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Kobayashi 'joke' triggered Nakajima's Toyota WEC reserve return

Kazuki Nakajima has revealed that what he considered a “joke” from Kamui Kobayashi was the impetus for him becoming Toyota’s World Endurance Championship reserve driver this season.

#284 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Germany powered by Ring Racing: Toyota GT86: Kazuki Nakajima

#284 TOYOTA GAZOO Racing Germany powered by Ring Racing: Toyota GT86: Kazuki Nakajima

Jan Brucke/VLN

Three-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Nakajima retired from racing at the end of the 2021 season, taking up a role as Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe’s vice-chairman as Ryo Hirakawa took over the vacated seat in the Japanese marque’s #8 line-up in the WEC.

Despite having been retired for more than a year, the 38-year-old was named last month as Toyota reserve for the 2023 season, replacing Formula 1-bound Nyck de Vries.

Explaining the background to his call-up ahead of this weekend’s Sebring season opener, Nakajima said Kobayashi - who dovetails his Toyota driving duties with a team prinicpal role - suggested that he replace de Vries, a remark Nakajima thought was made in jest initially.

“It was decided that Nyck was going to F1, and we had to look for a new reserve driver,” said Nakajima.

“But because there are now so many manufacturers participating and the driver market is booming, we knew that finding a driver who would be a good fit would be tough.

“He [Kobayashi] was the first to bring it up. He said, ‘wouldn’t it be fine if you just did it?’

“Honestly, when I first heard that, I said ‘no, no’, I thought he was half-joking. But a lot of people took the ‘joke’ seriously and finally that was what was decided.”

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TGRE technical director Pascal Vasselon declared that Nakajima “came back at exactly the same level has he left” when he undertook two days of testing over the winter with the revised Toyota GR010 Hybrid.

Nakajima revealed that a relative lack of training since he hung his helmet left him feeling sore: “The driving part was fine, but afterwards my muscles hurt for two or three days!”

Kazuki Nakajima, Toyota

Kazuki Nakajima, Toyota

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Toyota topped both of Wednesday’s two practice sessions at Sebring, but Ferrari emerged as the defending champions’ nearest rivals in both outings.

Nakajima thinks both Ferrari and Cadillac, which topped a session during last weekend’s official Prologue test, will be formidable rivals in Friday’s race.

“Ferrari upped the pace a lot, and looking at the long runs, they showed a performance that makes us think they are so close that we can’t discount them,” said Nakajima.

“Cadillac has also been consistently towards the top of the times, so I think it’s become clear that this Sebring race is likely to be a tough battle against them.”

Conversely, Nakajima said he observed the Porsche 963 appeared hard to drive on Sebring’s notoriously bumpy track surface.

“I can’t say much without having actually driven the car, but from the outside it looks like it’s suffering the most over the bumps,” he said.

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