December 6, 2020

How Toyota’s LMP1 reject became a formidable force

With the benefit of hindsight, the decision by Toyota to put Yuji Kunimoto in the third TS050 Hybrid for the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2017 at the expense of Hirakawa seems like a puzzling one indeed – and not just because Kunimoto’s performance turned out to be lacklustre.

If you look at both drivers’ respective records since then, Kunimoto has struggled to get anywhere near the heights he scaled in 2016, when he won the Super Formula title. Conversely, Hirakawa has gone from strength to strength, to the point that he has a legitimate claim to the label of Japan’s top domestic racer of the last few years.

For the want of just seven points across two seasons, Hirakawa and his TOM’S teammate Nick Cassidy could be three-time SUPER GT champions by now. Since 2015, nobody has won more GT500 races than Hirakawa, with Nissan pair Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli matching his tally of seven wins in that timespan and nobody else scoring more than five.

SUPER GT race wins since 2015:

And in Super Formula, Hirakawa is the form man, leading the championship after a lights-to-flag win in Motegi. In his last four starts in the series, he’s been on pole three times.

Rewind the clock to 2016, and Hirakawa was considered a shoo-in for the Toyota LMP1 seat that eventually went to Kunimoto. He impressed in his campaign in the European Le Mans Series, in which he and TDS Racing teammates Mathias Beche and Pierre Thiriet would have almost certainly won the title without an electrical problem in the season finale. His laptimes at Le Mans year were also up there with the top LMP2 runners.

It was driving the actual TS050 Hybrid itself during testing where a then 23-year-old Hirakawa fell down, as Kunimoto entered the frame with his Super Formula title and ultimately pipped his compatriot to the post in the race to join Jose Maria Lopez and Nicolas Lapierre on the roster for the third-string #9 Toyota at La Sarthe for the 2017 race.

#46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 05 Nissan: Pierre Thiriet, Mathias Beche, Ryo Hirakawa

#46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 05 Nissan: Pierre Thiriet, Mathias Beche, Ryo Hirakawa

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

And yet, Hirakawa feels the experience of rejection only made him stronger, giving him a desire to show his employers just what they were missing.

“I was so disappointed,” Hirakawa tells Motorsport.com, looking back on the episode. “It was at Portimao [during a pre-season test] when they said it. I was sad, but I had to accept it. didn’t do a good performance in that [LMP1] car, so I couldn’t say anything. My driving was ok, but the set-up and the experience was not there.

“I had a Super Formula test after that [deputising for the absent TOM’S drivers], I had a good test, I was fastest overall, and that year I won SUPER GT. That was tough for me, but it made me take a step mentally and everything. It was a good experience, actually.”

That year, 2017, was co-incidentally the start of the Hirakawa-Cassidy alliance in SUPER GT. In 2015 and ’16, Hirakawa had been partnered by Andrea Caldarelli, but when the Italian was moved across to join Team LeMans, sophomore driver Cassidy made the move across from the #36 TOM’S car to join Hirakawa in the #37, where the pair have remained since.

The partnership got off to a good start with victory in the very first race of the year at Okayama, which also marked the debut for the Lexus LC500. Another win followed later in the year at Thailand, which helped Hirakawa and Cassidy stave off a late charge by Nissan duo Matsuda and Quintarelli and win the title by two points.

Race winners #37 Team Tom's Lexus LC500: Ryo Hirakawa, Nick Cassidy

Race winners #37 Team Tom’s Lexus LC500: Ryo Hirakawa, Nick Cassidy

“When we started as teammates in ’17, I learned a lot from him as a driver,” says Cassidy of Hirakawa. “He’s always been super quick. In those days he was always doing some bold moves and being the guy attacking. Now he views the race in a broader way, which is good. But also every year we get on better.

“We had our difficulties at the beginning. We had some differences in opinion on tyre construction. I was still learning GT500 a bit; I was at that stage very much the second driver in the team. Ryo had been with his engineer [Masaki Saeda] on #37 for a couple of years already and I was the new guy, which is understandable.

“There were a few difficulties, but we still got the championship. Every year we’ve become more similar on set-up and tyre feeling as well. At the beginning we focussed on having a car that he likes, then we focused more on what I like, and now we trust each other.”

Hirakawa likewise says being paired with Cassidy has been vital in his own development, something that has also shown in Super Formula – where he drives for Team Impul and holds a 14-point championship lead after just two races so far this season.

Ryo Hirakawa, Team Impul

Ryo Hirakawa, Team Impul

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

“He has a lot of experience and knowledge, especially about the set-up,” says Hirakawa of his Kiwi SUPER GT partner. “I’m learning a lot from him about the set-up, and that helps in everything, even in Super Formula. His strong point in set-up and thinking about the strategy. I’m stealing from him! It’s been a good experience, actually.”

Hirakawa and Cassidy became very close to becoming two-time champions the next year, only missing out to Honda pair Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button in a final-round shootout at Motegi, and last year the drivers of the #37 TOM’S Lexus were very much the ‘moral champions’ of the season – only losing out to Team LeMans pair Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita because of the pitting-under-FCY controversy at Fuji.

Indeed, compared to the established ‘grandee’ pairings like Matsuda and Quintarelli or Cerumo Toyota duo Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura, the record of Cassidy and Hirakawa compares more than favourably, especially when you factor in the fact that the pair are both still only 26 years old – more than a decade younger than Quintarelli or Ishiura.

“I’d say we’re the benchmark [pairing], probably,” says Cassidy. “We’ve never finished outside the top two of the championship, and this year we’re in a really strong position to get another championship. We’re very close as a pairing to being three-time champions. I’m proud of the fact we’ve always been right there, and this year is no different.”

#37 TOM'S Toyota GR Supra: Ryo Hirakawa, Nick Cassidy

#37 TOM’S Toyota GR Supra: Ryo Hirakawa, Nick Cassidy

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

With three races to go in SUPER GT this season, Hirakawa and Cassidy are only a point away from the championship lead, having won the season opener at Fuji and having banked solid points in every race since, even from unpromising situations. The most recent race at Fuji, where the pair finished fourth despite suffering from engine trouble, was a case in point.

It’s quite the turnaround from the pre-season, when Hirakawa broke his right clavicle in a training accident in Guam and Cassidy fell ill during Sepang testing, limiting his running at the wheel of the all-new Toyota GR Supra during a critical stage.

Hirakawa jokes that he’s “starving” for a long-awaited second title in SUPER GT before cautioning: “Last year we thought we would be good for the championship, but Team LeMans won at Fuji with such a heavy car [with the help of the FCY]. So, we just have to keep pushing as much as possible and see what happens; that’s all we can do.”

While Cassidy has bagged his international break with a drive in Formula E with Envision Virgin Racing for 2021, Hirakawa is still waiting for another shot on the global stage. A cameo appearance for TOM’S at the DTM’s Hockenheim finale last year has been his only race outing away from Japan since the final round of the 2017 ELMS season.

Ryo Hirakawa, LEXUS TEAM KeePer TOM's, Lexus LC-500

Ryo Hirakawa, LEXUS TEAM KeePer TOM’s, Lexus LC-500

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Cassidy is convinced that Hirakawa would do a much better job in an LMP1 car now than when he was first given the opportunity to race in Europe, saying: “He would be a lot stronger. I think he was very fast back then, but he’s more experienced now, and he’s proving that in Super Formula as well [as SUPER GT].”

Hirakawa admits there’s been “not so much” contact lately with Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe, which runs the LMP1 programme, acknowledging that Super Formula title rival and current TGR-E protege Kenta Yamashita is “doing his job”. Still, he doesn’t exclude the possibility of another chance coming up in the future if he keeps up his current form.

“I hope it’s going to happen, but it’s not in my control,” he says. “I just focus on racing in Japan; even in Japan the level is so high. Nobody knows about the future, so I’ll just do the best job I can, and we’ll see what happens. Now I feel much stronger, and if another chance came, I think I could make it. I have confidence.”

For the immediate future at least, Toyota is focussed on grooming Yamashita, who clearly deserves his call-up. But, should TGR-E find itself in need of another Japanese driver in future, it could certainly do far worse than give Hirakawa a second chance.

Ryo Hirakawa, Team Impul

Ryo Hirakawa, Team Impul

Photo by: Jun Goto

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