Hirakawa joins Toyota 2022 WEC line-up, Kobayashi becomes Team Principal

Ryo Hirakawa has joined the Toyota GAZOO Racing’s driver line-up for the 2022 World Endurance Championship, replacing Kazuki Nakajima.

The 2017 Super GT Champion has been part of Toyota’s Young Driver programme since 2016, and drove their Le Mans Hypercar at three private tests earlier this year.

He replaces three-time Le Mans winner Kazuki Nakajima, who announced his retirement, in the #8 car, and will race alongside team-mates Brendon Hartley and Sebastien Buemi.

The 2020 Super Formula Championship runner-up said: “I am thrilled to join the Toyota GAZOO Racing family in WEC, particularly to work alongside Sebastien and Brendon in the #8 car.

“I have already tested the GR010 Hybrid three times (Paul Ricard, Portimao, Barcelona-Catalunya) and I am becoming more and more familiar with the car.

“There is still plenty to learn and I am looking forward to the start of pre-season testing, so I can continue my development.

Hirakawa at a test in Portimao, June 2021 – Credit: © TOYOTA MOTOR CORPORATION

“The Le Mans 24 Hours has been a big goal for me in my career and I have already participated twice in LMP2.

“Now I can’t wait to race a Hypercar there and fight for victory.

“Thank you to everyone at Toyota and Toyota GAZOO Racing for their trust and support.

“I am honoured to be given this opportunity to replace Kazuki san, who is a true legend in endurance racing,” concluded the 27-year-old.

His sportscar record includes three wins across the 2016 and 2017 European Le Mans Series.

Two LMP2 Le Mans 24 Hours participations took place over these two years, the first of which ended in race retirement.

A 2017 LMP1 Le Mans outing for the Japanese manufacturer’s third TS050 Hybrid was also on the cards before he was passed over in favour of Yuji Kunimoto.

Meanwhile, Nakajima is now set to take on a management role as Vice Chairman of TGR-Europe, with reigning champion Kamui Kobayashi doubling up on roles having agreed to become team principal of Toyota’s WEC outfit, a job he will have in addition to his driving duties.

He said: “I will bring all my experience as a race driver to my new job, and I know I have a fantastic team who will support me in my mission.

“We are preparing for a new era of Hypercar competition in WEC, when many new manufacturers will join the fight, and Toyota GAZOO Racing is evolving to prepare ourselves for this new challenge.”

The #7 crew of Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez won their maiden 24 Hours of Le Mans earlier in August.