Toyota leaves the door open for the return of Kenta Yamashita

SUPER GT champion and Super Formula race winner Yamashita was the first driver selected for the Toyota ‘WEC Challenge’ Driver Development Program, and earned the opportunity to race in the LMP2 Team High Class Racing’s World Sports Car Series in 2019-20.

The campaign culminated in the debut of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and also included a walk in Toyota’s TS050 Hybrid LMP1 (pictured below) at the official entry-level test at Bahrain WEC.

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

However, Toyota Team Principal Rob Leupen believes her LMP2 experience with Yamashita was worthwhile and is open to repeating it with another driver in the future – or even Yamashita himself.

“LMP2 is a valuable class for accessing LMH [Hypercar],” Lubin told Motorsport.com. “We have seen it with many drivers, for example, if [Toyota reserve driver Nyck] De Vries will end up at LMH, and the story will be the same.

“It happens and it will continue to be the case, I think. If you are interested in having a higher endurance seat, it is important to be there. [in LMP2].

“And I think we can also say that if Kenta reassess his position, I will ask my Japanese colleagues to see how we can make him available again.

“Without any doubt, Kenta is a very fast driver. That is the first thing.”

Lubin added that he had no qualms about Yamashita’s decision to turn down the opportunity to stay in Europe beyond the 2019/20 season.

“It’s a risk we have to take,” he said. “And drivers are like regular people: if they don’t like what they’re doing, they look for another opportunity. If they decide they want to focus more on the series they’re already doing, that’s okay. It’s part of the freedom to choose.”

After contacting Motorsport.com to respond to Leupen’s comments, Yamashita reiterated that adding the Super Formula title to his 2019 SUPER GT title remains his top priority ahead of any WEC return.

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

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

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

Hirakawa joins Sebastien Buemi and Brendon Hartley aboard Toyota’s #8 lineup, with the trio honored at Le Mans 24 Hours earlier this month.

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Lubin described the decision to replace Nakajima, who now plays behind the scenes with Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe after the end of his racing career, with the 28-year-old Hirakawa as a “logical decision” and suggested that others are likely to follow from Japan in the future.

“If you say you want to keep driving with younger drivers, Rio is the right person,” he said. “There are others that could be very good, so in the long run Toyota takes care of the succession plan on the drivers side.

We have Kazuki, Kamui [Kobayashi] And other people who search very carefully [at drivers in SUPER GT and Super Formula], just like we do with our European drivers. So if there are candidates, they will go through the selection process and our procedure.

“I think it’s important to maintain this, as we did with Rio, who has had many tests.”

Besides Yamashita, other leading candidates for the WEC opportunity at the local Toyota stable include Shu Tsuboi, Ritomu Miyata and Sina Sakaguchi, all of whom have expressed interest in the class.

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