Toyota Gazoo Racing has announced Nicolas Lapierre and Yuji Kunimoto will be joining the team to drive the No. 9 TS050 Hybrid alongside Stéphane Sarrazin at the Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The 32-year-old Frenchman Lapierre returns to Toyota after being dropped from the team during the 2014 season, having raced for Toyota since 2012 when the manufacturer returned to Le Mans. Yet in 2015 and 2016 Lapierre showed his skills in the LMP2 class, achieving class victories at Le Mans in both years and winning the LMP2 title in the 2016 WEC season. 2017 will see him driving for Toyota in LMP1 at Spa and Le Mans while he will return to Signatech-Alpine in LMP2 for the other races.
Team president Toshio Sato said of Lapierre’s return: “We know Nicolas well and we have maintained a positive relationship. He is a very quick driver who understands what it takes to succeed at Le Mans so I am sure he will fit into the team quickly and easily.”
Lapierre himself said: “It’s great to be back with Toyota and I would like to thank the team for this opportunity. I’m really looking forward to racing an LMP1 car again because the cars have developed a lot since I drove the TS040 HYBRID in 2014.”
“The Spa race is coming around very quickly so I am fully focused on preparing myself for the new season. I have stood on the podium before at Le Mans with Toyota so my target is clearly to do that again this year.”
Super Formula champion joins Toyota LMP1 team
The 26-year-old Japanese Kunimoto is the defending Super Formula champion and the 2009 All-Japan Formula Three champion. Kunimoto is making his debut in the FIA World Endurance Championship, though he has sportscar experience from Super GT where he has raced since 2009. Kunimoto will continue racing in Super Formula and Super GT besides his two appearances in the WEC in 2017.
Team president Sato said on Kunimoto: “Yuji is a promising driver who has shown his speed and determination in Japanese racing. In testing he has been consistently fast, as well as a team player, so I am confident he will adapt to the demands of WEC.”
Kunimoto commented getting the LMP1 seat: “This is really a dream for me. 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. 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.”
Lapierre and Kunimoto will be joining Stéphane Sarrazin in Toyota’s part-time No. 9 entry for Le Mans and the preceding WEC round at Spa. The French veteran Sarrazin made way for the three-time World Touring Car Champion José María López who will make his WEC debut alongside Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi in the full-time No. 7 TS050 Hybrid. The other full-time entry, the No. 8, will retain its lineup from two previous seasons with Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson, and Kazuki Nakajima.