Toyota Gazoo Racing confirmed the lineup for their third Toyota TS050 Hybrid prototype that will run this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. Joining French veterans Stéphane Sarrazin and Nicolas Lapierre will be 26-year-old Super GT superstar, and defending Japanese Super Formula Champion, Yuji Kunimoto.
Kunimoto will join fellow Super GT and Super Formula colleague Kazuki Nakajima, and an internationally-renowned cast of supporting drivers, for the 85th Grand Prix of Endurance on June 17-18, as Toyota looks to capture the one prize that has continuously eluded the company with escalating misfortune – an overall Le Mans victory.
It is a major breakthrough for 26-year-old Kunimoto, the 2011 All-Japan Formula Three Champion, reigning Super Formula champion from 2016, and a Super GT race winner in both GT500 and GT300 classes – most recently with his current team, Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh, in Buriram, Thailand last October.
Kunimoto, co-driver Yuji Kunimoto, and the entire WedsSport Bandoh crew enjoyed a breakthrough GT500 campaign all around in 2016, finishing fourth in the GT500 championship, scoring their first top-class victory, and their best championship results to date.
“This is really a dream for me,” said Kunimoto. “I never imagined that one day I could race for a team like Toyota at Le Mans so I am determined to make the most of this opportunity.”
The challenge of racing Le Mans will be new to the young Toyota racing star, but as he says, he’s ready for the task:
“I enjoyed my first tests with the TS050 Hybrid, which is a really impressive car. LMP1 and endurance racing in Europe are new to me so I am working hard to learn as much as I can from the team; I am sure I will learn a lot from Stéphane and Nicolas, who are both very experienced and quick.”
Kunimoto, Sarrazin, and reigning LMP2 World Champion Lapierre will pilot the #9 Toyota TS050 Hybrid, not only at Le Mans in June, but also at the 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps in Belgium on May 6.
This will mean that Kunimoto will miss the Fuji GT 500km Race on May 4, opening the door for reigning All-Japan F3 Kenta Yamashita to drive the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 in his place at the Golden Week classic.
Kamui Kobayashi, who will drive the WedsSport LC500 with Kunimoto later in the year at the 46th International Suzuka 1000km, will anchor the #8 Toyota TS050 lineup in the 2017 WEC season with Mike Conway and triple World Touring Car Champion José Maria “Pechito” López.
In the #7 Toyota TS050, it will be 2014 World Endurance Drivers’ Champions Sébastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson once again partnering Kazuki Nakajima – who races for Lexus Team au TOM’s this season in Super GT – who were so cruelly robbed of victory last year just five minutes and two laps away from the chequered flag.
Kunimoto, Nakajima, and the rest of the Toyota crew will be at Autodomo Nazionale Monza in Italy on April 1-2, for the World Endurance Championship Prologue event.