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Catching Up With Ryo Hirakawa

By RJ O'Connell

On the morning of 19 July, 26-year-old Ryo Hirakawa took pole position for the first round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series at Fuji Speedway, driving the new number 37 KeePer TOM’s Toyota GR Supra GT500. That afternoon, he and co-driver Nick Cassidy led 64 out of 66 laps, en route to a dominant pole-to-win performance and scoring the maximum points available.

Just over a month later, Hirakawa was at Twin Ring Motegi on 30 August for the first round of the Super Formula Championship. Driving for Team Impul under the wing of the legendary Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Hirakawa took pole position and then went on to lead all 35 laps in a clinical, commanding victory. In between, Hirakawa and Cassidy built the foundation of a Super GT title challenge with finishes of 4th at the second round at Fuji, and 7th at the third round at Suzuka Circuit.

But even before Hirakawa’s plans for the 2020 season were revealed, he suffered what appeared to be a setback when he suffered an injury in pre-season training camp in Guam. Several months later, a fully healthy Hirakawa, who was already regarded as one of Super GT’s very best drivers – a proven champion, the youngest Japanese driver to win the GT500 title in Super GT – looked even better than before.

So we were fortunate enough to catch up with Hirakawa, after the Suzuka race on 23 August, to talk about the challenges he’s had to overcome, and the challenges still to come, in 2020.

© Sho Tamura / Red Bull

“I had an accident during training camp, while I was running, I stumbled and fell, and broke my collarbone,” explains Hirakawa. “That was all the way back in January. I missed a couple of pre-season tests, so I was at a bit of disadvantage. However, I rehabilitated intensely, and dedicated time towards learning the new car, focusing on setup work.”

In some ways, the novel coronavirus pandemic forcing the world into lockdown might have been a blessing for Hirakawa as he rehabilitated his broken collarbone.

“Thanks to the COVID situation, I had more time to get healthy. And that actually helped out a lot, in that I was in even better shape than before I got injured. And by the time I was able to test again, I had a better understanding of the car,” he says.

“Most of my off-season was actually dedicated to training and rehabilitation. Also, I built my own simulator at home, so I played on it a lot.” Like many of his fellow drivers, Hirakawa filled the void of “full-carbon” racing action with sim racing, taking part in virtual exhibition races promoted by Super GT and Super Formula in the Playstation 4 title Gran Turismo Sport.

© Sho Tamura / Red Bull

In time, Hirakawa and his peers returned to the real circuits, giving him the chance to continue his work in developing the fifth-generation Toyota GR Supra before its racing debut.

When asked about his role as a development driver for the 2020 Toyota GR Supra GT500, Hirakawa discussed the key areas that he along with the rest of Toyota Gazoo Racing paid the most care and attention towards. “Tyre development was the most important thing, so we focused on that the most during the development of the new GR Supra. We also spent a lot of time testing different setups.”

“The biggest change with the new car was the loss of downforce, especially at the front, because of the new regulations. So we’ve worked hard in developing that area of the car, in order to get back the performance that we’d lost from the previous Lexus LC500,” says Hirakawa. Of course, this year is the start of a new set of GT500 regulations referred to as “Class 1+ɑ”, which brings all of the GT500 cars from Toyota and rivals Honda and Nissan into total technical congruence with Super GT’s partners at the DTM.

In Super GT, success is the result of a team effort, and Hirakawa has always held his TGR Team KeePer TOM’s co-driver Cassidy in high regard. “Nick is very good at the start of races,” Hirakawa says of Cassidy. “He always passes a few cars at the start of a race, in the opening laps, and that always helps a lot. Also, he’s good at thinking of strategy and setups. Between the two of us, we try not to make mistakes, and I think that’s very important when competing in Super GT.”

© Sho Tamura / Red Bull

Along with minimizing mistakes, Hirakawa brings many more of his own strengths to the table as a driver. Ever since he broke into GT500, he’s been a solid qualifier and one of the best wheel-to-wheel racers. As he’s matured, he’s developed incredible consistency in his race stints. One attribute that Hirakawa points to is his strength on the brakes. “Some people say I’m good at braking. So maybe my strength is on the brakes!” he says of his own driving style.

At the fourth round of the season in Twin Ring Motegi, Hirakawa and Cassidy came from 13th on the grid to finish 6th, their fourth top-ten finish of the year – and their 26th in 28 races as co-drivers at TGR Team KeePer TOM’s. They did this despite working with a heavy Success Ballast handicap, including a fuel-flow restrictor on the engine that sapped from their maximum horsepower.

They also did this despite a collision between Cassidy and the sister TOM’s Supra, the #36 of Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sacha Fenestraz. Cassidy was sent spinning after trying to overtake Sekiguchi, but after dropping to 11th, Cassidy would recover to 6th. The duo of Hirakawa & Cassidy are now within 5 points of the lead in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship after four races.

© Toyota Motor Corporation

I asked Hirakawa about the relationship between the two TOM’s squads, a subject that has become the topic of discussion once again. “I can say that the number 36 team is always going to be our nearest rival. We do things our way, and they do things their way most of the time,” says Hirakawa, who acknowledges the rivalry, but also expressed a desire for greater cooperation across both sides of the garage.

“In my opinion, if we can work together more, then the entire team can be even stronger.”

When asked about what it will take for Hirakawa and Cassidy to win an elusive second championship after back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019, Hirakawa emphasized that their form in the second half of the year will be critical.

“I think what is really important is going to be our performances later in the year, especially in the last three races or so,” says Hirakawa. “So we need to be ready and have a good car for it. Since our car is already heavy due to the success ballast, we’ve been spending a lot of time working on setups to maximise our performance.”

© Sho Tamura / Red Bull

From the moment he broke into the highest levels of Japanese motorsport with Toyota Gazoo Racing as a teenage phenom, Ryo Hirakawa’s skill and speed as a driver has always been held to the highest regard.
It was a journey that began when his father got him started in karting at the age of 13. After becoming a champion, Hirakawa would make the step up to single-seaters in 2010.

© Team RSS

Once he made the step up, the accolades kept rolling in, as Hirakawa would become the youngest champion in nearly every series he competed in. He was Okayama International Circuit’s Super FJ Champion in 2010, at age 16, and he ended the year by winning the FJ Masters race at Suzuka at the end of the year. In 2011, he was the JAF Formula 4 West Series Champion, at age 17.

But the year that truly established Hirakawa as a potential future star was in 2012.

© Toyota Motor Corporation

“2012 was a big season for me. That year I raced in All-Japan Formula 3, Formula Challenge Japan, and Porsche Carrera Cup Japan. And I was struggling to drive in PCCJ. It required a much different kind of driving style than I was used to in single-seaters, and I had to manage the tyres quite a bit during the race. That was a great challenge, but I learned a lot of things in that year.”

In his debut season in All-Japan F3, Hirakawa won seven of the first nine races in his Toyota-powered Dallara and clinched the championship title with four races left in the season.

Despite the challenges with managing tyres and the expectations of carrying the Porsche scholarship, Hirakawa took seven consecutive victories in the 2012 Porsche Carrera Cup Japan series, en route to winning the championship, with two races in hand. He reset the record as the youngest champions in F3 and Carrera Cup, at 18 years old.

© Porsche

And in Formula Challenge Japan – a manufacturer-backed forerunner to the FIA Formula 4 Championship of today – Hirakawa nearly claimed his third title in the same season. Honda-backed Nobuharu Matsushita took the championship on the second-placed tiebreaker.

Hirakawa was set to rocket straight up to the top steps of Japanese motorsport. Toyota signed him as a factory driver and the star of their rebooted Toyota Young Driver Programme, which had once sent the likes of Kazuki Nakajima and Kamui Kobayashi to Formula 1.

At 19 years old, Hirakawa made his Super Formula debut, and then he made his Super GT debut in 2014 at age 20 – the latter, replacing Nakajima for two rounds, while Nakajima was honouring his commitments to Toyota in the WEC. By 2015, at age 21, he had gone full-time in both series.

© Toyota Motor Corporation

Maybe because of the initial hype of Hirakawa’s arrival at such a young age, there were struggles in the early years of Hirakawa’s top-level career. “I think the hardest race I’ve ever driven was back in 2014 in the Fuji 500km when I filled in for Kazuki Nakajima in the 36 car,” recalls Hirakawa. “I remembered struggling so much to pass the slower GT300 cars.”

In particular, it was in just his second racing lap in a GT500 car where he tried to pass the #11 Gainer Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, only to make contact and send both cars spinning. He managed only one podium finish in his first three Super Formula campaigns, from 2013 to 2015.

But before long, his confidence would grow. He had to be assertive through traffic to pass his way from 3rd to 1st and win the 2015 Super GT season finale at Twin Ring Motegi on a damp track – just laps after he almost skidded off into the gravel.

 

© Toyota Motor Corporation

2017 was the year Hirakawa made the leap from a great, promising GT500 talent to a perennial title contender. It started with Red Bull making him their first Japanese auto racing athlete in the off-season, a partnership that lasts to this day. He and Cassidy opened the year by winning in their first race, and the Lexus LC500’s first race, the first time a manufacturer swept the top six places in a Super GT race.

They finished in the top ten in every race, added a pole-to-win victory in Buriram, Thailand, in the penultimate race of the season, then clinched the GT500 Championship for TOM’s with a second-place finish at Motegi. It made Hirakawa and Cassidy the youngest GT500 champions of all-time, Hirakawa being the youngest Japanese-born champion at age 23.

Even as Hirakawa has matured, he hasn’t lost that swashbuckling flair for dramatic action. Last September at Autopolis, driving through more dodgy weather, Hirakawa spun out with 10 to go. Then he made an incredible come-from-behind drive to the podium, one that saw Hirakawa pass 4 cars in one lap, and sent the entire TOM’s crew in the garage into a frenzy, with Cassidy high-fiving every person in sight.

© Sho Tamura / Red Bull

When asked about his favourite races, Hirakawa mentioned the one-time former crown jewel of the Super GT calendar, the historic Suzuka 1000 Kilometres. “I used to like driving in the Suzuka 1000km. That was really a long race compared to other Super GT races, but I really enjoyed driving in it. Also, I like driving in the first and last rounds of the season, where there is no Success Ballast handicap.”

As for his favourite circuit? “Okayama is special to me because it is kind of my home track.” The former home of the Formula 1 Pacific Grand Prix, Okayama International Circuit is a 3-hour drive away from his home town of Kure, a coastal city in Hiroshima Prefecture.

In just his third career race, Hirakawa claimed his first career GT500 pole position at his home track at Okayama. He prevailed in a race-long battle with the Raybrig NSX of Naoki Yamamoto and Takuya Izawa, where at one point, in heavy rainfall, Hirakawa began pulling away by as many as 7-8 seconds per lap! Hirakawa took pole again at Okayama in 2016, won there again in 2017 in the Lexus LC500’s debut, and had a string of four straight podium finishes that ran through 2018.

Not to mention, in his last Super Formula start at Okayama, Hirakawa qualified on pole and bolstered his championship lead with a fourth-place finish.

“Early in my career, I didn’t have as many peers to help me along the way. But now, I look to the success of Yuki Tsunoda who is racing in the FIA Formula 2 Championship, and Takuma Sato in the IndyCar Series. Their success is a good motivator for me,” says Hirakawa, a forward-thinking young man who, in a 2019 column for Red Bull, acknowledged that in spite of all the factors working against him, he would still love to race in Formula 1.

Away from the track, Hirakawa is one of many Japanese people who’ve taken up golf as a pastime. “Golf is my favourite hobby. But it’s funny, I play golf to try and relax, but I always end up getting frustrated over my swing and my scores!”

At the end of 2020, Nick Cassidy, Hirakawa’s long-time Super GT co-driver, will all but surely depart Japan for a new career in the FIA Formula E Championship. As for Hirakawa, he hasn’t been on the international radar since a two-year excursion to Europe in LMP2 racing from 2016-17.

Hirakawa won three races in the European Le Mans Series over two years, claiming victories at heritage circuits like Imola, Spielberg, and Monza. And of course, his ties with top LMP2 teams like Thiriet by TDS Racing and DragonSpeed G-Drive Racing ensured him two entries in the fabled Grand Prix d’Endurance, the 24 Hours of Le Mans – but both times, his races were compromised by mechanical gremlins.

“I quite enjoyed racing in Europe. I adapted well to the teams and the tracks. The only difficulty for me was the jet lag!” recalls Hirakawa of his time racing out west.

In between, Hirakawa tested Toyota’s TS050 Hybrid, became their reserve driver, and looked certain to race for the factory team in 2017. However, when it came time to select drivers for the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours, Toyota selected his Super GT contemporary Yuji Kunimoto, fresh off a Super Formula Championship title, instead. 2019 GT500 Champion Kenta Yamashita, another prospect of the Toyota Gazoo Racing Driver Challenge initiative, is now slotted in as Toyota’s factory endurance racing star of the future, the heir apparent to Nakajima and Kobayashi when and if they’re ready to step away.

But as the top class of endurance racing is changing in the near future, from LMP1 to Le Mans Hypercar, there might still be an opportunity for Hirakawa to work his way back into the fold at Toyota Gazoo Racing and get the chance that was said to have passed him by. “I think I just need to focus on achieving more results in Japan – but I’d be happy to race again at Le Mans in the future,” says Hirakawa.

© Team RSS

“I haven’t given much thought to racing in the U.S. either, but it would be a good opportunity to race there, if it comes up.” Hirakawa’s one visit to America for racing came in August 2013, where the teenage driver tested an IndyCar for Dale Coyne Racing. While Toyota has no more vested interest in IndyCar, perhaps a run at the 24 Hours of Daytona may be in the cards – if there’s still interest from Lexus to go racing in IMSA’s new top category, LMDH.

But even if there is no return to the international stage, which would be a great shame, frankly, Hirakawa is already writing an incredible legacy of his own in Super GT. Winning another title or two in GT500 and reaching double-figures in career victories before the age of 30 is certainly a possibility, and would easily cement his place as one of the series’ all-time greatest drivers.

© Sho Tamura / Red Bull

Good health and professional opportunity willing, Ryo Hirakawa has at least another 15 years in front of him to write every chapter of his racing legacy. Which is where I asked, what he hopes to have accomplished by the time he is ready to step away from the front lines of Japanese motor racing as a driver.

“That’s a very good question,” says Hirakawa. “I want to be remembered as a driver that everyone knows and respects.”

“And I’m always thinking to myself, ‘how can I be faster?’”