Japan is a leading player in the field of motorsport. And yet, before Toyota’s period of domination began in 2018, the nation’s drivers and manufacturers had never encountered much success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. With the rapid progress made in the mid-eighties, it was only going to be a matter of time. After Mazda’s 1991 win, history expected a Japanese driver to clinch victory. Masanori Sekiya duly obliged four years later.
In at the deep end
Masanori Sekiya had a somewhat unusual career that is little known outside his homeland. Born in the small mountain village of Ikawa in 1949, Sekiya developed a passion for motorcars and racing, like many Japanese, albeit at a relatively late stage. He was 34 years old when his single-seater achievements first caught the eye of local outfit Tachi Oiwa Motor Sport or TOM’S, a Toyota preparer who also ran a racing team directly supported by the manufacturer. Sekiya was therefore enrolled with a view to Toyota entering the Le Mans 24 Hours at the earliest opportunity.
Just two years later, in 1985, Toyota Team TOM’S fielded its first cars in La Sarthe. In the heyday of Group C, the Dome (or Toyota, depending on the appellation) 85Cs made an honourable début. Sekiya, partnered by fellow Japanese drivers Satoru Nakajima and Kaoru Hoshino, finished the race in 12th place.
MASANORI SEKIYA SHARED THE WHEEL OF THE 85C WITH KAORU HOSHINO AND SATORU NAKAJIMA, THE FATHER OF KAZUKI NAKAJIMA WHO WON IN 2018, 2019 AND 2020.
The marque’s luck was out the following year as none of the 86Cs were classified at the chequered flag. Barely a third of the race had elapsed when the engine of Sekiya’s car gave up as midnight approached. This hasty entry into the big time did, however, propel him into the limelight in his home country where he was hired by the Leyton House Racing Team for the domestic Formula 3000 series. A dual career split between single-seaters and endurance commenced. So enamoured was Sekiya of the Le Mans atmosphere that he decided to marry in the city before the 1987 race! The joy of the occasion unfortunately did not transfer to the racetrack as engine failure after just 39 laps quashed his dreams. He did however progress elsewhere over that period, recording his first podiums in single-seaters and another 12th place at the 1988 24 Hours of Le Mans, again for Toyota.
SEKIYA RETURNED IN 1986, WITH NAKAJIMA AND GEOFF LEES. LEES WAS A MAJOR ARCHITECT OF TOYOTA’S SUCCESS, FROM THE DOME 85C TO THE GT-ONE IN 1999.
A change of scenery
In 1989, Leyton House – Sekiya’s Formula 3000 team – sponsored the Porsche 962C fielded by endurance powerhouse Kremer. The Japanese driver was offered a seat along with his F3000 teammate Hideki Okada and South African George Fouché. It was an opportunity to good to miss. Sadly, an accident brought the #11 Porsche’s adventure to an abrupt end at 19:22. Although it was brief, this first escapade away from TOM’S did give Sekiya a glimpse of a different modus operandi and a different racing philosophy.
MASANORI SEKIYA COMPETED FOR LEYTON HOUSE RACING TEAM IN THE JAPANESE FORMULA 3000 SERIES FROM 1987 TO 1991. DESPITE SIX PODIUMS AND TWO POLE POSITIONS, VICTORY PROVED ELUSIVE.
The following year, Sekiya was back with Toyota in the 90C-V. With the Japanese firm making undeniable progress, a win was surely just around the corner. This 800-hp monster was not the most reliable car but did manage to finish sixth – the team’s best result to date. Two problems however remained: the winners were 12 laps ahead, and Toyota was again overshadowed by Japanese rival Nissan. The new era appearing on the horizon was an opportunity to set the record straight. The Group C class was to evolve to a formula series favouring cars with more powerful, but more expensive, 3.5 L engines. The TS010 was born. Toyota decided to give the 1991 race a miss to better prepare for 1992.
The TS010 was equipped with a naturally aspirated V10, developing over 600 horsepower and a level of performance almost on a par with Formula One, to take on the Peugeot 905. Of course, Masanori Sekiya was in the hot seat. The French brand won the head-to-head, but Sekiya held out to cross the finish line in second place for his maiden Le Mans podium.
THIS TIME, MASANORI SEKIYA TEAMED UP WITH KENNY ACHESON (GB) AND PIERRE-HENRI RAPHANEL (FRANCE).
The two entities returned in 1993 but, once again, Peugeot triumphed. Sekiya was fourth in the best-placed TS010. Spiralling costs and the resulting slump in the number of competitors brought the Group C era to an end in 1993.
THE 1993 TS010 WAS SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT BUT STILL OFFERED ALL THE NECESSARY POWER. A TRULY DAUNTING MACHINE. TONY SOUTHGATE AGAIN LED THE DESIGN TEAM.
The Rising Sun shines at last
The new regulations resulted in Toyota’s understandable withdrawal from the 24 Hours. A change of discipline, however, kept Masanori Sekiya occupied. As he had been struggling for some time in Formula 3000, TOM’S unearthed another opportunity for him in the legendary Japanese Touring Car Championship (JTCC). He came up trumps in his début season in a works Toyota Corona. Sekiya eclipsed no other than Tom Kristensen for the overall title by a single point – a true exploit!
He was even busier in 1995, taking on three programmes at the same time. He naturally defended his JTCC title and also ventured into the new All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC) – known today as Super GT. Sekiya also returned to his first love, Le Mans. He was given a seat in a McLaren F1 GTR, powered by a BMW V12 engine. It didn’t look like a common prototype and, in fact, complied with LMGT1 regulations unlike the WSC-class Courage C34 and Kremer K8.
This particular F1 GTR was entered by Lanzante Limited, a British outfit specialising in the restoration of vintage cars but who also competed in a few races with recent vehicles. For financial reasons, the company took on the name of Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing, a Japanese firm unknown in Europe. The car’s chief sponsor was in fact Tokyo Ueno Clinic, a cosmetic surgery business! It was difficult to imagine it outperforming the other McLaren F1 GTRs, let alone the rest of the field.
The WR-Peugeot prototypes surged into the lead before mechanical issues reared their head. The rain then began to fall. Not a brief shower either. A downpour for 17 of the 24 hours! The prototypes were largely unable to respond to the pace set by the surprising McLarens. Only the #13 Courage was able to live with them until Mario Andretti made a mistake which cost him the race. The #59 McLaren driven by Sekiya was well placed from the off, without taking a firm lead until the second part of the race. The Japanese veteran shared the wheel of the mysterious black GT with J.J Lehto, the Finnish former F1 driver, and especially Yannick Dalmas, who had won in 1993 with Peugeot and 1994 with Dauer-Porsche.
Against all odds, the trio won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Masanori Sekiya thus became the first Japanese race to win the French endurance classic, and the only one for many a year. He had never managed to come up with the goods as a race favourite, and yet pulled off a magnificent feat as an outsider!
MCLAREN’S 1995 WIN MADE HISTORY FOR A NUMBER OF REASONS. FOUR MCLARENS MADE THE TOP FIVE ON THE MAKE’S DÉBUT APPEARANCE AT THE 24 HOURS OF LE MANS.
Despite being 46 years of age when he won Le Mans, Masanori Sekiya didn’t take a back seat. He continued to race on three fronts, while focusing essentially on the JGTC championship. He was the driver of the famous Toyota Supra Castrol that marked an entire generation with its striking livery. He returned to Le Mans for Toyota in 1996, at the wheel of a Supra LM, but without success. A crash on the Sunday morning capped off a forgettable weekend.
THE SUPRA HAS BECOME AN ICONIC CAR AMONG THE YOUNGER GENERATION, ESPECIALLY GAMERS. MASANORI SEKIYA MAY WELL HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH IT!
In the absence of Toyota, Sekiya had another opportunity to drive a McLaren F1 GTR at the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans. This time, it was a long-chassis model entered by Gulf Team Davidoff. Sadly, Lady Luck refused to smile on him on this occasion. He and his two teammates were forced to retire. This was Masanori Sekiya’s final appearance in La Sarthe, 12 years after his début.
Sekiya continued to race for Toyota on the domestic scene in the JTCC and JGTC, until he won the JTCC series once again in 1998. He finally brought his racing career to a close at the end of the 2000 season, at the age of 51.
MCLAREN DIDN’T SUCCEED IN REITERATING THE 1995 FEAT. SEKIYA, TEAMED WITH ANDREW GILBERT-SCOTT AND RAY BELLM, FAILED TO REACH THE CHEQUERED FLAG ON HIS FINAL LE MANS OUTING.
Passing on his experience
Inextricably associated with TOM’S, Sekiya became director of the JGTC, and subsequently SuperGT, team that won the Drivers’ title in 2006 – with André Lotterer – 2009 and 2017. He also opened a school for racing drivers in Fuji that has nurtured many budding champions. Kazuki Nakajima, three-time winner of the 24 Hours, and Kamui Kobayashi, 2021 winner and lap record holder, are two graduates of the Formula Toyota Racing School.
The trailblazer was also behind the creation of championships such as the Kyojo Cup in 2017, promoting the country’s female talent, making Masanori Sekiya one of the major figures in the history of Japanese motorsport. Sekiya announced his departure from TOM’S in 2020 after 37 years of close collaboration. As president of the Toyota Motorsports Club, Sekiya still holds some major responsibilities and notable influence on Japanese motoring culture.
Story via 24h lemans