Toyota inducts three new drivers to its WRC Challenge Program

Hikaru Kogure, Nao Otake and Yuki Yamamoto are working to be ready to compete in Rally4 cars on European rallies by the second half of 2022


Toyota Gazoo Racing has revealed the names that will follow Takamoto Katsuta into its WRC Challenge Program with the long-term aim of breaking more Japanese drivers into the World Rally Championship.

Hikaru Kogure (20), Nao Otake (21) and Yuki Yamamoto (24) have all done rallying in Japan and will begin their association with Toyota this week with a pacenoting program. They then move to Finland in April, being worked up to be ready to compete in Rally4 cars on European rallies by the second half of 2022.

The WRC Challenge Program has been in operation since 2015, before Toyota’s return to rallying’s top flight, and Katsuta was one of the first two drivers selected. He now drives full-time in the WRC and came close to winning Safari Rally Kenya for Toyota last year.

For the latest group of inductees, applications opened last August and from 60 names the list was whittled down to eight who were flown from Japan to Finland to undergo a two-week training camp using Toyota’s own GR Yaris road cars as well as crosskarts and Rally4 cars. Four-time WRC title runner-up Mikko Hirvonen was the chief instructor, and was supported by fellow Finns Juho Hänninen, the 2012 European Rally Champion, and Jouni Ampuka.


The focus was on trying “to select the drivers who we felt have the most potential for the future” rather than current levels of ability, according to Hirvonen, particularly as most of the group of eight had not driven on snow or ice before.

“The three drivers we’ve chosen showed good determination to learn and make progress in their careers,” Hirvonen said.

“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.”

Profiling the Katsuta successors

Hikaru Kogure

A karter from 2006 onwards and racing against future Formula 2 and IndyCar stars while in Europe, Kogure switched to rallying in 2020 in the TRD Rally Cup organised by Toyota’s Customizing & Development division. Last year he competed in the JAF East Japanese Rally Championship in the BC2 class, he came second in the points with one class win. Has already cited improving his English as “a big part of the challenge” of returning to Europe for rallying.

Nao Otake

Dirt tracks was where Otake spent his teenaged years, before joining the Nutahara Rally School junior team of multiple Japanese Rally Champion Fumio Nutahara. That led to a competitive rally debut aged 18 and he was national champion last year in the JN3 class with three wins. He said “it was quite a shock to hear my name being called” as a new program member, and says the transition from rear-wheel-drive to other forms of power delivery through the wheels will be the biggest thing for him to get his head around.

Yuki Yamamoto

The only one of the three to be born before current WRC points leader Sébastien Loeb made his world championship debut, Yamamoto started his rallying career in 2018 in the TGR Rally Challenge. He took part in and won the final two rounds of last year’s Japanese Rally Championship in the JN6 class. He will need to adapt to the snow-covered roads when he gets to Europe.

Words:Ida Wood