Original Sin - 1995 SARD MC8-R

Japanese automotive giant Toyota had been campaigning at Le Mans in the Group C prototype category for most of the 1980’s. With the demise of this great series in 1993, they were left empty handed. In the meantime production-based GT1 racing had been gaining massive popularity in Europe. Race converted sportscars like the Ferrari F40 GTE and the McLaren F1 GTR were making a name for themselves in the BPR Global GT Series and subsequently Le Mans. Toyota saw this new category as a great way to keep their presence in high level motor racing.

There was however a significant problem. Toyota did not manufacture anything like the aforementioned European mid-engined supercars. To circumvent this major drawback, the company took a good hard look at the GT1 rule book. There Toyota found it stated any cars competing were required have a road legal base. However, it did not elaborate on exactly how much road going versions of the race car had to be built. Relieved to have found the perfect loophole, the Japanese manufacturer made up a cunning plan of attack.

The SW20-generation MR2 provided the base for Toyota's new GT1 weapon.

The SW20-generation MR2 provided the base for Toyota's new GT1 weapon.

The decision was made to launch a two-pronged assault on the European establishment. The easy way in would be adapting a JGTC GT500 spec JZA80 Supra to a GT1 specifications. Because the basic street model of this car had already been mass produced, no exotic homologation special was needed. The second option called for a more difficult approach. Toyota called upon their trusted racing partners, Sigma Advanced Research Development (SARD), to turn the humble SW20 generation MR2 into a Ferrari-eating track stomper.

Always in for some crazy fun, SARD threw all their expertise at the little car. First order of business was extending the compact sportscar’s body between the wheels by so much as 40 cm. This extra body length and longer wheelbase was needed to maintain stability on the long high speed straights at Le Mans. Another reason was to free up space for a brand new, much bigger engine.

The one and only road legal SARD MC8.

The one and only road legal SARD MC8.

Gone was the puny transverse 2.0L 4 cylinder, and in its place a bespoke twin turbocharged version of the 1UZ-FE 4L V8 was mounted longitudinally. This engine was normally found in dreary wheeled waiting rooms like the original Lexus LS400. In race trim the new heart pumped out some 600 horsepower, a guaranteed entry ticket to the top of the GT1 scale. A 6-speed Hewland VGC manual transmission ensured the fury reached the tarmac. Overall the car was 40 cm longer, 20 cm wider and 20 cm lower than the standard MR2. Weight was slightly higher at 1273 kg (2806 lbs).

SARD put so much work into the development of the car that Toyota allowed them to name it after them. A single road going version was then built to make the racer eligible for homologation. This car was named the SARD MC8. The racing version gained an R in its designation for obvious reasons.

The MC8-R mixing it up with its chief rivals.

The MC8-R mixing it up with its chief rivals.

Along with the GT500 Supra GT LM, the MC8-R was entered into the 1995 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Listed as drivers were former Porsche and Jaguar factory Group C ace Alain Ferté (FRA), former Sauber-Mercedes and Nissan Group C factory pilot Kenny Acheson (GB), and Italian F3000 driver Marco Apicella, coincidentally the man with the shortest F1-career in history (just one corner). The car´s main sponsor was Japanese mobile network provider Do Co Mo.

In qualifying the car would disappoint dearly. It managed only 31st overall and 22nd in class, directly behind the Supra. The fierce competition of the Ferrari F40 GTE, Jaguar XJ220 LM, McLaren F1 GTR, Lister Storm GTS, Venturi 600 SLM and the confusingly named Porsche 993 GT2 Evo proved to be too overbearing for the new and unproven car. Compatriots Honda and Nissan had also deployed an attack on the Europeans, and were actually doing better than Toyota. The NSX GT1 Turbo placed 19th in class, with the fastest Skyline GT-R LM in 17th.

The somber tone set in qualifying continued on race day. After just 14 laps the MC8-R’s clutch broke, putting an early end to the car’s adventure. A reminder of the European GT1 dominance came some 23 hours later, when a GT1-class McLaren F1 surprisingly won the race overall.

The revised MC8-R, Le Mans 1996.

The revised MC8-R, Le Mans 1996.

For 1996 SARD and Toyota were eager to compensate for their total failure the year before. To prevent another disastrous clutch failure, the Hewland VGC 6-speed was ditched in favor of a stronger 5-speed transmisson developed by March Engineering. In addition the MC8-R went on a crash diet, bringing weight down to 1061 kg (2339 lbs). The driver line up was also revised, with experienced former Group-C racers Mauro Martini (ITA) and Peter Fabre (FRA) now joining Alain Ferté. Taking up major sponsorship duty was Menicon, a Japanese contact lens company.

Even with the massive weight reduction the car did not improve in the slightest. Qualifying saw the car more or less in the same spot as 1995, 38th overall and 23rd in class. Again it had been outclassed by the Supra, which managed to reach 36th overall and 22nd in class.

The European armada had not been sitting still and their development head start meant the SARD still hadn’t caught up. A great testament of this was Porsche’s bonkers new 911 GT1 homologation special, which took Toyota’s bright idea to new extremes. Where the MC8-R was still basically a hot-rodded MR2, the 911 GT1 was more prototype than GT, sharing very little with its 993 base car. As a result the Porsche completely obliterated its competitors.

The MC8-R was still no match for the established supercar order

The MC8-R was still no match for the established supercar order

Come race day things were looking up however, as the car’s new clutch at least made it past the dreaded 14 lap mark. The team piled on hour after hour and confidence was building accordingly. Due to the event´s high rate of attrition, the car found itself 24th overall and 15th in class at the end of the race. In doing so it was still only second to last of the finishing competitors.

In 1997 the car was entered into the 24 Hours of Le Mans once again. This time it however failed to qualify in the hands of its new driver, former F1-backmarker Olivier Grouillard (FRA).

The SARD MC8-R was the first true purpose built GT1 homologation special. Although largely unsuccessful against true road car based competitors, the car paved the way for ever faster and more exotic machines with increasingly questionable legality. Toyota would itself repeat the trick with 1998´s blindingly fast TS020 GT-One, with which it tried to one-up Porsche and their mad 911 GT1..