Everything you need to know about Toyota’s new WEC hope

This week, Toyota finally confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in sportscar racing: that Japanese rising star Ryo Hirakawa is replacing Kazuki Nakajima in its #8 crew for the 2022 FIA World Endurance Championship season.

Everything you need to know about Toyota’s new WEC hope
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For keen followers of Japan’s two premier categories, SUPER GT and Super Formula, the move won’t come as a big surprise, as Hirakawa has established himself as one of the elite performers on the domestic stage. But for those less familiar with Japanese racing, it might seem an odd decision to stand down Nakajima in favour of such an unknown quantity.

Nakajima would have certainly made a solid enough partner to Sebastien Buemi and Brendon Hartley for another couple of seasons yet, but Toyota is clearly looking to the future with its decision to appoint Nakajima as Vice-Chairman of Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe and to give Kamui Kobayashi an unusual dual role as driver and team principal.

Toyota’s idea is to strengthen its line-up now and give it chance to bed in before the serious competition arrives in 2023 and ’24 (no offence to Alpine, Glickenhaus or ByKolles intended…). That includes bolstering the driver roster with the addition of Hirakawa, who already has eight days of testing aboard the GR010 Hybrid Le Mans Hypercar under his belt.

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It’s the culmination of a project that was hatched in 2019, when another young Toyota prospect, Kenta Yamashita, was handed the chance to contest a full WEC season in LMP2 for the High Class Racing outfit alongside his Super Formula and SUPER GT commitments.

Toyota team director Rob Leupen gave the game away when he described Yamashita as the 'heir to Nakajima' after an impressive Le Mans 24 Hours debut in 2020. But the onset of the coronavirus pandemic meant that continent-hopping between Europe and Japan was no longer feasible, and Yamashita’s priorities lay at home in conquering Super Formula.

That opened the door for Hirakawa, who had been already sent to Europe by Toyota way back in 2016 to contest the European Le Mans Series to prepare for a WEC future, only to be passed over for a chance to drive the Japanese marque’s third car at Le Mans the following season.

Hirakawa rebounded from that setback in 2017 as he and his new TOM’S teammate, Nick Cassidy, won that year’s SUPER GT title. But what really put him firmly back on the WEC radar was an accomplished 2020 campaign in which he arguably deserved to win both the SUPER GT and Super Formula titles, only for bad luck to rob him of the prize in both series.

Hirakawa led last year's Super Formula standings almost from start to finish, but a crash at Suzuka not of his making and a slow pitstop at Autopolis were factors in his defeat to Naoki Yamamoto.

Hirakawa led last year's Super Formula standings almost from start to finish, but a crash at Suzuka not of his making and a slow pitstop at Autopolis were factors in his defeat to Naoki Yamamoto.

The timing was perfect – with Yamashita bowing out, Toyota had a vacancy on its roster of development drivers, and Hirakawa was the natural choice to step in.

First Hirakawa was invited to drive the GR010 Hybrid in Toyota’s three-day post-Portimao test in June, which forced him to miss the Sugo Super Formula round, an indicator that this was no mere ‘well done’ gift but a serious evaluation.

A further two-day test in Barcelona in September provided Toyota with the evidence it needed to make its final decision, which came around the time of the Autopolis SUPER GT race in October. Three more days of testing followed for Hirakawa in Bahrain shortly after the final WEC race of the season, before he headed back to Japan just in time to serve a 10-day quarantine and take part in the SUPER GT finale at Fuji Speedway.

Hirakawa, who hails from the Western Japanese prefecture of Hiroshima, is an understated, even somewhat serious character, albeit one with an impish sense of humour. Years of working alongside foreign drivers in SUPER GT, plus his two years of racing in ELMS in 2016 and ’17, means he speaks fluent English, something that was always a sticking point for Yamashita.

Hirakawa formed a formidable partnership in SUPER GT with Nick Cassidy (right), whom he partnered from 2017 until 2020. He also raced alongside Andrea Caldarelli and James Rossiter.

Hirakawa formed a formidable partnership in SUPER GT with Nick Cassidy (right), whom he partnered from 2017 until 2020. He also raced alongside Andrea Caldarelli and James Rossiter.

Honest about his own shortcomings, the 27-year-old is more than happy to admit that he found the GR010 Hybrid - which is both heavier and has less downforce than his usual SUPER GT machinery - a handful at first.

“I was just trying to drive, not thinking about what changes I needed to make in the car,” Hirakawa reflects in conversation with Motorsport.com. “There are so many options to improve the car while you drive, but I didn’t use these much.

"It was a bit strange, because I thought I was doing the right thing, but I was slow. So, my brain is kind of in a panic, thinking, ‘What should I do?’ Maybe that’s why I was a bit shy [to talk to the other drivers]. I felt like they would just see me as this slow guy.

"I even had no idea what to ask, after comparing the data… things like braking earlier or later, I could understand, but some things you have to ask about to be able to understand. At the time, I had no idea, and that made me shy, I think. And there was the pressure of knowing this was a big chance for me.

"But once the team had decided, they really helped me. And in Bahrain [Hirakawa’s most recent test], which was after the decision, they were trying to help me about these things, and I made a big improvement in performance.

“I felt even in Bahrain that I was on the same pace as the other drivers, but I am sure it will be different in the race, because you have traffic and you are fighting. I need to practice more double-stinting the tyres and keeping up the pace consistently, and changing the settings in the right way.”

While the car itself may still be relatively new to Hirakawa, multi-class endurance racing isn’t. As part of the TOM’S Toyota team, he is a veteran of 58 SUPER GT events, winning seven times and finishing on the podium on 21 occasions – not a bad hit rate for a series that uses a success handicap system to keep things artificially close. In fact, nobody else has scored more podiums in that time.

Most SUPER GT podiums since 2015:

Pos. Driver Manufacturer Podiums
1 Japan Ryo Hirakawa Toyota 21
2 Japan Kazuya Oshima Toyota 18
3

Japan Tsugio Matsuda

Italy Ronnie Quintarelli

Nissan 17
4 Japan Naoki Yamamoto Honda 16
5 New Zealand Nick Cassidy Toyota 15
6

Japan Hiroaki Ishiura

Japan Yuji Tachikawa

Toyota 13

And then there are his two seasons in ELMS in 2016-17, which yielded three wins in nine races and provided two opportunities to race at Le Mans in the LMP2 class. In the first of those, he and his teammates aboard the TDS Racing Oreca 05, Pierre Thiriet and Mathias Beche, were in a strong position to win until Thiriet crashed in the morning hours.

“I think SUPER GT prepares you quite a lot for WEC,” says Hirakawa. “The most difficult thing is predicting how certain drivers will behave [when you lap them]. In SUPER GT, you can judge from the driver or the car, so I need to learn that in WEC as well. But when I raced in ELMS, I never struggled with traffic at all, which was thanks to SUPER GT.

“The second season was the first year of the new car [Oreca 07] and I had to do a lot of fuel-saving, which was a new thing for me. That was the only thing that was much different from SUPER GT, plus the fact we had tyre warmers [banned in SUPER GT], and I was learning new tracks, which was more exciting than doing the same tracks [in Japan] every year.”

On his Le Mans experience, he recalls: “In 2016 we were fighting for the win in the morning, and then my teammate [Thiriet] unfortunately crashed. But I enjoyed the experience a lot, besides the result. In 2017, I started the race, which was really cool. Unfortunately, after 15 minutes we had a problem and we had to box for an hour… I lost my motivation after that! It was not so much fun, but at least we managed to finish.”

Hirakawa and his teammates came close to winning Le Mans in 2016, and would have likely won that year's ELMS title as well if not for an electrical problem in the season finale.

Hirakawa and his teammates came close to winning Le Mans in 2016, and would have likely won that year's ELMS title as well if not for an electrical problem in the season finale.

That second Le Mans experience, which was at the wheel of a G-Drive Racing-branded DragonSpeed car, came at the same time that Yuji Kunimoto, Hirakawa’s senior within the Toyota SUPER GT/Super Formula stable, was making what turned out to be a rather lacklustre outing at the wheel of the Japanese brand’s third LMP1 car.

Kunimoto was handed the chance to test the Toyota TS050 Hybrid following his 2016 Super Formula title win and ended up beating Hirakawa to the vacant slot alongside Jose Maria Lopez and Nicolas Lapierre after a strong test outing at Aragon. But that year’s Le Mans was to be the last time he ever drove for Toyota’s WEC operation.

We ask whether Hirakawa feels that, if he had been given the chance back then instead of Kunimoto, he would have fared any better.

“I think it might have been similar [to Kunimoto],” he replies. “My mental capacity was not what it is now. In endurance racing, you need a lot of experience. That’s one of the most important things. But there are many things I can do better now than I could then.”

There’s a certain pleasing historical symmetry to Hirakawa getting the call-up to replace Nakajima in Toyota’s #8 crew. Back in 2014, when Hirakawa was in his second year of Super Formula, he was invited to make his SUPER GT debut by TOM'S to deputise for – you guessed it – Nakajima, when the latter’s WEC commitments forced him to skip two races. That led to a full-time drive for the 2015 campaign, the start of a seven-year stint with the squad.

Hirakawa won his very first race as a SUPER GT full-timer for TOM'S, sharing a Lexus RC F with Andrea Caldarelli at Okayama - the closest thing Hiroshima-born Hirakawa has to a 'home' track.

Hirakawa won his very first race as a SUPER GT full-timer for TOM'S, sharing a Lexus RC F with Andrea Caldarelli at Okayama - the closest thing Hiroshima-born Hirakawa has to a 'home' track.

The seeds for that call-up were sown two years prior in All-Japan Formula 3, the year before Hirakawa became an official Toyota junior driver. Having lost out on a paid scholarship to now-Toyota rally star Takamoto Katsuta, he took on the might of TOM’S with a self-financed campaign with the minnow RSS team, and won seven of the first nine races to propel himself to an unlikely title.

“That was why [TOM’S owner Nobuhide] Tachi called me two years later to race in SUPER GT as a replacement for Nakajima,” says Hirakawa. “Tachi-san was impressed that I beat the TOM’S cars in F3, and he remembered about me. That’s how I joined TOM’S.”

Now, Hirakawa is replacing Nakajima again, only on a full-time basis as the three-time Le Mans winner and erstwhile Williams F1 racer calls time on his driving career.

“Around when I started karting, I went to watch F1 at Fuji [in 2008] and there was just one Japanese driver who is competing, and it was him,” adds Hirakawa, who was 14 at the time of that trip. “Since then, I always wanted to be like him, and now I am replacing him. It's really strange!

“It was around when I decided I wanted to be a racing driver, and he was my hero at the time. I don’t know how to describe the feeling."

Along with the entire Super Formula grid, Hirakawa was in attendance for Nakajima's 'retirement ceremony' during this week's post-season test at Suzuka.

Along with the entire Super Formula grid, Hirakawa was in attendance for Nakajima's 'retirement ceremony' during this week's post-season test at Suzuka.

Even though Toyota will go into 2022 as heavy favourites to repeat its 2021 successes in both the WEC and at Le Mans, there will still be some pressure on Hirakawa to prove that he belongs at this level, all the more so as he is joining the #8 crew that lost out in the season-long fight for title honours this year.

But the real test will come in 2023, when Peugeot, Ferrari, Porsche, Audi and more will all be at full strength ready to capitalise on any chinks in Toyota’s considerable armour.

“The competition will still be intense between the two Toyotas, there is always a huge fight, but basically I think it will be a learning year,” Hirakawa says. “I want to improve as much as possible this year to be ready for 2023 when the other manufacturers arrive.

“I think it's good that I’m joining the WEC at a time when the competition is getting harder. After 2017, it was just a Toyota championship [in LMP1] and it was easy for Toyota to win, but instead I’m coming back at a good time.

"A lot of manufacturers are coming, and the WEC is going to be really big. That’s what I’m looking forward to most.”

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