Talented Japanese rally drivers ready to take the next step

The second generation of TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRC Challenge Program drivers have demonstrated their potential to progress towards the top level of rallying, with two young Japanese drivers now being selected to continue their development in Europe. Hikaru Kogure and Yuki Yamamoto will both step up to the Rally2 class for 2024 as they move on to the next phase of the program.

A trio of young Japanese drivers were chosen to begin training in Finland at the beginning of 2022, with the goal of one day following in the footsteps of Takamoto Katsuta, who was part of the first intake of the TGR WRC Challenge Program in 2015 and has gone on to compete successfully at the highest level of the FIA World Rally Championship as a factory driver for TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team.

Alongside their training, the young drivers have been taking part in national and international rallies across Europe in two-wheel drive Rally4 cars over the past two seasons. All three have impressed the TGR-WRT instructors with their performances and progress in that time.

For the next phase of the program, two drivers will be granted the opportunity to move up to four-wheel drive Rally2 cars, just one step below the top Rally1 category. Kogure and Yamamoto are the drivers that have been chosen and will take part in selected rallies across Europe next year, including some WRC events.

Nao Otake will also have the chance to continue his development in the Japanese Rally Championship next year with the support of TOYOTA GAZOO Racing. He will compete and show his development in a new JRC category which will be introduced in 2024, targeted at promising young Japanese rally drivers.

The process to recruit a new intake of young drivers to the TGR WRC Challenge Program is also underway following a recent qualification phase held at Fuji Speedway in Japan. The final selection will take place in Finland in December.

Hikaru Kogure:
“I am really happy that I can continue in this program. I felt that I had done the best that I can, so I knew that I would not have any regrets. At the beginning, I struggled quite a lot as I had very little experience on gravel or snow, and I found the pacenote system to be completely different. But I did a lot of recce training with my co-driver Topi and I felt a lot of progress during the most recent rallies in Poland, Latvia and Finland. Rally2 is going to be another step but I’m really looking forward to it. I have to say a big thank you to TGR and the coaches. Thanks to their efforts, I could get a lot of experience and progress. Now I need to work to get better results in the future.”

Yuki Yamamoto:“Of course, I am very happy and honoured to be able to continue with such an amazing program. It’s been almost two years and we have learned a lot of things driving the Rally4 cars, and in the last few rallies we showed some good speed. So I think we progressed a lot and I feel I’m ready to step up to Rally2. Of course, it’s a very competitive category with a lot of good drivers so it will be very interesting to see how we can build up the pace and our skills. It won’t be easy to be at top speed immediately, but I believe we can have a good learning process and hopefully we can fight for top results in the future. I would really like to thank TGR and the people who are supporting us, because without them this would be impossible. It allows me to focus on rallying and it’s a very rare opportunity.”

Nao Otake:“In the two years since I joined the program, a lot has changed for me. It was not easy and it has been challenging, but it has given me great experience to take into the future. I have learned a lot of good things, not just in rallying but also as a person. Naturally, it is disappointing for me that I will not be able to continue with the program in Europe next year, but I am pleased that I will still have the chance to keep competing in rallying. I want to say a big thank you to TGR and everybody who has supported me. I have never given up during my career, and I will keep pushing in Japan next year. I hope to show my speed and everything that I have learned from this program.”

Mikko Hirvonen (TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WRC Challenge Program chief instructor):“Hikaru, Yuki and Nao have all done really well with the program over the past two seasons. They have made very good progress, and it has given them great experience in rallying and life in general, as they’ve been living alone, a long way from home. Unfortunately, we couldn’t offer all three the chance to continue with us in Europe, so we had a difficult decision to make. Yuki has been really strong and has always been able to perform when everything has been working technically. Hikaru came to us with not so much rally experience, but he worked really hard to make big steps and was able to catch up, which impressed us. Nao has also been very strong and working hard, and we are really happy that TGR will continue supporting him and that he has this chance to drive in the Japanese championship. We really believe that he can do well there, and we will stay in touch and try to support him as best as we can from afar. For Yuki and Hikaru, the program will get more difficult now they are stepping up to Rally2. The competition will be harder and the pace will be higher, but we are excited to see what they can do when we push them even harder.”