Ryo Hirakawa says that he feels “ready for the challenge” of driving for Toyota Gazoo Racing in the FIA World Endurance Championship for the first time this year.
Hirakawa is the only new addition to Toyota’s core six-man squad for the 2022 WEC season, with the 2017 Super GT champion and three-time runner-up replacing Kazuki Nakajima — now the team’s vice-chairman — in the No. 8 Toyota GR010 Hybrid.
Toyota involved Hirakawa in three of its private tests last year as it evaluated the 27-year-old for a race seat. The first occurred at Portimao in June, followed by sessions at Barcelona in September and Bahrain International Circuit shortly after the WEC title decider in November.
Hirakawa, who previously drove a Toyota GR Supra GT500 in Japan, admitted that it took some time for him to become fully comfortable behind the wheel of the hybrid-powered LMH car, but he now feels ready to tackle racing scenarios.
“The car actually feels quite similar to my Super GT car in terms of weight and downforce, but it has the hybrid system which is a big difference,” he told Sportscar365.
“Initially I had to adjust my driving style to match the car, then the big difference was the different options to improve the car balance and performance when you are driving.
“At the beginning this was hard to understand and I didn’t really know where to start.
“But the team helped me a lot and in the last test I felt much more comfortable with the options, and my performance improved. That was an important step.”
Asked if he feels as though he needs more seat time before the 1000 Miles of Sebring season-opener in mid-March, Hirakawa said: “I am pleased there are some pre-season tests because these will help me continue to adapt to the GR010.
“I am sure I will improve from race to race, and some elements of driving, like traffic and managing the tyres, can only develop in race conditions.
“In general I feel ready for the challenge and I am looking forward to racing the car for the first time.”
Hirakawa has described his call-up to the Toyota WEC squad as a “big honor” as he steps into the seat previously held by three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Nakajima.
Toyota informed Hirakawa of his promotion to a full-time drive just before the 6 Hours of Bahrain, while Nakajima announced the end of his long driving spell with the manufacturer shortly after that race.
He will team up with Sebastien Buemi and Brendon Hartley in the No. 8 Toyota while champions Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez remain in the No. 7.
In addition to his three Hypercar tests last year, Hirakawa competed in the 2016 and 2017 European Le Mans Series seasons in LMP2, an experience that he believes will aid his preparations for an awaited return to international sports car racing.
“It is a big honor to be selected by Toyota for this role,” he said.
“To follow in the footsteps of Kazuki, who was one of my heroes when I was growing up, is something I could not imagine. Kamui and Kazuki are legends in Japanese motorsport, so it was always a pleasure to race with them in Super Formula.
“Now I join them [on the same team] in WEC and this is fantastic for me. It’s even better because I have the opportunity to learn from both of them, to improve and hopefully achieve some of the same success.
“To race at Le Mans and fight for a world championship has always been one of my dreams.
“That’s why I raced in LMP2 a few years ago – to learn about the ACO style of sports car racing and to improve myself as a driver by experiencing new things.
“Those experiences have already been very useful during my tests with the WEC team, and I feel more prepared for the racing season thanks to my LMP2 days.”
Despite being the new face in the Toyota Hypercar driver lineup, Hirakawa doesn’t believe that this will put additional pressure on his shoulders during the WEC season.
“There is pressure on all drivers; you are the new guy, or you won many races and want to stay on top – drivers never escape some pressure,” he suggested.
“But I think it is positive that I am the only new guy in the team. It means I get a lot of extra support from the engineers and the other drivers to get used to the car and the setups.
“I have five very quick drivers to learn from and to compare myself to.”
Hirakawa will maintain his ties to Japanese domestic motorsport this year in the form of a Super Formula drive, however his return to international competition in WEC means he won’t be on the Super GT grid next season.
While the 2020 Super Formula runner-up does not want to fully turn his back on Super GT, where he has become a star driver in GT500, the chance to bid for a world championship and a Le Mans outright win stands as his current priority.
“Super GT is a great championship, with strong support from the manufacturers, sponsors and fans,” he said.
“So I have really enjoyed racing in Super GT and I am sure I will do so again in the future.
“But of course, in Super GT there is no Le Mans or world title. These are big targets for me, so I am really motivated to compete in WEC.”