Who’s Toyota’s new WEC protege?

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Followers of SUPER GT and Tremendous System will pay attention to Yamashita’s exploits in latest occasions, however for a lot of observers of the FIA World Endurance Championship, information of the 24-year-old becoming a member of Excessive Class Racing’s LMP2 squad for the 2019/20 season may have prompted greater than a few utterances of, ‘Who?’

WEC aficionados had higher familiarise themselves along with his identify nonetheless, as there is a sturdy likelihood he’ll be a part of Toyota’s hypercar programme sooner or later – probably as early because the 2020/21 marketing campaign if all goes nicely for the Chiba-born racer this season.

After beating Jann Mardenborough to title honours in All-Japan System three in 2016 with the factory-blessed TOM’S crew, Yamashita stepped as much as Tremendous System the next 12 months in addition to SUPER GT’s GT300 class. For 2018 he earned a spot within the Lexus GT500 secure whereas incomes his first Tremendous System podium, serving to Kondo Racing earn the groups’ title.

This 12 months, he and Kazuya Oshima are main the GT500 standings after back-to-back race wins for the LeMans Lexus squad at Thailand and Fuji.

Now Yamashita must juggle the SUPER GT title run-in with not solely Tremendous System however now additionally the opening races of the brand new WEC season, becoming a member of Anders Fjordbach and Mark Patterson on the new-for-2019/20 Excessive Class outfit.

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Information of Yamashita’s transfer to Europe got here by way of a press release referencing Toyota’s new ‘WEC Problem Program’, the endurance racing equal of the already-established Toyota Rally Problem scheme wherein Takamoto Katsuta is being groomed for a top-level WRC future.

However it instantly turns into clear chatting with Yamashita that communication is more likely to be his largest problem with regards to racing outdoors of his dwelling nation, his solely non-Japanese race expertise to this point amounting to a handful of Macau Grand Prix begins.

“I’m joyful to affix the WEC, however I’m very anxious about [speaking] English!” smiles Yamashita throughout a dialog with Motorsport.com throughout final month’s WEC Prologue take a look at at Barcelona. “My English continues to be very unhealthy, so I want to review.”

The dimensions of the problem Yamashita faces on this regard turns into clear when he admits: “On the crew radio, I might perceive virtually nothing!”

#33 High Class Racing Oreca 07 - Gibson: Mark Patterson, Kenta Yamashita, Anders Fjordbach

#33 Excessive Class Racing Oreca 07 – Gibson: Mark Patterson, Kenta Yamashita, Anders Fjordbach

Photograph by: Excessive Class Racing

Regardless of that not-inconsiderable impediment, Yamashita proved speedy sufficient at a sweltering Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. He set Excessive Class’s greatest time over the course of the 2 days, placing the Danish-entered crew fourth within the LMP2 timesheets.

Whereas the Oreca 07’s pace and downforce can show a problem for some drivers to adapt to, Yamashita’s prior expertise in Japan made his transition simpler.

“I drove Tremendous System in Japan, this automobile is sort of a system automobile,” he says of his Oreca mount. “Due to my expertise I can drive this automobile comfortably, no issues. Tremendous GT is quicker, tyre grip is increased there, this automobile has decrease grip, though it’s lighter.”

In fact, Yamashita isn’t the primary driver to be shipped over to the European sportscar scene by Toyota to be educated up for a top-level prototype future.

Ryo Hirakawa was in the same place in 2016, contesting a full season within the European Le Mans Sequence for TDS Racing and profitable two races that 12 months. However the 25-year-old is claimed to have underwhelmed when he examined the precise TS050 Hybrid.

The place that had been earmarked for Hirakawa within the third Toyota within the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2017 ended up going to a special Toyota protege, Yuji Kunimoto, who was in favour on the time as he had received the Tremendous System title in 2016. However he too proved to be disappointingly off the tempo at each Spa and Le Mans.

Yamashita due to this fact represents the primary try in over three years to groom a Japanese driver who can sooner or later attain the usual of a Kobayashi or a Nakajima, each on and off-track.

“I hope he can do an excellent job as a result of I believe he’s Yamamoto-level for positive,” says Nick Cassidy of his former Tremendous System teammate Yamashita, referring to Honda’s Naoki Yamamoto, the benchmark for Japanese drivers racing within the nation’s two top-level home collection.

“He’s actually sturdy. What will probably be powerful for him is working in English, an atmosphere he’s not used to, however by way of driving a racing automobile for positive he’s very quick. His English might be the principle factor that may cease him being a part of Toyota’s hypercar venture sooner or later.”

Kenta Yamashita, Kondo Racing

Kenta Yamashita, Kondo Racing

Photograph by: Masahide Kamio

It’s not solely language that makes it a problem for Japanese drivers transitioning to Europe and vice versa – it’s additionally the mentality wanted to work successfully with the engineers.

Cassidy explains that Japanese squads typically have a specific method of doing issues that drivers can generally wrestle to affect, a pointy distinction to the extra open, vital method of Western groups.

“[In the West] if we would like one thing, we ask for it,” provides the New Zealander. “In case you don’t like one thing in regards to the automobile, you say it. Whereas in Japan, it’s fairly frequent for drivers to not say an excessive amount of, since you don’t wish to upset somebody.”

One driver who is aware of all about making that transition is Kobayashi, whose administration secure takes care of Yamashita. And it’s clear the Le Mans lap record-holder and ex-F1 racer is keen to advise and assist Yamashita in any method he can.

“I do know him very nicely,” says Kobayashi. “However when you find yourself in search of a driver to develop and ship overseas, it’s not simple. It’s a special tradition, a totally completely different approach to work. He [Yamashita] has expertise, however he must handle nicely the opposite components.”

Yamashita himself says that his goal is to be a part of Toyota’s hypercar programme sooner or later, though he admits it will “rely upon my enchancment” in LMP2.

And the place does Yamashita see himself 5 or 10 years down the road? The reply is a predictable one: “With Toyota, profitable Le Mans!”

Kenta Yamashita, Kondo Racing

Kenta Yamashita, Kondo Racing

Photograph by: Masahide Kamio