The term ‘breakthrough season’ is an often overused one in motorsport, but it really does apply to Yamashita’s 2019 campaign. Now a Super GT champion, a Super Formula race winner and with an LMP2 drive in the World Endurance Championship, the 24-year-old Toyota protege appears to be on a potential path to endurance racing stardom.
Yes, Team LeMans’ Super GT title owed a little to luck, as the team benefitted massively from winning the 500-mile Fuji race by just sneaking into the pits before the safety car was called. But Yamashita still upstaged his more experienced team-mate in the #6 Lexus LC500, Kazuya Oshima, soaking up the pressure from Nick Cassidy to take an emotional victory for the team in Thailand and later pulling off a ballsy overtake on Yuhi Sekiguchi in the Motegi season finale to ensure he and Oshima came away with the championship trophy.
Super Formula was an altogether tougher affair for Yamashita, the de facto team leader at Kondo Racing following Cassidy’s departure for TOM’S. Two non-scores in the middle of the season blunted his title charge, but a long-awaited first win came at Okayama, a track where the power advantage of the Honda runners was less of a problem. He ended up fifth overall but second in the ‘Toyota class’ behind Cassidy, notably beating two drivers he hopes to emulate one day: current Toyota LMP1 stars Kamui Kobayashi and Kazuki Nakajima.
In the summer, it was announced that Yamashita would be placed with the High Class Racing LMP2 squad in the WEC with the aim of preparing him for a future in international competition. In just three race appearances he’s already established himself as one of the quickest drivers in the secondary class, leading for a decent chunk of his home race at Fuji, and earning himself a test in Toyota’s TS050 HYBRID in Bahrain to boot. If he continues to impress as he has done up to now, a race seat with the Japanese manufacturer’s hypercar programme seems a matter of when not if.
Toyota WEC boss Rob Leupen on whether Yamashita could be an LMP1 driver one day:
Potentially yes, it’s why he’s here, but in the end, we’ll have to see. He’s a talent, that’s why he is where he is [in LMP2] at the moment. He did a great job in Super GT this season, also I was quite happy to see the job he did at Shanghai [in the WEC]. [Improving his English] is part of the training, and it’s something he’s aware of. I’m not too worried about it. He has definitely progressed since Barcelona – we’ll get him to where we need him to be.
Cassidy on his ex-Super Formula team-mate’s progress:
I know from being his team-mate [for two years at Kondo Racing in 2017-18], he’s very strong and it was interesting to see how he got on this year not alongside me. But I’m pleased he could lead that team and show his strength, as I did at TOM’S. I think it will make people look back on the previous years of us together [at Kondo] a little bit differently.
Yamashita on the biggest difficulty he faced in 2019:
This year I experienced five different categories [including Super Taikyu and the Inter Proto series as well as Super GT, Super Formula and the WEC], which was not too difficult. But in WEC, my English is not good enough to communicate with the team properly and it gave me a hard time. Sometimes I couldn’t find a suitable word when I wanted to explain my demands to the engineers and I also struggled to understand them if they speak fast. So, to understand and master English is an important target for the future.