Kazuki Nakajima is set to remain with Toyota Gazoo Racing in a new, yet-to-be-announced role with the Japanese manufacturer.
The three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner announced Wednesday that he will be standing down from driving at the conclusion of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, ending a nine-year period as the longest-running driver in Toyota’s lineup.
Speaking to media at Bahrain International Circuit, the 36-year-old hinted that he will have a position within the WEC team but would not reveal any further details.
A Toyota spokesperson confirmed it will be announced alongside Nakajima’s replacement during Toyota’s annual motorsports press conference, which is set to occur in December.
“I have to be honest there’s of course a bit of sadness to be [out of] the race drive,” Nakajima said. “But also to be fair I’m looking to the future already.
“The conversation has been there for one month or so. We’ve been talking for about on month about it, and also for the future.”
Nakajima said one of the options could be to retire as a driver altogether to focus on his new role.
He indicated that it’s “most likely” the current scenario, although a final decision has not been taken.
The Japanese star currently competes in Super Formula in Japan and has previously driven in Super GT alongside his WEC commitments.
“It’s part of the plan but I haven’t decided everything yet,” he said. “We are still talking about what to do next year. Also I will try to finalize all of the details of what I can do here [in WEC].
“Doing both is sometimes a bit of a compromise.”
Nakajima said he still feels he has what it takes to be a top-level driver and had been looking forward to the influx of manufacturers to the WEC in the coming years, prior to the decision having been made.
“Yes that’s what I believe,” he said. “Like we did last week, I believe that I can still drive a car properly and still do something as a race car driver.
“That’s part of my sadness, to be honest. I know we are heading to a great era of the new WEC championship with a lot of manufacturers coming.
“There will be a lot of competition going on. As a race car driver I was trying and looking forward to race in this period.
“It is my sadness but as I explained before, I have a lot of positive feeling for the future.
“This is only one part of a big change coming, not only in WEC but generally for Toyota Gazoo Racing motorsport. There’s going to be a lot of changes that will allow us to have sustainable motorsport.
“We need some change and this is part of it. I cannot mention who will be my replacement but it’s also part of the next generation of driver development as well.
“I’m happy to be part of it.”
Highs and Lows at Le Mans Among Nakajima’s Career Highlights
Nakajima said winning Le Mans for the Japanese manufacturer for the first time in 2018, which helped propel he, Fernando Alonso and Sebastien Buemi to the 2018-19 WEC title, served as one of the highlights of his racing career.
However, it was also Toyota’s last-gasp defeat two years earlier when Nakajima’s Toyota TS050 Hybrid ground to a halt with less than five minutes to go while in the lead that also holds as a strong memory.
“Of course 2018 was the best, but at the same time what happened in 2016,” he said. “It was a sad moment for everyone but I believe this was maybe key to make us stronger and be ready for the first victory.
“It’s hard to pick one [moment] but there were a lot of emotions.
“Maybe before the first victory at Le Mans, yeah it was higher. But then both are equally important.
“Of course after Formula 1, I went back to Japan and went to domestic racing. To race in Europe again was my dream and Le Mans was the perfect place.
“At that time the project had started and I was really, for me, a dream come true to be part of this project and to challenge and win Le Mans.
“It took quite a while in the end but finally we managed. It was really a dream come true.”