Flower Power - 2007 Toyota Supra HV-R GT Hybrid

In the early 2000’s Japanese automotive giant Toyota was hard at work trying to popularize the hybrid vehicle in the global car market. Already in 1997, the company had released the worlds first mass-produced hybrid vehicle with the first generation Prius. As the concept of a hybrid car was still relatively new and unproven, Toyota limited the sales of the Prius to the Japanese Domestic Market. As a result the first generation had little impact on the world of motoring as a whole.

With the second-generation model, Toyota was ready to take on the rest of the world. To everyone’s surprise, it was a massive hit. The car’s eco-friendly image and unassuming nature attracted droves of self-righteous environmentally conscious intellectuals. With the Prius, Toyota had provided the chariot of choice for any self-respecting eco-warrior. Soon enough major celebrities like Orlando Bloom, Cameron Diaz, Harrison Ford, Natalie Portman, Tom Cruise, Jessica Alba, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Aniston and Matt Damon were seen arriving at red carpets in Toyota’s trendy polar bear protector.

The second generation Prius represented a major breakthrough for Toyota

The second generation Prius represented a major breakthrough for Toyota

The amazing success of the second generation Prius was a major victory for Toyota, but soon after celebrating the brand realized there was also a tremendous backlash. To the regular motorist, the Prius quickly became a byword for over-involved, pretentious, incredibly annoying, self important people who wanted to appear to be part of “the solution” to the world’s problems.

The caustic attitude of a loud minority of antagonizing Prius drivers was severely hurting Toyota. At the same time the Prius and hybrid vehicles like it were dismissed as one of the single most boring forms of personal transport. This was an image Toyota’s dependable, sturdy and reliable products had suffered for a while, but with the Prius it seemed to be even worse. In response to these criticisms Toyota decided to move the hybrid technology to a higher market segment with the more prestigious Lexus GS450h in 2005.

The Super Taikyu Lexus GS450h was Toyota's first careful foray into hybrid racing.

The Super Taikyu Lexus GS450h was Toyota's first careful foray into hybrid racing.

In addition to the move upmarket, Toyota was adamant on trying to prove the technology’s worth in the least boring discipline imaginable: motorsport. To this end a GS450h was converted into a racing car, and entered into the 2006 Tokachi 24 Hours, part of the Super Taikyu Improved Production endurance series.

The big, largely unmodified sedan fared quite well in its one and only race outing. Not only did it survive to complete the full race distance, it finished a respectable 17th overall. The Lexus’ performance was a minor victory for Toyota, but it still didn’t generate the publicity the company had hoped for. It was clear something much more drastic needed to be done to promote the hybrid worldwide.

The recently decommissioned Toyota Supra GT500 was selected as Toyota's next hybrid racing champion.

The recently decommissioned Toyota Supra GT500 was selected as Toyota's next hybrid racing champion.

With this in mind, Toyota and racing partner Sigma Advanced Racing Development settled on using last year’s Super GT machine as their new hybrid racing weapon. Since 1995 SARD had fielded a GT500 version of the Toyota’s flagship sportscar, the Supra. By 2006 the car had finally been replaced with a Lexus SC430-based model, which left the Supra chassis sidelined. Selecting just a single car, SARD and Toyota set about converting it into a hybrid vehicle.

Toyota spared no expense on the project, introducing some space-age technological concepts. The standard GT500 Supra was powered by a 480 horsepower 4.5L 3UZ-FE flatplane V8. The V8 was chosen for its compact dimensions, low center of gravity, low down torque and amazing responsiveness, traits the standard Supra’s 2JZ-GTE twin turbo straight six lacked completely.

Wanting to avoid the massive weight penalty of a large battery pack, Toyota chose to fit a supercapacitor system. Because racing is all about repeatedly accelerating and decelerating, the supercapacitor system was a perfect fit. It could very quickly store and release energy, providing it only when needed. The supercapacitors were supplied with power by an early form of a regenerative braking system, enabling the Supra to regain energy normally lost as heat. This system would later be popularized in Formula One under the KERS designation.

With the electric power supply sorted, Toyota added not one, not two, but three electric motors. On the rear axle a massive 150 kilowatt (204 horsepower) unit was fitted, joined by two smaller 10 kilowatt (13,6 horsepower) motors in each front wheel, making the Supra four wheel drive.

When all was said and done the amazing machine produced a combined total of 711 horsepower. A six-speed sequential Hewland transmission dealt with the power on the rear axle, while the front axle was free to operate on its own accord. Because of Toyota’s wise decision to avoid using a heavy battery pack, the car still weighed only 1080 kg (2381 lbs).This meant it wouldn’t be hampered by the same issues the groundbreaking Panoz Esperante GTR-1 Q9 Hybrid had suffered almost ten years prior. 

The finished car was dubbed HV-R (Hybrid Vehicle-Race) and entered into the 2007 Tokachi 24 Hour race. Despite the event being run under relatively stock Super Taikyu regulations, it was still open to invitational GT500 entries. As there was no other racing category on the planet which would easily accept a 700+ horsepower hybrid car in its ranks, Toyota decided to exploit this opportunity.

To the company’s amusement, the hybrid monster performed astonishingly well. Driven by Super GT aces Akira Iida (JAP), Takayuki Kinoshita (JAP), Tatsuya Kataoka (JAP) and André Couto (POR) the car took pole position with a devastating margin. As the only GT500 entry in the race, it had virtually no competition. Still the novelty of its hybrid drivetrain was cause for concern, as there was no guarantee the various intricate systems would keep working for 24 hours of hard driving.

The HV-R completely outclassed the Super Taikyu field.

The HV-R completely outclassed the Super Taikyu field.

The concerns about the hybrids system’s longevity were not taken lightly. In the early stages of the race the team ran the car at a conservative pace to avoid breaking anything prematurely. Nevertheless the HV-R effortlessly held a multiple lap lead on the rest of the field. As there was absolutely no worthy competition, the team could focus on keeping the car healthy as the as the sun set over Tokachi Raceway.

When dawn broke the Supra had amassed an even greater lead, and all systems were still go. Coming up on the final hours of the race, the driving team was given the blessing to test the car’s limits. As the team dropped the hammer down the car shot forward, lapping faster and faster. Eventually the Supra crossed the line after completing 616 laps of the 5.9 km circuit. In the process it had lapped the second placed-car an amazing 19 times.

Nightly pitstop for the HV-R, Tokachi Racway 2007.

Nightly pitstop for the HV-R, Tokachi Racway 2007.

The Supra HV-R’s victory was the first ever for a hybrid racecar. Finally, news of the car’s achievement went around the world. The hybrid vehicle’s stuffy image hadn’t been cured yet, but the first small steps towards changing public opinion had been taken. In its 15 minutes of fame, the Supra had stumped staunch deniers of the hybrid car’s performance potential.

Toyota had proved hybrid technology had every right to be included in the world of motorsport. Sadly the media buzz quickly died down again, and the world was back to hating the automotive dreariness and perceived pretentiousness of the Prius. With nowhere else to run the the HV-R, Toyota ended the project after just one race. After the cancellation of the HV-R project, Toyota ceased all hybrid racing activities for five years until the advent of the TS030 Hybrid LMP1 car in 2012, which incorporated improved versions of the HV-R’s systems.

The Toyota Supra HV-R GT Hybrid was a brilliant machine created to rid the hybrid car of its dull and pretentious radical hippy image. Toyota wanted to prove once and for all that hybrid technology could also excel at the track. Incorporating some innovative concepts into an outdated GT500 Supra, the company created a weapon that tested the very limits of hybrid technology.

In a spectacular stroke of luck, Toyota got everything right the first time. Not only was the HV-R blindingly fast, it was also incredibly reliable. Although it faced no serious challenge from its outclassed competitors, it still proved the point Toyota was eagerly trying to make: “Hybrid power has arrived gentlemen, and it’s here to stay”.