Hiroki Arai (left) and Takamoto Katsuta were chosen for the Toyota young rally racers training program.

Toyota rally young racers’ training program selects Hiroki Arai & Takamoto Katsuta, both aiming for WRC

On June 3, racers Hiroki Arai and Takamoto Katsuta, who were selected for the Toyota Gazoo Racing Challenge Program which supports and trains world-class young racers, talked about their resolute aim to become top world racers during an interview in Tokyo.

The Toyota Gazoo Racing Challenge Program conducted an open recruitment targeting experienced racers who are 26 years old (on or before April 1st of this year) and below, who are officially authorized by JAF to participate in the race without category. A total of 71 applicants gathered during the event. Seven participants were selected from the document screening. Four of them expressed their willingness to participate in the second screening (driving, physical condition, etc.) held at the rally center in Finland from the first week of April up to the first week of May. After that, two participants, Hiroki Arai and Takamoto Katsuta, were selected (announced as of May 26).

The next two screenings were comprehensive, thanks to the help of their program lecturers in Finland, Tommi Mäkinen, who had a total of 24 wins in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) and was a WRC champion for four consecutive years in 1996-1999, and Mikko Hirvonen, who had a total of 15 wins in WRC and participated in the racing until last year.

As to why he selected them, Mäkinen said in a video message, “Both of them have strong mentality.” He added, “They just need more training. As much as possible, we support both of them by enhancing their individual skills.”

Their fathers are both top rally racers in Japan (Toshihiro Arai and Norihiko Katsuta) and they were both born in 1993, but Hiroki Arai is a year younger by academic year as he was born in August (Takamoto Katsuta was born in March). The 21-year old Arai had his rally race debut in 2013 and he has already participated in the Japanese Rally Championship (JRC) and Australian Rally Championship.

“I first drove a Kei truck after obtaining my license. I really love driving. Rally racing is about battling with your co-driver (navigator); this fascinated me as it is similar to a pitcher and catcher in baseball. I was drawn to it,” Arai expressed.

Looking forward to the future, Arai said, “As for me, I am hoping to participate in the WRC if given a chance. However, I think that it is necessary for me to gain more experience for now, and aim for the European Rally Championship and other contests one at a time. I want to be driver that will have an excellent time even in the WRC.” Right now, the challenge is for him to concentrate and enhance his physical strength for the second half of this long stage in the racing.

As for Takamoto Katsuta (currently 22 years old), he also has a unique point of view regarding his career. He had been regularly engaging in circuit races since his debut in the Racing Kart Shop Blute in 2005 until last year, and he ranked 2nd place in the 2013 Japanese Formula 3 Championship. In the same year, he started participating in rally races and consequently won a class title at the JRC in 2014.

“I love both rallying and racing, but both are not easy fields. In order to reach the top, it was really necessary for me to commit myself to challenges I had to face. Certainly, there were conflicts, but everything I have to do know I have made clear,” Katsuta talked about his outlook after shifting from the general racing to rallying. “The rally racing is difficult based on its characteristics, and I still have insufficient experience. I think that I’m still lacking even in driving techniques. I will gain more experiences for the upcoming European Rally Championship in 2017 and work hard to be good enough to participate in the WRC in 2018 to 2019.

The two of them are scheduled to be trained by Mäkinen and others in Finland on the last week of June until the first week of August, and they also plan to join as a wildcard entry at the Finnish Rally Championship and Polish Rally Championship from August to October. They will also join in the JRC in Japan as drivers of Team Toyota Gazoo Racing. Toyota supports their growth to become the best line of rally racers in the world.

As both of them grow, we are anticipating their journey towards the foremost line of WRC and the return of Toyota as a works effort for the 2017 season. Regarding this matter, Toyota’s Tatsuo Horikawa (group head of Motorsports Marketing Department, First Motorsports Promotion Team N) was in charge of this program. While he said that that is a tough road, he states, “Since it’s a world championship, I think these two will have a sensible judgement and great condition by that time. Of course, we, in Toyota, will always be mindful as well.” Like the tennis player Kei Nishikori, it would be a great thing if they will someday be able to wave the flag and honor Japan through their activities.” They have great expectations.

Arai and Katsuta are standing at a very short distance towards their dream of battling for championship in the WRC as the Japanese racers driving Toyota cars. However, despite this seemingly short distance, they still have a long way to go. Clearly, their devotion and vigor, along with the progress of this program, are evident.

(Translated by Claire Marie Sausora)