Ahead of the FIA World Endurance Championship Bapco 8 Hours of Bahrain, it has been announced that Toyota Gazoo Racing driver Kazuki Nakajima will be stepping down as a Hypercar driver after this weekend’s race.
Nakajima has been with the team for ten years, nine season, having been one of the original drivers to join Toyota when they joined the revived FIA World Endurance Championship in 2012. Since then, Nakajima has had 58 race starts with the manufacturer, claiming 16 race victories, two of which were overall 24 Hours of Le Mans victories. He was also the driver behind the wheel of the Toyota TS050 Hybrid when it heartbreakingly broke down and stopped on the penultimate lap of the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, losing its maiden Le Mans victory (something that was set right when it was Nakajima behind the wheel in 2018 when Toyota took their first overall win at the blue-riband event). Only team mate Sebastien Buemi has had more wins than Nakajima with the Japanese manufacturer.
“It has been an honour to compete for Toyota Gazoo Racing for nine seasons and I feel so lucky to have won races, championships and the Le Mans 24 Hours alongside so many talented, passionate and dedicated colleagues.” Nakajima said in the announcement released by the team ahead of the final WEC race in 2021. “I want to express my greatest thanks to TGR for this 10-year journey in WEC.
“I have so many memories with this team, who have been a family to me in tough times as well as in happy times, and I will always feel like a TGR team member.”
Nakajima will not be leaving Toyota, however, as he steps into a new role for the Hypercar team as well as looking to split his racing commitments between Super Formula and SUPER GT in 2022.
As for Nakajima’s replacement, it has yet to be announced, but Toyota have stated that the 2022 driver line ups for their Hypercar program have already been decided. Rumours are on Ryo Hirakawa who has been on Toyota’s Young Driver Programme since 2013 and has taken part in a lot of tests for the team. Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe’s Technical Director Pascal Vasselon refused to comment on Nakajima’s replacement, but a month ago, Nakajima himself spoke to Motorsport.com about Hirakawa and the young driver’s potential future WEC appearance:
“In both Super Formula and Super GT, [Hirakawa’s] speed is undeniable.” Nakajima admitted. “If he does well, it will become harder for me to have a place, but setting that aside, I just want to support him.
“There are a lot of fast young drivers within Toyota, but he’s got the results and the speed, so if Toyota creates a system where results can lead to a place in WEC, I think it’s a good thing for the future.”
Hirakawa first found his way onto the sports car racing scene with an LMP2 drive in the European Le Mans Series back in 2013, where he drove the TDS Racing machine. This too was when he was given a place on the Toyota Young Driver Programme and looked set to be being lined up for a WEC drive in the future. Last year, he raced in both Super Formula and SUPER GT, finishing second and third respectively in both championships. After these impressive results, Hirakawa began being used once again for Toyota’s in season WEC tests, getting a handle on the new Toyota GR010 Hybrid.