Toyota opened the door for Kenta Yamashita to return

SUPER GT champion and Super Formula race winner Yamashita was the first driver selected for Toyota’s ‘WEC Challenge’ driver development program, and was given the opportunity to dive into the global sportscar series for the LMP2 High Class Racing squad in 2019-20.

The campaign ended with the first appearance at Le Mans 24 Hours, and also included the outing of Toyota’s TS050 Hybrid LMP1 car (pictured below) in the official Bahrain WEC rookie test.

For the 2021 season, Yamashita chose to return to racing in Japan full -time after a year out of the SUPER GT – where he briefly moved to Cologne in Germany, near Toyota’s WEC base, before the COVID pandemic. -19.

However, Toyota team director Rob Leupen believes its LMP2 experiment with the Yamashita is worthwhile and is open to repeating it with another driver in the future – or even Yamashita himself.

“LMP2 is an important category that will emerge in LMH [Hypercar], ”Leupen told Motorsport.com. “We’ve seen this in a lot of drivers, for example, if [Toyota reserve driver Nyck] de Vries would end up in LMH, it will be the same story.

“It’s happening and it will continue, I think. If you’re interested in a top endurance chair job, it’s important you’ve been there [in LMP2].

“And I think we can also say that if Kenta re -evaluates his position, I will ask my colleagues in Japan to see how we can use him again.

“There’s no doubt, Kenta is a very fast driver. This is the first thing.”

Leupen added that he has no doubts about Yamashita’s decision to deny the chance to stay in Europe following the 2019/20 season.

“It’s a risk we have to take,” he said. “And drivers are like normal people: if they don’t like what they’re doing, they look for another opportunity. If they decide they want to concentrate more on the series they’re already doing, it’s ok. Part it is free choice. ”

Contacted by Motorsport.com for a response to Leupen’s comments, Yamashita reiterated that adding the Super Formula title to his SUPER GT title in 2019 remains his top priority before any WEC return.

“Of course, I want to try racing in the WEC again,” the 26-year-old said. “But first of all, I really want to be a Super Formula champion.

“I want to get titles in both Super Formula and SUPER GT, and then consider it carefully.”

Yamashita’s decision to stay in Japan in 2021 opened the door for compatriot Ryo Hirakawa to try out the Toyota WEC squad and then replace Kazuki Nakajima for the 2022 season.

Hirakawa joined Sebastien Buemi and Brendon Hartley in the #8 Toyota line-up, with the trio taking home awards at Le Mans 24 Hours earlier this month.

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Leupen called the decision to replace Nakajima, who now has a behind-the-scenes role at Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe after the end of his top racing career, in which the 28-year-old Hirakawa is “a logical decision ”and suggested by others that are likely to follow from Japan in the future.

“If you say you want to continue with younger drivers, Ryo will take over,” he said. “There are a few others that could be very good, so for a long time Toyota has been handling the succession plan on the drivers’ side.

“We have Kazuki, Kamui [Kobayashi] and other people who look good [at drivers in SUPER GT and Super Formula], as we do with our European drivers. So if there are candidates, they will go through our selection process and procedures.

“I think it’s important to keep it, like we did with Ryo, who went through a lot of testing.”

Aside from Yamashita, other top candidates for a chance at the WEC at the Toyota domestic stable include Sho Tsuboi, Ritomo Miyata and Sena Sakaguchi, who have all expressed interest in the category.

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