TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRC Challenge ProgramThree new drivers chosen to pursue their WRC dreams
Three young Japanese drivers – Hikaru Kogure, Nao Otake and Yuki Yamamoto – have been selected to join the TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRC Challenge Program and undergo intensive training and development with the goal of one day competing at the highest level of the FIA World Rally Championship.
The WRC Challenge Program started in 2015 to identify and nurture talented young drivers from Japan with the potential to become top-level WRC drivers. The initiative has proven to be a success: Takamoto Katsuta, one of two drivers chosen in that initial selection, is competing in every round of the WRC this year in a GR YARIS Rally1 car. Having joined the Challenge Program with minimal rallying experience, Katsuta has progressed to achieve his first overall podium finish at Safari Rally Kenya in 2021 and continues to benefit from its guidance today.
With TOYOTA GAZOO Racing keen to provide a similar opportunity to another group of drivers, applications opened for new entrants in August 2021. From 60 applicants, eight drivers were chosen to take part in a two-week training camp in Finland, where the TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team is based.
There, their skills have been assessed behind the wheel of GR Yaris road cars, crosskarts and two-wheel drive Rally4 cars, and they have also undergone fitness and neurological tests. Overseeing the selection process was chief instructor Mikko Hirvonen – who as a driver won 15 rounds of the WRC – along with fellow instructors Jouni Ampuja and Juho Hänninen. In particular, they were looking for the drivers’ ability to learn and their natural characteristics, with their potential to become a professional rally driver more important than their current level of skill.
Up until now, 20-year-old Kogure, 21-year-old Otake and 24-year-old Yamamoto have been competing in rallies in Japan. Joining the WRC Challenge Program will allow them to gain additional experience and to demonstrate their potential on the global stage.
The drivers today (February 7) start their first week of training as Challenge Program drivers, focused on pacenote making and further Rally4 driving. They will relocate from Japan to Finland at the beginning of April to commence an intense full-time training schedule, and from the summer onwards start taking part in national rallies in Rally4 cars in Finland and Europe. Each year, the drivers’ continuation as part of the Program will be evaluated based upon their individual performances and development.
Mikko Hirvonen (TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRC Challenge Program chief instructor):“We were really impressed by the attitude of all the candidates over the two weeks. They really tried hard and wanted to push their limits. They came from different backgrounds within motorsport and most of them had not driven on snow and ice before. So there were lots of new things for them to handle but they did that really well and made big steps forward. We tried to select the drivers who we felt have the most potential for the future, but it was not an easy decision to make. The three drivers we’ve chosen showed good determination to learn and make progress in their careers. They also impressed us with how much they improved within the two weeks, how they absorbed the information from the instructors and how they handled different situations under pressure. We believe they can have a really bright future in rallying. Now the real hard work begins for them but I’m sure they are ready for the challenge.”
Hikaru Kogure:“It is hard to describe my feelings about being selected to join the TGR WRC Challenge Program. I am really excited for what is coming. The training camp was tough. Because I am not so used to speaking English, a big part of the challenge was being able to understand the advice from the instructors and communicate what I was feeling. But I am sure this will improve thanks to this Program. I am really looking forward to participating in rallies outside of Japan because without this opportunity it would not have been possible.”
Nao Otake:“It is unbelievable to be one of the chosen drivers. It was quite a shock to hear my name being called. I have been used to driving mainly rear-wheel drive cars so far in my career, so during the training camp I had to get used to driving with front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive cars. I think this was the toughest challenge for me. But I am very happy, very excited and I hope that I will be able to do well as part of the TGR WRC Challenge Program.”
Yuki Yamamoto:“I am very, very happy to have been selected for the TGR WRC Challenge Program. I can’t quite believe it. The past two weeks were a very big opportunity for me to learn a lot of new things, like driving new cars and on a new surface for me. Almost all of it was new for me and it was an amazing experience. I am very excited now to be joining the Program. It is a great chance to make my dreams come true.”
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