Any racer would consider their career a success if they had raced in Formula One, taken the Le Mans 24 victory thrice, an FIA WEC world championship, and two Formula Nippon/Super Formula championships. That’s exactly what Kazuki Nakajima has done since joining forces with Toyota back in 1999. The 36-year-old driver has had a monster career that anyone would be proud of, and after this weekend’s FIA WEC season-ender 8 Hours of Bahrain, he’ll be stepping out of the cockpit for good.
There is a chance that Nakajima will continue to race in Super Formula with the Toyota squad, but he’s not ready to tell the world if that is the case or not. “There is, of course, a bit of sadness to be away from a race drive,” he told Motorsport. “But also I am really looking for the future already: I have some sadness and also have a positive feeling.”
It is likely that he will continue to serve a role in the Toyota Gazoo organization as a mentor and advisor for young Japanese driver Ryo Hirakawa. The 19-year-old will likely be filling Nakajima’s seat from next season onward as Toyota continues to invest in its FIA WEC Hypercar program. The team is going to need a strong and young driver squad to press forward competitively as a handful of other manufacturers rush to join the series in the next few years. Getting drivers experience in the car and with the championship ahead of teams like Porsche and Peugeot joining the field of competition is vital to the Japanese automaker’s continued success.
While Nakajima’s victories at Le Mans all came when Toyota was largely competing against itself in the 24, he was painfully close to the victory when something broke on his car in 2016. Despite close competition from Porsche, the Toyota team had earned their victory and had it snatched away at the last second. Heartbreak.
In 2007, following the retirement of Alex Wurz, Nakajima elevated to Formula One with the Williams-Toyota team. He managed to score nine world championship points in 2008, but Williams was hardly in a position to fight for the title. Perhaps in a better car he could have done much more. The bulk of his success came at the wheel of Toyota’s hybrid Le Mans prototypes, taking some 16 FIA WEC victories in nine seasons with the Japanese manufacturer.
He will be missed on the grid, but hopefully he will be a great part of the team going forward.