Super GT champion Ryo Hirakawa is feeling ambitious for his maiden full-season WEC drive with Toyota GAZOO Racing in their Le Mans Hypercar.
Following the retirement of three-time Le Mans winner Kazuki Nakajima, who will work as an adviser with the team, an open seat gave way to a new face in the line-up.
The spotlight now lends itself to 2017 Super GT Champion and two-time runner-up Ryo Hirakawa who will debut in his first-ever world championship campaign for Toyota.
The 27-year-old drove the Toyota GR010 Hybrid Le Mans Hypercar on three occasions last year: at Portimao, Paul Ricard, and Barcelona-Catalunya.
For 2022, it will feature a series of minor updates which will be officially detailed next month.
He describes to Last Lap about his impressions of the GR010 Hybrid.
“The GR010 Hybrid feels quite similar to a Super GT car in terms of weight and downforce, but the hybrid system is a big difference.
“At the beginning, I had to adjust my style for the car but when I started to get familiar with the many options available to a driver to change the car balance, that really helped.
“It was not an easy process but the team helped me a lot and in the Bahrain test, I felt more comfortable.”
His affiliation with the Japanese manufacturer remains strong having joined the Toyota Young Driver programme for Super Formula in 2013, to which he then pursued six more seasons; he will drive his eighth for Carenex Team Impul.
He joined the WEC Young Drivers Programme in 2016, and has since worked with the team as shared by his warmth and familiarity with upcoming teammates Brendon Hartley and Sebastien Buemi.
“I know some of the drivers from my tests a few years ago, and I have been getting to know everyone during the tests so far; everyone has been very helpful and welcoming.
“The drivers have worked together for a few seasons so they are like a family, which is really nice.”
Whilst he has yet to make his first full-season appearance, the 27-year-old has endurance prototype experience from the European Le Mans Series, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2017.
At the beginning of February of 2016, Toyota announced Hirakawa’s LMP2 commitment to Thiriet by TDS Racing with teammates Pierre Thiriet and Mathias Beche.
In their Oreca 05 Gibson, they secured three podiums including two race victories at the 4 Hours of Imola, and the Red Bull Ring.
His ’16 Le Mans debut with the team ran confidently in second place before Thiriet hit the wall before the Mulsanne Corner and ended up in the gravel trap. Despite a recovery to the garage, an imminent steering problem ended the race in retirement.
A year onwards, he continued in the ELMS but with G-Drive Racing using the widely-familiar Oreca 07 Gibson package, achieving the same statistics albeit in one race less.
Toyota reign both the Hypercar Drivers’ and the Teams’ Champions, as Nakajima cemented himself as a World Champion and a triple Le Mans winner.
Hirakawa reckons he is up to the task in hand to rival the likes of Alpine, Glickenhaus, and Peugeot.
“It is a big challenge, there is no question, but I am looking forward to it and I feel ready.
“The team has been very strong for many years and we are always pushing to stay on top. I am happy to be part of that challenge.
“Kazuki was one of my motorsport heroes when I was growing up so it is an honour to follow in his footsteps.
“It’s great that he is still involved in the team so I have the opportunity to learn from him, to improve and hopefully achieve some of that success.”
The 2022 calendar will feature six venues: Sebring, Spa-Francorchamps, Le Mans, Monza, Fuji and Bahrain.
He anticipates competing for the overall victory at Le Mans for the first time, with the LMP2 experience providing knowledge on performing driver changes and the differences between driving during daylight and the night.
The WEC was unable to return to Fuji Speedway for the first time in its running due to the COVID-19 restrictions which caused difficulty for various competitors to travel.
The Bahrain double-header solution will not return this year, thus welcoming back a home circuit for Toyota where they have won seven times in eight years, and it will remain special for Hirakawa to “race in front of our home fans”.
Ultimately, his maiden pursuit to the top-tier category comes at the brink of a new era in sportscar racing and endurance prototypes with Hypercar attracting several manufacturers.
Toyota conquered the WEC stage after LMP1 demised, but the Hypercar class has, and will, set a more competitive and equal field for all who wish to take on the WEC and elsewhere in IMSA following the approved convergence of LMDh and Hypercar (now known as GTP in the latter championship).
Hirakawa shares his excitement to become part of an outfit which has been active at the top of the discipline every year since 2012, and will take on the world’s most famed automotive manufacturers.
“I think everyone at Toyota GAZOO Racing and in WEC is excited about the future of endurance racing.
“It will be great for the fans to see so many manufacturers fighting at Le Mans.”