Lexus has plenty of runway left to cover in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Toyota’s luxury and performance brand is in its fifth season of action within the GT Daytona class, and as Toyota Racing Development boss Dave Wilson says, Lexus is just getting started.
“I still remember that very first year; I said, routinely, that for me, the definition of success for Lexus is a long-term commitment,” he told RACER. “It’s having the continuity and ultimately beginning to, over time, change some of the image of Lexus, and ultimately adding performance as a credible attribute of the Lexus brand.
“I talked with our Lexus top management ad nauseum, just trying to give them the perspective, because as you would expect, human nature being what it is, of course they want to go out and they want to win. But again, I reminded them that we’re competing against brands, in some cases, that have been racing for 100 years or more, certainly most of them decades and decades.
“Success isn’t just winning races, competing for championships. Success is having the endurance to maintain and to establish racing as part of what you do as a brand. I am very, very encouraged, because not only do I believe that it’s taken root, and that this isn’t just viewed as, ‘Well, let’s try this on for a few years and see how we do,’ but I think this has turned into the first step of a long-term commitment towards motorsports and the brand.”
Wilson sees IMSA’s GT Daytona class, which uses GT3-based models, as a perfect and ongoing fit for Lexus. The RC F GT3 is currently races in partnership with the Vasser Sullivan team, as insiders know, put up a big fight in its early development. After undergoing two significant rounds of improvements the RC F GT3 platform found its competitive stride and has been a championship contender over the last two seasons.
As it reaches the end of its time in GTD, Wilson can’t wait for the RC F GT3’s replacement — somewhere around 2024 — to carry the brand into the future.
“What we’re hearing from our colleagues in Japan is giving me that same level of confidence, because behind the scenes, the product is following,” he said. “Getting a little glimpse into the future of the product plans for Lexus, I’m thrilled. There is product coming that will be very well suited for a GT3 category; a very natural fit for global GT3 racing. More than the RC F.
“Collectively, we learned a big lesson with RC F, because the genesis for the RC F racing and GT3 was not well founded. Way too far down the process, someone said, ‘Well, maybe we should race it.’ What landed in our lap was really a car that was not a natural GT3 car.
“Really, what now is appreciated is that when a chief engineer looks at a clean sheet of paper, that is when you build into the design parameters of a production car the intent to take it racing. With this understanding, with the forethought that’s going into future product, I believe that the path ahead for Lexus globally will be very intentional, relative to the application of motorsports and engagement in motorsports. That’s very exciting.”
For fans of the Lexus brand that want to see an F-badged LMDh prototype appear when the new formula debuts in 2023, Wilson suggests it would be hard to move the manufacturer’s senior leadership away from GT racing.
“Remember Dan Gurney and Toyota in IMSA? Where did Dan start? GTU,” he said. “Success came, then the graduation to GTO. Success came, and then a graduation to GTP. The key point being that before we look over the horizon and think about competing for overall wins, we need to succeed where we are today. If I’m a fan in the grandstands, I think that’s important to establish our credibility as a brand. The reality is we still have some work to do there.
“In talking to our Lexus top management, they love the GT class because, one, there’s no mistaking what you’re racing. That is an RC F. That’s important from a marketing perspective. The second piece, which I think you would agree, is the healthiest class by far in IMSA is GTD. We’re racing against eight other manufacturers. That’s what I love most about sports car racing. LMDh, as an engineer, as a fan, as a competitor, I would love to help take Lexus there one day. I would love to compete, again, for an overall win. But there’s not any plans, thus far, to go down that path.”
As one would expect, TRD has stayed involved with IMSA on LMDh and its newly-announced GTD Pro class, which will replace GT Le Mans in 2022. Both categories can be filed under “observing, but not yet committing” for Lexus.
“Part of our responsibility is to continue to keep our finger on the pulse, so we have been engaged with all of the technical working groups surrounding LMDh,” Wilson said. “[TRD’s] Andy Graves and I took a trip to Paris a year or so ago and spent three hours in the airport meeting with all the other OEMs and the ACO and the FIA and IMSA. So, we’re staying very close to it, because if and when we get the tap on the shoulder from our top management, we want to be prepared and be able to provide good counsel.
“Stepping back to look at the global aspect, and the fact that our friends at Toyota in Europe are mounting their own prototype effort with a Hypercar, that presents its own internal political challenge, just to be candid. I’m not suggesting you couldn’t have a Toyota Hypercar and a Lexus LMDh. I think, not to go down a rabbit hole, but as big of a question is still how those two animals live together in the same space, credibly. But that’s above my pay grade. Right now, I think collectively, we’re all waiting for a lot of questions to be answered.”
While LMDh feels like more of an outlier at the moment for Lexus, Wilson is fond of where IMSA is headed with using GT3 regulations as the sole basis for its GT classes next year.
“There’s too much confusion to the casual fan between GTLM, GTE and GT3,” he said. “I know that there’s been a lot of time spent in wrestling with that. Then you factor in the cubic dollars required to compete in the GTLM and the GTE space. In today’s environment, as witnessed by the continuing shrinkage in participation in those classes, I think the mentality from an OEM perspective is, ‘Listen. If we’re going to spend that kind of money, let’s just go prototype and have some presence in the GT3 areas.’
“So, I think it’s coming together very organically. Now, it’s getting down to the tough questions as to will the cars be the same in the GT Pro and in GTD. Will they be BoP’d as an FIA GT3 car, which we hope will be the case? Then it’s a question about tires. Will there be one tire, or will there be confidential tires if you’re in the GTD Pro class?
“Really, until a lot of those types of questions are ironed out, it’s hard to put our stake in one or the other, but philosophically, if it goes the direction that we hope it goes, then I could see us long-term, again, selling cars into the GTD class, once we have a commercially competitive car, that is, and then focusing our ‘factory efforts’ in the Pro class.”