Mon 07 Feb 2022

Hirvonen talent spots new class of Toyota youngsters

Former FIA World Rally Championship runner-up Mikko Hirvonen has led the selection process to choose three more Japanese youngsters for Toyota Gazoo Racing’s WRC Challenge Program.

Hikaru Kogure (20, centre), Nao Otake (21, left) and Yuki Yamamoto (24, right) will follow Takamoto Katsuta into Toyota’s talent development scheme with the aim of reaching the WRC.

Ex-Ford, Citroën and Subaru works driver Hirvonen, the scheme’s chief instructor, and colleagues Jouni Ampuja and Juho Hänninen selected the trio, who have all been competing on rallies in their native Japan.

Today (Monday) they start their first week of training focused on making pace notes and time in a two-wheel drive Rally4 car.

The work steps up at the beginning of April when they move to Toyota’s Finland base near Jyväskylä. In the summer they will start driving in national grade events in Finland and Europe in Rally4 cars.

The WRC Challenge Program started in 2015 and Katsuta was one of two drivers chosen in the initial selection. He is driving every WRC round this year in a GR Yaris Rally1 in Toyota’s Next Generation squad.

From an initial 60 applicants for the latest scheme, eight were chosen to take part in a two-week training camp in Finland, where their skills were assessed in GR Yaris road cars, cross karts and Rally4 cars.

“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,” explained Hirvonen.

“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.

“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.”

Hikaru Kogure: He started karting in 2006 and raced extensively until 2017. He made his rallying debut in 2020 in the TRD Rally Cup. Last year he competed in the JAF East Japanese Rally Championship in the BC2 class, winning one round and finishing second in the standings.

Nao Otake: He began driving on dirt tracks as a teenager and at 17 he joined the Nutahara Rally School junior team of multiple Japanese champion Fumio Nutahara. He started competing competitively at 18 last year won the JJN3 class in the Japanese Rally Championship with three victories.

Yuki Yamamoto: He started rallying in 2018 at the age of 21 in the Toyota Gazoo Racing Rally Challenge. Last season he competed in the final two rounds of the Japanese Championship and scored two wins in the JN6 class.

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