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For better automobiles, Toyota puts Lexus through ‘Hell'

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For better automobiles, Toyota puts Lexus through ‘Hell'

Hans Greimel

Automotive News -- May 17, 2010 - 3:57 pm ET

NURBURGRING, Germany -- Lexus runs its LFA sports car at the notoriously difficult Nurburgring for the same reason racing legend Jackie Stewart dubbed the racetrack “The Green Hell.”

The circuit's 25.4 kilometers (15.7 miles) of narrow, twisty, bumpy tarmac are so punishing, they offer an unparalleled test of a car's mettle. Blind curves and incessant ups and downs through the thickly forested Eifel Mountains add to the challenge.

Then throw in night driving -- all over a nonstop 24-hour marathon.

“If your car performs well here, it can perform well anywhere,” says Tadashi Yamashina, senior managing director of global motorsports at Toyota Motor Corp.

Through its Gazoo Racing Team, Toyota has been running at this track northwest of Frankfurt since 2007 for several reasons: To gain data on reliability and durability that can feed back into production vehicles, to promote the company as a performance brand and to train engineers.

Showing the flag

Toyota is hardly alone. Showing the flag at Nurburgring is a hallowed tradition at Germany's automakers and overseas brands as well. Toyota entered two Lexus LFAs in the Saturday-Sunday running of the 24-hour endurance race, while Porsche put six of its cars on the grid.

Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi are other stalwarts.

Speaking during an interview at this year's race, Yamashina said Toyota, and especially Lexus, must enter the mix to rub shoulders with the luxury-performance brands deemed its toughest rivals. Doing so helps build the Japanese company's racing pedigree and establish street cred.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda got behind the wheel himself in past races, although he sat out this year, the first Nurburgring run since he became CEO in June 2009.

“If we want to compete against BMW and Mercedes for customers, we have to compete in these races,” Yamashina said. “It shows that we are in the same league.”

Toyota also sees racing as a valuable r&d tool.

After running a car full bore for 24 hours over such a demanding course, problems pop up that normally would be detected only after years of normal driving, said Toyota master test driver Hiromu Naruse. He also manages Gazoo Racing, Toyota's special race tuning arm.

Last year's race, in which Lexus entered two prototype LFAs, generated ample data used to improve the pre-production version of the car that Toyota brought back to Germany this year.

Racetrack to Main Street

For starters, Toyota used a more durable drivetrain, after the shaft of one race car broke on the first lap of last year's contest. And problems with everything from oil leaks and overheating to brake wear and suspension tuning also had to be ironed out, Naruse said.

All of that feeds into tweaking the production version of the LFA and is valuable durability data that eventually trickle back to engineers in Japan who work on mundane mass market models.

In the LFA's case, Naruse recommended adding an additional rear stabilizer bar for this year's race to make the car stiffer. The improvement is also under consideration for the street-legal LFA, due to start production this year in Motomachi, Japan, Yamashina said.

Said Naruse: “This year's car is essentially the same as the production car.”

Of course, the Nurburgring version got some overhauls to make it more track-worthy.

• The car has steel instead of ceramic composite disc brakes.

• The passenger seat was ripped out to cut weight.

• A fixed rear wing was added.

• Standard 20-inch wheels were swapped with 18-inch ones.

But the 4.8-liter, V-10 engine remains an unadulterated version of what customers will get.

Toyota rotates engineers and mechanics through race team assignments. Doing so not only trains them on the company's showcase cars but also aims to temper engineers under the stress and time constraints of competitive racing so they return to the office toughened up.

At the team press conference the day before the race, even the drivers were keenly attuned to Toyota's message of racing on Sunday and selling on Monday.

Japanese driver Juichi Wakisaka crashed his LFA on the first day of time trials. He said he was impressed by how durable the car was, because the steering was nearly unaffected by impact.

“Afterward, President Toyoda came to see me and said, ‘Thank you for having this crash,' ” Wakisaka said. “Because of this, we are able to work on the car and make it safer for customers.”

Read more: http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100517/OEM/100519864/1193#ixzz0oEGSnkGB

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