In motorsports, if you’re not cheating, you’re probably not winning. Safety regulations have really made it so that from F1 to NASCAR, the best cheaters DO win. Cars are so similar that minute changes will oftentimes determine whether or not you’re placing 1st, or 15th. Lots of times these minute changes come from creative interpretation of the rule book. (That’s not to say that sometimes teams will completely chuck the rulebook away. Remember: its not cheating unless you get caught!)
In the early 1990’s Toyota Team Europe, TTE, was winning. They were racing in rallysports and they were winning. They had a pretty decent car, a Celica GT-Four. The GT-4 was a car that had got them through about six years of racing, and was winning more races every year. They had won the manufacturer’s championship and driver’s championship every year since 1990. For a world-wide company like Toyota, this translated in to MAJOR sales for the Celica. There’s an old NASCAR motto: “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday.” (This only applied up to the 1970’s when NASCAR cars were actually some semblance of being the ‘stock’ models you could purchase at a dealership.) Toyota needed to maintain their edge, at all cost.
Rallying is inherently a dangerous sport. Drivers race around unpaved roads, through treacherous terrain, trying to beat the clock. Rallying fans stand inches away from cars making hairpin turns around blind corners. There’s always a fight between racing governing boards who want cars to be safe, and everyone else who wants them to be fast. Oftentimes this results in cars having their speeds artifically restricted. You can’t tell a racecar driver “Hey man … could you please not drive over 120 mph?” You need a piece of technology (or anti-technology) to artificially limit the speed of the cars.
In 1995 the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the major governing body for motorsports) decided that cars racing in the upper echelons of WRC would be fitted with “restrictor plates” on the turbo units of cars. All combustion engines produce power when they combine gasoline with oxygen. A spark ignites the gasoline and oxygen mixture which pushes a piston that drives a shaft that drives the wheels. Limiting the amount of oxygen taken in by the engine will limit the theoretical amount of power a car can produce. Thus restrictor plates. They are literally plates, a piece of metal that partially blocks a pipe that draws air in to the turbo part of an engine. A turbo is basically a fan that blows air in to an engine, so it would be like putting your hand in front of a fan … it blocks the air from reaching you. The restrictor plates, in theory would block a standard volume of air from reaching the engine. Restrictor plates were mandated for every car, and after the race officials would take apart certain components to make sure no one was cheating. This in theory would limit the top speed of the cars but do so in a way that every team would have the same exact limitations imposed.
Toyota has some of the best engineers in the world. Every car is inspected before the race by the governing body to make sure that the restrictor plate is installed. Toyota engineers figured out how to allow air in to the turbo intake that completely bypassed the seals around the restrictor! In addition, when the car was moving and the turbo was engaged, the restrictor plate would be moved back a couple of inches completely nullifying the effect of the restrictor plate. Some of the best judges and techs had gone over the car to make sure shenanigans like this weren’t taking place. In fact, the engineering was so good that when the turbo was disassembled post-race for inspection, judges couldn’t find any evidence that extra air had passed through the turbo. Toyota had manufactured special springs and clips that would move the restrictor plate back from the air intake, but when the turbo was disengaged the springs would pop it back in to position making it appear that everything was kosher. Like a sprinter, the more the engine could breathe, the faster it could go.
Max Mosley, the president of the FIA at the time said this: “Inside it was beautifully made. The springs inside the hose had been polished and machined so not to impede the air which passed through. To force the springs open without the special tool would require substantial force. It is the most sophisticated and ingenious device either I or the FIA’s technical experts have seen for a long-time. It was so well made that there was no gap apparent to suggest there was any means of opening it.”
The device gave the car an estimated 25% extra air coming in to the turbos, which added an extra 50 BHP (brake horse power)to the car. The cars raced in WRC at the time had about 300 BHP, an extra 50 BHP gave the car a HUGE advantage. The FIA quickly moved to ban TTE from racing that year. Toyota lawyered up, but they were eventually banned for the rest of the 1995 and 1996 season.
In 1998 TTE placed second in WRC, and in 1999 they won the manufacturer’s championship. That was the end of Toyota’s rallying history, they soon moved on to a pretty lousy F1 team.
With rallysports starting to get big in America, it kinda makes you wonder what cool technology is driving those brutish cars. Companies like Toyota use events like WRC as a testbed for new technologies that eventually make it in to their production cars. When your odometer clicks over to 300,000 miles in your Camry, a lot of that durability comes from testing in extreme conditions. I know that the guy in the Monster energy hat probably doesn’t seem like he’s got anything worthwhile to society, but engineers are going to tear his car apart after the race and find out how to improve upon their existing designs. They may not have anything as mechanically sophisticated as a cheat designed by Toyota engineers, but he’s probably got something if he’s winning! If its as good as their previous hacks though … we may never know …