THIS FEATURE seemed destined not to happen. The idea of celebrating Toyota Australiaís support of local motorsport by driving the machines it backs was ambitious to begin with; no-one was more surprised than us when Toyota agreed to the concept. Weeks of planning to line up a date amongst car rebuilds and deadlines appeared in vain when, at the eleventh hour, the intended venue declined our hire request due to noise concerns and every other venue in NSW was unavailable.
Winton Raceway came to the rescue and thanks to the amazing generosity of the people involved a trio of racing cars, covering the disciplines of circuit, rally and drifting, sit in pitlane idling impatiently. Not as impatiently, it must be said, as editor DC and myself, both of whom are giddy with excitement, yet incredibly nervous at being trusted with driving unfamiliar and very expensive machinery hard enough to put you, the reader, in the driverís seat. Yeah, I know, cue the violins.
Few car companies boast a more impressive sporting resume than Toyota: the diminutive Sports 800; the gorgeous 2000GT; the long-lived Celica, which morphed from rear-drive coupe to all-wheel drive rally weapon to front-drive screamer during its lifespan; the Supra, Chaser and Soarer, JZ-powered darlings of the Japanese tuning industry; the MR2, an affordable exotic; the AE86, Japanís answer to the Mk II Escort, the list goes on.
Then there are its motorsport efforts. Twenty-five years in world rally, including two world titles, a decade in F1, a dozen Le Mans campaigns, British Touring Cars, IndyCar, off-road racing and NASCAR all appear on the CV. This incredible CV only made Toyotaís hermit crab-like post-GFC withdrawal from anything remotely exciting even more disappointing.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda provided the spark needed to reignite the flame. Promoted to head of the company in 2009, he greenlit the 86 sports car program and vowed ďno more boring carsĒ at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show, where Toyota unveiled the FT-1 Concept which would (eventually) morph into the new Supra. Since then, the Camry and Corolla have become interesting to look at and decent to drive, the Yaris spawned a (sadly Euro-only) hot hatch and Toyota re-entered global motorsport, finally securing Dakar and Le Mans victories and creating its front-running Yaris World Rally Car.
Closer to home, enthusiasm at Toyota Australia was clearly hibernating, not dead, for in recent years it has been a strong supporter of local motorsport. It launched the successful one-make 86 Racing Series, providing an entry into tin-top competition for budding young racers. Now in its fourth year, it regularly attracts fields of 40 cars or more.
The Toyota 86 racer was developed by Neal Bates Motorsport, a name with a long and successful association with Toyota. Having won four Australian Rally Championships as a driver, Neal Bates is now team principal of Gazoo Racing Australia as Toyota embarks on its first factory rally effort in a decade, with a pair of Yaris AP4s to be driven by Nealís sons, Harry and Lewis.
But if anyone has more Toyota passion running through their veins than the Bates family, itís Beau Yates. If you examined his blood under a microscope, his cells would be little Toyota logos. In 2006, Yates became Toyota Australiaís first drift ambassador driving his iconic AE86 Sprinter. Following a huge accident in 2013 he switched to the new 86, which has morphed over the years into a screaming circa-600kW beast that eats semi-slicks like the Cookie Monster downs Oreos. To simply experience these cars would be a huge privilege, to be allowed behind the wheel an incredible honour. Letís go for a drive.
Unleashing a machine designed for one brutal purpose
WITH NO ABS, no traction control, about a billion horsepower and my own feeble, bordering on non-existant drifting skills, my imagination assured me I was definitely going to crash this one-off, purpose-built Toyota 86 drift car. And matters were not helped by the thought that it not only belongs to Australian drift royalty and three-time champ Beau Yates, but that so much of the build itself was done with his very own hands.
One look at this heavily modified racecar is enough to further trigger oneís fight-or-flight response. Widebody guards front and rear barely conceal bulging, heavily cambered wheels and tyres, the 86ís expanded footprint giving it a predatory stance. The occasional, scarred bodywork reminds that this vehicle does battle, within millimetres, of other drift cars in proper competition. Yet look closer and this car is also an engineering marvel with delightful, almost artful details all over, from the beautiful welds, to the way it looks - a lot of thought, and care, has gone into the build of this car, and it shows.
Under the vented bonnet, the stock boxer-four is a memory, replaced with a 3.0-litre straight-six (the legendary and battle-proven 2JZ) and fed with an enormous single Garrett turbocharger. A frankly silly amount of power reaches the rear wheels (537rwkW/1000rwNm) via a sequential íbox.
Time to strap into the passenger seat. Inside the strippedout, caged interior the engine is buzzy and loud at idle. Yates plucks first gear, making a sound like a sword hitting a rock, and jolting the car, his previously calm and relaxed demeanour immediately replaced with focus. He spits on his gloves and what feels like moments after leaving pit lane, the clutch is in and heís ripping up the handbrake into Wintonís sweeper at about 150km/h, before dancing the car in one huge, connected drift through turns six, seven, eight and nine, working the brake and handbrake just as much as the steering and throttle in a frenzy of non-stop small inputs. The engine rages with one of the angriest noises Iíve ever heard, bouncing off its 8750rpm hard-cut almost the whole time. Itís impressive to watch; you could easily imagine Yates drifting the whole track, multiple laps in a row, if the car could do it. (On a warm day, it needs a cool down every five minutes; a new pair of rear tyres are lucky to last much longer than that.)
Itís my turn to show everyone how itís not done. Iím relieved to find the controls immediately easy to use; clutch forgiving, accelerator precise, giving you a god-like feeling of control over all that power, and whether rear tyres live or die. There is something unbelievably cool about a sequential íbox, plucking gears with a tug of the solid mechanical lever, and hearing the whine. I drive a few ginger laps of the track to get a feel. With no provocation, the car wants to oversteer into every corner. But itís friendly; not at all scary. Even more unexpected, however, is seeing Yates on the pit wall, making wild arm gestures egging me on. But I am not yet brave enough to incite wheelspin in anything other than a straight line. And Iíve never felt a car as eager to completely bonfire its rear tyres as this one.
We hit the skidpan and Yates lays out a witchesí hat course a bit bigger than Iím honestly comfortable with. Almost straight away, however, Iím able to connect the whole course in one big, slightly wobbly, but smoky drift - which is a credit to the car. To drive, it is, dare I say, easy - benign, fluid and not snappy at all. Getting sideways requires no special skill, such is the tyre-turning power and torque available; and there is so much steering lock, if you cock it up you just steer further into what would otherwise be a spin. Itís the ultimate flattery.
Red flashes up on the MoTeC dash indicating itís time to cool the car down (the radiator is in the boot). Itís only built, after all, to do battle for minutes at a time. In my case, minutes that will remain vivid and clear forever: Yatesís born-to-drift 86 is easily the most exciting car I have ever driven.Ė DC
Wee comedown after the tyre-hating drift version of the same car
GETTING OUT of a drift-ready 86 and into the Toyota 86 Racing Series car must be what it feels like for a fighter pilot to get into their road car after a long day in the skies.
Thatís not to say this is an unexciting car. Having drunk in the race livery of this otherwise stock-looking ífirst-gení 86, the heart rate increases as you poke your head through the driverís window to find an interior so black, light almost canít escape it, a matrix of proper, full roll cage (no ditzy bolt-in half-cage here), race seat, race steering wheel, stereo replaced with a crudely installed kill switch and a MoTeC dash. This, ladies and gentlemen, is an office. And personally Iím simple enough to have low standards when it comes to work space.
But first, a refresher on what the Toyota 86 Racing Series is exactly. Kicking off in 2016 and now in its fourth season in Australia, the series supports Supercars at tracks all around the country. Last year there were six races with fields of up to 40 cars, the idea being keep the cars and racing cheap so as to offer a stepping stone for hotshot karting kids to move into 96 may 2019 cars, mixing with amateurs and seasoned pros alike. The 86 Racing Series website calls to action ďfind out how you can get involved!Ē And itís not entirely unrealistic to think you could.
Brand new, a car costs about $75K ready to race, the package including upgraded AP Racing brakes, MCA coilovers, exhaust and a MoTec ECU. Thereís a TRD oil cooler and custom baffled oil sump pan; a full roll-cage must be fitted and a compliant race seat as well. Power increases to approximately 169kW, while the minimum weight including driver is 1285kg (a stock 86 GTS road car is 1258kg sans driver). Feasibly, you can bring your own 86 to Neal Bates - the exclusive builder of Racing Series cars - and have a race package fitted for $25K (budgeting an extra $13K or so for the cage and seat) and people have, building cars using statutory written-off 86s for as cheaply as $43K. Once you have the car, each round has a very agreeable $1500 entry fee (meaning there are, of course, still costs to run the car and transport it and yourself to the track) but there is a $150K prize pool on offer. If you dare bet on your skills, you could enjoy a season of very subsidised racing indeed.
IT INVITES YOU TO BE A BIT ROUGH, POUNDING OVER KERBS
Today, we are just enjoying a very subsided few laps of Winton Raceway. And what do we say? It drives like an 86 thatís louder (and sounds quite good, actually, like it has carburettors), the noise clear and unfiltered thanks to the lack of carpet and sound deadening. Thereís a lot more grip, too, meaning you can man-handle the 86 on the brakes and into corners, basically flattening the throttle mid-corner the moment you can start opening the steering. In almost all areas it feels about 15 per cent better than a stocker, but also invites you to be a bit rough, pounding over kerbs and - as is common in the series, although we didnít try - flat-shifting with cruel, mechanically unsympathetic abandon. (Rule-makers were forced to stipulate a lightened clutch and flywheel as with the heavier stock items, flat-shifters kept lunching gearboxes.)
It doesnít feel a great deal faster than the stock car on sticky rubber, not unsurprisingly. At Winton in 2016, Cameron Hill took pole in the 86 Racing Series with a 1:37.9. Last year, Warren Luff, for MOTOR, set a 1:42.8 in a stock 86 GTS Performance Pack on Michelin Primacys. Of course, most of the difference is down to the tyres. But thatís the idea of the 86 Racing Series: make all the cars the same, so that any time difference is down to what lies between the driversí ears. Ė DC
Gravel-eating hot hatch ainít your Grandmaís shopping car
WHAT EXACTLY is a Toyota Yaris AP4? Iím glad you asked. With no more Lancer Evolution, rallyists were left with a choice of a Subaru WRX STI or nothing, so the AP4 regulations were conceived to allow essentially any basic shopping car to be transformed into a turbocharged, all-wheel drive forest flyer.
The concept is very similar to the R5 machines that compete in the WRC, but without the need for FIA homologation and at a lower cost than the roughly $400,000 needed to land a new R5 car in Australia. Neal Bates admits that if Toyota made a Yaris R5 theyíd probably be using it, but since it doesnít his team began the tricky process of creating a rally car from scratch.
As Neal says: ďItís been an incredibly tough project.Ē With no template to work from, his team has spent 18 months using 30 years of rallying experience to develop the Yaris to the point where it can now hold its own against the latest factory machinery from Europe. And now I get to drive it.
Thankfully, Harry is on hand to teach me the ropes but, cleverly, heís brought Lewisís car for me to learn them in. Iíve dabbled in rallying before but a modified Daihatsu Charade isnít exactly a natural stepping stone to a 300bhp ARC frontrunner. International driving experience means left-hand drive is okay - the Yaris is left-hook to prepare Harry for any future overseas outings - but Iíve never used a sequential íbox before.
Itís not difficult, as it turns out. The clutch is only required from rest; after that, simply pull or push the lever as required, but upshifts in particular require quite a bit of muscle. A full weekendís rallying - including hundreds of kilometres of transport stages - would require a lot of stamina.
AP4 regulations require a 1.6-litre engine so Toyotaís 2ZZ 1.8litre four was destroked and a turbo added, breathing through a 34mm inlet restrictor. Measure that with your fingers, itís not very wide. Nevertheless, the Yaris produces 224kW and 420Nm and weighs just 1230kg so with extremely short gearing - top speed is less than 200km/h - itís a reasonably rapid machine.
The steering is very light, so light that I wonder how Harry, who likes to drive in the modern Sebastien Loeb/Ogier style of leaning on the front tyres, manages to find the required level of communication. Talent, I suppose. Luckily, Iím a similar height to the Bates boys so the driving position is about right, albeit quite high. With its gravel-spec setup, the Yaris sits equally high and its softness leads to big-time body roll.
This softness allows lots of weight transfer, key to getting the Yaris to turn as it runs no centre diff, just a fixed 50:50 torque split. ďThese new breed of cars are set up quite soft,Ē explains Harry. ďIíll usually run quite a bit of front bias because Iím looking to be really aggressive under brakes, because if itís on its nose I can get the turn that I want.Ē
As such, the Yaris loves to slide. A dab of brakes and a flick of steering sets it up and itís then childís play to use the pedals to endlessly adjust its attitude. Swapping tarmac for gravel only makes the process easier, the aim being to swing the rear out wide on corner entry so all four wheels are pointing straight towards the exit for maximum traction.
Clearly satisfied Iím not a complete liability, Harry tweaks a small knob on the centre console and engages the Yarisís antilag system, keeping the turbo spinning constantly for instant power. Whatís remarkable is how easy the Yaris is to drive. The light steering, progressive chassis and responsive, torquey engine make it second nature to indulge in huge slides under power or brakes.
But itís not Harry and Lewisís job to have fun. They need to win and the Yaris AP4 is so friendly I wonder if it would be easy to let time slip away without realising it. Whatís certain is I need a Yaris AP4; no road car can deliver this amount of entertainment. Neal is more than happy to oblige, but wants $250,000 in return. For sale: one kidney, slightly used. Ė SN
THE SMILES you see in these photos arenít put on, theyíre genuine emotion; Dylanís being banging on about wanting to try a proper drift car since Iíve met him and Iíve had rallying in my blood since I learned how to spell WRC. But what have we gleaned from this exercise, other than having a hell of a lot of fun? Firstly, no production car can deliver the excitement of a purpose-built competition car. Even the likes of the 911 GT3 RS or GT-R Nismo canít match the sense of connection offered by a machine thatís sole purpose is to help its operator reach the top step of the podium.
Secondly, manufacturers still see value in motorsport if the right opportunities exist. According to Toyota Australiaís Senior Public Affairs Specialist, James Wang: ďToyotaís motorsport philosophy is, ĎWe race, we learn, you winí. At a global level this is reflected through our WEC and WRC participation; we take what we learn on the racetrack and ultimately apply this to our production cars. In Australia we have much the same philosophy: the Bates family and Beau Yates are at the top of their game in their respective sports; conversely, the Toyota 86 Racing Series has a stronger focus on grassroots racing.Ē
Toyota should be congratulated for its support of a variety of categories. It spends mega bucks reaching everyday motorists as the major sponsor of the AFL, but clearly recognises that if itís going to be taken seriously by enthusiasts, it has to engage with them. Itís part of the reason we wanted to do this story; if manufacturers receive publicity for their motorsport programs, more are likely to appear. Factory-backed teams bring their own complications, but thereís no doubt most series are healthier when car makers are involved.
Let us hope this renewed commitment to competition transfers to the showroom. The 86 was a great start, a new Supra an excellent follow-up, but itís been a long time since Toyota offered a true performance variant of a regular production model. If Toyoda has the will, Toyota will find a way.