Ryo Hirakawa could “challenge in the longer term” for a full-time position in Toyota’s FIA World Endurance Championship driver lineup, according to the manufacturer’s team director Rob Leupen.
Japanese star Hirakawa is testing a Toyota GR010 Hybrid at Algarve International Circuit next week and is on-site with the TGR team at the 8 Hours of Portimao this weekend.
Leupen indicated that the purpose of Hirakawa’s test is for him to “gain experience” in Toyota’s Hypercar challenger, with a view to potentially gearing up for a full-time seat.
Hirakawa was the 2017 Super GT champion alongside Nick Cassidy and finished second in both that series and Super Formula last year.
The 27-year-old has tested Toyota TS040 and TS050 Hybrid LMP1 machinery in the past, including one session at Portimao four years ago, but returned to domestic racing in Japan after missing out on a 24 Hours of Le Mans seat to Yuji Kunimoto in 2017.
“He’s here clearly to gain experience and challenge in the longer term to maybe become a WEC driver in the team,” Leupen told Sportscar365.
“It has been Ryo’s decision and he’s fully behind it. He really wants to go for this chance.
“We did some tests together in 2017 when he was one of the guys being looked into as a potential future driver.
“Then he went back to Japan, did Super GT and Super Formula very successfully, but his interest was definitely to have another shot and come here.
“After Kenta [Yamashita] and [Yuji] Kunimoto, for us he’s great and he’s doing very well on the Toyota program. It’s good to have him back and good to have him here, and he’s somebody we would like to see endurance racing. He’s much more mature [now].
“He was very young at the time. We are more than delighted that he has been able to join the ‘junior’ program here.”
Asked about how Hirakawa’s performances in Japan led to a second chance in Le Mans-style machinery, Leupen said: “His legacy in those championships and the way he developed.
“If we compare him four or five years ago until today, of course he stepped up in maturity, ability and experience.
“Also with a mentor like Kamui [Kobayashi] supporting and judging him, I think it’s good that he’s back here and we consider him as the driver with the highest potential amongst our Japanese colleagues.”
In a potential demonstration of the Portimao test’s importance to both driver and manufacturer, Hirakawa is forgoing next weekend’s Super Formula round at SUGO despite running second in the championship.
It’s understood that Hirakawa made the final call to miss the open-wheel race in order to focus on his offer from Toyota’s WEC operation in Europe.
“If we take it seriously then it should be the case that it’s not only one test, but multiple tests,” Leupen said.
Hirakawa was at Toyota’s WEC team headquarters in Cologne last week for a simulator session ahead of his upcoming drive in the GR010 Hybrid from Tuesday to Thursday.
All six of Toyota’s full-time WEC drivers will stay on to test after the 8 Hours of Portimao, which marks the second round of the current world championship season.
In the meantime, Hirakawa is soaking up the WEC team atmosphere and will engage in briefing sessions with the team throughout the weekend.
“I’m looking forward to doing it,” Hirakawa told Sportscar365.
“I’ve already done simulator sessions in Cologne. I’m still learning how to drive it and there are many things to understand, some unknown things that I will find out in the weekend.
“The last [LMP1 test I did], maybe the car specifics were different. It needed a different driving style like fuel cuts. But this car you can drive more like a normal car.
“I felt from the simulator that I can drive as I want. I am ready and I also have more experience and confidence for it.
“I hope I can do it [in a race seat] next year. But it’s not my decision. I try to do my best next week, and then let’s see.”