Toyota Prius Cup moving hybrids toward the sports car realm

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World Champion 2009 Raymond Durand starting the Ecorally Vasco-Navarro (Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, July 16th, 2010)

Think a Prius race car is an oxymoron? Think again. (CC BY-SA/Antenor81 /Wikipedia)

The Toyota Prius hybrid isn’t just for green hipsters any more. In fact, there’s a healthy history of Prius racing. Events like the 2011 Prius Cup are just one reminder that there are Toyota Prius race cars out there. Even hypermilers need to push the throttle once in a while.

Prius racing for mpg

Don’t mistake the Toyota Prius Cup at Japan’s Fuji Speedway for a “Too Fast, Too Furious” nitro-fest. It’s about maximizing mpg. For instance, flooring the accelerator and slamming on the brakes aren’t on the agenda. Gas it only when traveling downhill, and coast as much as possible when rolling up inclines in the track.

Toyota’s triumphant return

Toyota’s 2010 recall crisis killed the Prius Cup for a couple of years as the automaker went into PR recovery turtle shell mode. March 2011’s earthquake-tsunami disaster also slowed Prius race cars’ return to the track. On Dec. 7, Automotive News was invited to join a Japanese media squad behind the wheel of one of 30 Priuses on the track, each representing a Japanese Toyota dealership. Their observations indicate that Toyota’s focus on fuel economy and crew service is alive and well.

Coasting to victory

Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada, who was the chief engineer for the first-generation Prius hybrid sedan, was one of the drivers in the 2011 Toyota Prius cup. He noted that slow and economical would win the race.

“Try to coast up the hills. Keep your speed averaging around 37 mph,” he said.

Don’t gun it in the straightaway

In conventional banked racing, the time to accelerate is when you’re coming out of a turn and are on the downward slope of the banked track. On long straightaways, opening up the throttle is the way to go. But the Prius Cup race rewards those who resist such temptations. To make things easier, drivers are actually penalized for going too fast or too slow.

Each dealer team in the Prius Cup is also clocked for service time. How quickly and accurately teams service pitted vehicles is recorded, but it isn’t merely fuel and tires. Engine service is also taken into account. When pit crews aren’t servicing a vehicle, they encourage their driver to either speed up or slow down in order to avoid penalties and boost mpg.

Enter the sports hybrid

The Toyota Prius isn’t a sports car, but experts believe that Toyota could easily take its hybrid drivetrain technology into the world of sports car performance without sacrificing fuel economy. The evidence is there. For over a year, the automaker has been working on variations of its GRMN Sports Hybrid Concept, an open-cockpit sports hybrid that resembles the MR2. Toyota even promised in October that it would run a hybrid vehicle in the 2012 Le Mans 24 Hour race in July.

Toyota Executive Vice President Shinichi Sasaki confirmed that a sports hybrid is in the works, but the release date is being kept under wraps.

“Hybrids have more to offer than just mileage,” Sasaki said. “We want to do it as soon as possible.”

Until then, Sasaki and Toyota are aiming at Le Mans.

“As long as the car doesn’t break down,” he said, “we can win the race.”

2011 Prius Cup action with the Fuji Drift team


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