The Beyonders: Kazuki Nakajima, racing driver

Kazuki Nakajima

Toyota believes that small steps add up to substantial forward leaps. It’s a philosophy that resonates with many individuals across a wide variety of endeavours and occupations, a small selection of whom we have interviewed for this new ‘Beyonders’ series.

Each of the five extraordinary individuals will explain how they have taken steps beyond what anyone thought possible, leading to amazing outcomes that we hope will inspire others to become ‘Beyonders’ too. The series begins with Le Mans-winning Japanese racing driver and Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe vice-chairman Kazuki Nakajima.

Beyonder: interview with Kazuki Nakajima

What made you want to become a racing driver?

Kazuki Nakajima: My father was the main reason. He raced professionally in Formula 1 and it was the sport I was closest to when growing up. Even though I enjoyed many other sports, I loved the competition of motor racing and started in go-karts at ten years of age. So I’ve been motor racing for nearly 30 years now. It’s been a long journey.

What is it like to be a driver in the 24 Hours of Le Mans?

KN: It’s not easy to describe but Le Mans is to racing what the Olympic Games is for other sports. Normally in racing, you are more focused on the championship, and that is important. But Le Mans is a special event, so we put a lot of focus and effort on that one race – more than any other. So we tend to say that as soon as we finish Le Mans, we start our preparation for next year.

Would you describe it as ‘going beyond’?

KN: I would say that, yes. It’s my biggest goal throughout my career. That’s for sure.

What is your daily routine as a driver?

KN: When I’m not driving, it’s all about preparation: thinking through the details and working out what we can do better in the next race. We have a lot of meetings with the engineers to go through the data, and we also do a lot of physical and mental training. It’s a constant effort to try and improve things – to understand the car, our driving and how we can go faster. That’s a race driver’s routine.

What are some of your career highlights so far?

KN: The best moment of my career has to be that first Le Mans victory in 2018. It had been a long journey for [Toyota] to achieve that victory, but to go through the difficulties and achieve that big win on our seventh challenge was special. There have been other highlights, such as winning the Super Formula Championship in Japan and racing in Formula 1.

What do you think was the biggest contributing factor in your Le Mans victory?

Kazuki Nakajima: I’d say that it’s the accumulation of experience – good and bad, even mistakes. Each of them provides a useful step. It’s all about putting in the effort to find the improvement. Which means that every effort counts and every moment or step counts. If you missed one step at Le Mans, even in the preparation stage, the race will be over.

What has been your most difficult moment?

KN: I’ve had many difficult moments throughout my career. But the biggest and probably most well-known was at Le Mans in 2016. Five minutes before the chequered flag we were in the lead and set for a comfortable first victory, when we suddenly lost the race through mechanical failure. It was a tragic and very difficult moment. But at the same time it was a game changer for the team because we learned from the experience and it helped us to better prepare for the victory that came two years later.

How do you overcome moments of disappointment like that and not give up on bigger visions?

KN: The first thing is not to give up. It’s important to learn from experience but also to try to take positives from any difficult situation. Yes, we lost in 2016, but if you look at the overall race, we were doing well. There were no major mistakes on our part, we just missed a little bit of luck and reliability to complete the victory. As a team we took a positive lesson from the race and built up our confidence for the next, which stopped us from losing our momentum. Thankfully, Toyota has continued to support our World Endurance Championship programme. We mustn’t forget that without support we are nothing, and as long as there is opportunity, we have the chance to be successful.

What does success look like to you?

KN: Race wins and championship wins are the easiest way to gauge success in motor racing. But now in my role as vice chairman of Toyota Gazoo Racing in Europe, success has a different and broader meaning. It’s not just about winning; it’s also about developing young talent and trying to expand the motor racing fan base. It’s about finding ways for motor racing to contribute on a bigger scale to the world – delivering greater excitement but also contributing to the development of new cars and new technologies. My aim for ongoing success is to push motorsport in these directions. It’s not an easy thing to achieve but it’s something I’m looking forward to.

What does ‘going beyond’ mean to you? What is your advice for people reading this interview?

Kazuki Nakajima: I think it means to keep moving forward, to gain experience, learn from it, and make every little step count. Otherwise, you are always going to be stuck in the same position. My motto in life is the Japanese phrase ‘naseba naru ‘, which essentially means that you get out what you put in. Even if the result is a mistake, it’s something you can still learn from.

What’s the next big thing for you?

KN: I still want to win races and championships. But since my career has expanded into a wider management role, one of my goals is to attract and develop younger talent, to grow the value of motorsport overall. Carbon neutrality is a big topic now, and I believe there are many things we can push and develop with new technology contributed through motorsport. The goal is very big and maybe far away, but ultimately this is my challenge now.

If you were to describe three important steps in your ‘beyond’ journey, what would they be?

KN: I would say that every try, every mistake, and every effort counts in going beyond. When you know that everybody in your team is putting in that same effort it becomes less about the individual. It’s the best kind of energy to move forward. It’s the sum of all that that takes you beyond.

Read more in the ‘Beyonders’ series:

Billy Monger, racing driver
Ofentse Pitse, conductor
Samir Aït Saïd, gymnast
Ken Billes, car designer

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