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Analysis

Toyota facing dilemma over WEC junior Miyata’s 2024 plans

Toyota WEC Challenge driver Ritomo Miyata looked nailed on for a European racing programme in 2024. But schedule clashes with SUPER GT have given the Japanese manufacturer a fresh headache over what to do with its new protege.

Ritomo Miyata, VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

When Miyata was unveiled earlier this year as Toyota’s latest Japanese protege in the World Endurance Championship, he initially was optimistic that his new role wouldn’t prevent him from continuing to race in SUPER GT with the TOM’S squad.

But hopes of being able to race in both championships were dashed when the 2024 SUPER GT schedule was revealed, featuring two clashes with WEC races: Round 5 at Suzuka (August 31-September 1) falls on the same weekend as the Austin WEC round, while, as per this year, the Motegi season finale conflicts with the WEC’s Bahrain visit (November 2-3).

Initially, it was expected that Miyata would forgo SUPER GT in favour of racing in Europe, possibly in the WEC’s new LMGT3 class (racing in LMP2 for a full season, as Kenta Yamashita did in 2019-20, will no longer be an option from next year).

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However, following recent meetings between senior Toyota staff and TOM’S, it now appears possible the 24-year-old could stay in SUPER GT after all, although the driver himself recently told Motorsport.com that nothing is decided yet.

“Toyota has been supporting me a lot trying to find a seat for next season, but I still don’t know what opportunities there are,” Miyata said. “There are clashes with SUPER GT and WEC, and the WEC won’t have LMP2 outside of Le Mans.

“Of course if Toyota gives me the chance to race in Europe, I want to do it even if I can’t race in SUPER GT. But even this year, I can’t do the rookie test in Bahrain because of a clash with the final round of SUPER GT at Motegi. Everything is difficult, but let’s see.”

 

Miyata leaving would pose a major headache for TOM’S, which has had to contend with the exits of Nick Cassidy, Ryo Hirakawa and Sacha Fenestraz in the last three years - and just as Miyata and Sho Tsuboi have hit their stride as team-mates in the #36 car.

It had been suggested that TOM’S would recruit a driver from overseas in the event of losing Miyata, but it’s possible that the bitter of experience of 2022, when Tsuboi shared a car with Giuliano Alesi, may have made Toyota reluctant to risk pairing Tsuboi with a rookie again.

Even if he doesn’t race in the WEC, it still seems likely that Miyata will attend the races that don’t clash with SUPER GT, and potentially turn some laps of the GR010 HYBRID during the Le Mans test day, which, assuming it takes place the week before the race, no longer clashes with Round 3 at Suzuka.

A programme in the European Le Mans Series, which hasn’t yet announced its 2024 calendar, could provide an alternative avenue for Miyata to gain some experience of European tracks, including Le Mans, without sacrificing his ambitions in SUPER GT. 

Who will replace retiring Tachikawa at Cerumo?

Even if TOM’S doesn’t have to worry about losing Miyata, there will be at least one other spot on the Toyota GT500 roster to fill as three-time champion Yuji Tachikawa hangs up his helmet at the end of the year.

That will mean the first change to the Cerumo team’s line-up since Tachikawa was paired with Hiroaki Ishiura back in 2015. However, unlike for TOM’S, there appears to be an obvious solution waiting in the wings to step up.

Sena Sakaguchi is in the second year of his GT500 apprenticeship at Racing Project Bandoh, and is surely ripe for a promotion to a Bridgestone-shod squad, much as Miyata was at the end of the 2021 season.

Moreover, Sakaguchi also drives for the Cerumo/Inging squad in Super Formula, and has a close relationship with both Tachikawa and Ishiura.

Racing Project Bandoh is thought to have baulked at losing Sakaguchi at the end of last year, and pushed to retain him as TOM’S faced the prospect of losing Formula E-bound Fenestraz, despite Sakaguchi’s previous experience as a TOM’S stand-in in 2021.

 

But now Sakaguchi has helped the team to its long-cherished goal of a first victory in six years, it could be that Bandoh will come under pressure to relinquish him and welcome another Toyota junior driver to partner Yuji Kunimoto.

Kazuto Kotaka would appear to be first in line for such an opportunity, having already joined the Toyota Super Formula roster this season. Kotaka is driving in the GT300 class for the apr outfit, and has impressed with his speed in the all-new LC500h, even if the results have been lacking.

But Hibiki Taira, who is fighting for the championship in both GT300 with the Inging squad and in Super Formula Lights for TOM’S, also can’t be ruled out for a GT500 promotion.

It’s also worth noting that, even if Miyata ends up staying in SUPER GT, there could still be a vacancy to fill across the two-car TOM’S stable as Giuliano Alesi’s place in the team is not thought to be secure at this stage amid a disappointing run of results.

However, in the event that Alesi was to get the axe, TOM’S is known to favour recruiting an international driver over a youngster from the Toyota junior ranks, despite Taira's links with the team.

Motorsport.tv is showing all qualifying sessions and races for the 2023 SUPER GT season. For more information, click here.

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