brand of all time; and two, Toyota is the most boring, least appealing constructor. I would never ever buy a Toyota for myself, no matter how reliable and economic the cars might be.
Now, of course, our perception of a brand is determined by the information we have on it and how we decipher that information on a rational and emotional level. Ferrari, for example, is a synonym for racing, pedigree, passion and performance, whereas Toyota seemed to me like a good choice for my grandfather if he wanted a car that would never break down and be just as good after 20 years as it was the day it left the showroom.
That means I recognise Toyota’s strengths, but I don’t identify myself with them. Or didn’t. Looking back, that might have been unfair because Toyota had won a lot of motorsport titles in the past and is obviously much more than the Prius, a car that, for all its success and relevance, gave the Japanese brand a label of eco-consciousness that is as far away removed from traditional motorsport as it gets.
But hey, things change. Take September 20, 2020. Last Sunday. The day I wrote this text. Toyota has just won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the third time on the trot. It joins an elite group of just eight names that have done the same thing in the last 97 years: Bentley, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, Ferrari, Ford, Porsche, Matra and Audi.
The number 8 car driven by Kazuki Nakajima, Sébastien Buemi and Brendon Hartley finished miles ahead of the second place Rebellion R13-Gibson and the other Toyota sister car, which caught some trouble but still managed to salvage a podium. Toyota’s dominance throughout the whole race was absolute, the victory never in doubt for what was clearly the faster car of the last four years.
And I say four because, in 2017, Toyota lost the race to Porsche on the last lap, after suffering electrical problems, when the race was already in the bag. At Le Mans, anything can happen, they say, and it sure did that year. But the Japanese came back swinging and haven’t lost a race since.
After Le Mans, I sat down to watch Rally Turkey. Winner? That would be Elfyn Evans, at the wheel of…yes, you guessed it, a Toyota. Evans is also leading the championship with two rallies to go. If he wins, Toyota will become a double champion. Ott Tanak won last year for the Japanese and promptly left for the Koreans of Hyundai.
Also of relevance is the fact Toyota won the Dakar rally last year. So, apart from F1, it is pretty much dominating the world of motorsports right now. This is the result of a change in the approach made by the company about a decade ago, in which they decided they no longer wanted to be perceived as the granddaddy’s car.
The only thing Toyota didn’t have to capitalise on all this racing pedigree of late was a car people could buy to feel part of the whole motorsport thing. But, of course, they knew this already, so they came up with something incredibly special called the GR Yaris, a homologation version for the car that will compete in the World Rally Championship in 2021.
For a petrolhead, it has been very hard not to sell a kidney and order one this moment. Which makes me wonder how things have a funny way of turning out. From boring granny carrier, Toyota is now sweeping up titles in various championships and making itself an emotional brand again.
There are not many new cars I lust after these days. Usually, I dream about cars from the Nineties and early Noughties, so apart from Ferrari and most of the new products they keep churning out, I guess Toyota is now currently the only other brand that has me checking my bank statements and thinking ‘what if…?’
Never say never. Wise words, let me tell you.
By Guilherme Marques