How Toyota’s juniors coped on their Euro asphalt debuts

Yuki Yamamoto, Hikaru Kogure and Nao Otake headed to Italy's Rally San Martino at the weekend


Toyota’s Gazoo Racing’s WRC Challenge Program, the driver development project that brought Takamoto Katsuta into the World Rally Championship, has embarked on the first stage of providing its next batch of talents with international experience.

Last weekend, Toyota’s Next Generation squad entered Rally San Martino, a round of the Italian Asphalt championship, and with no two-wheel-drive FIA rally car of its own it was decided to enter three Renault Clio Rally4s for its drivers Yuki Yamamoto, Hikaru Kogure and Nao Otake.

All three had experience of asphalt rallying in Japan, but the trio have not competed there since last year as their development program with Toyota has taken place primarily in Finland and on gravel roads.

Although there was a lot of new things to learn in Italy, the cars were at least the same that the Japanese talents have been using in Finnish rallies.

Yamamoto, the oldest of the trio at 25, had the best time on Rally San Martino as he finished 24th overall and fifth among the Rally4 entrants, 37.2 seconds down on the class winner.

“I’m really happy with how this rally went because our goal was just to get as many kilometers as I can, so it’s really good to have finished this first rally in Italy,” he said.

“There were a lot of surface changes so it was really difficult to read the road and to work out where the grip is OK and where the road is slippery, especially in the conditions we had when sometimes it was dry and sometimes it was wet.

“This was the thing I learned most from this rally: that I need to be able to adapt based on what I can see with my eyes to brake and accelerate in the right places.”


The two-day event, consisting of one Thursday night stage and then a full day of rally action on Friday, ran for 57.3 miles and took place in a variety of weather conditions that posed the perfect learning weekend for the Toyota juniors as there were repeat passes of stages on asphalt that had very changeable grip levels.

Kogure and Otake finished 30th and 32nd overall, putting them ninth and 10th in the Rally4 class.

Both Yamamoto and Kogure had a stage where they were second fastest, and Kogure – who karted in Italy in his youth – called it “a really good and fun rally” that “was also tough and challenging” but admitted to have “left some margin in my driving” and was a “little bit slow” as he prioritised experience over pace.


Otake, on his first asphalt rally in a front-wheel-drive car, said it was “an amazing and different experience”, and compared to Japan’s asphalt rallies “the roads are not the same”.

The results were not the focus for WRC Challenge Program’s chief instructor Mikko Hirvonen though, who was impressed by how his three protegés had adapted to the rally’s challenges.

“The pre-event test was quite tough for them but they were able to stay calm for the rally itself and not get too excited,” said Hirvonen.

“There was heavy rain just before they started the first stage in the dark on Friday night but Yuki did a really good drive there, which we were quite surprised and impressed with.


“Saturday morning was also still damp in places but Nao and Hikaru – who we could see was really in his element with his circuit racing background – were able to do good times too in those tricky conditions.

“They were all fairly consistent also and although they still have a lot to learn with their pacenotes for asphalt, their next rally on this surface is going to be easier with this experience.”

Hirvonen was rallying on the asphalt himself at the weekend, but had more power to play with. He drove a Ford Escort Mk2 to sixth overall and fourth in class on the Wexford Stages Rally in Ireland.