Toyota is fast shedding its dull Sunday driver image with an increasing array of fun-to-drive vehicles, such as the GR Supra sports car. Globally, the brand is making a name for itself by winning titles both in the World Rally Championship (WRC) and the World Endurance Championship (WEC), as well as clinching overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times in a row.

Over here, UMW Toyota Motor has been holding the Toyota Gazoo Racing Festival and the Toyota Vios Challenge since 2017, pitting celebrities and professional racers against each other. Now, the company is providing a stepping stone for promising youngsters with the Gazoo Racing Young Talent Development Programme, feeding go-kart and sim racers aged between 14 and 20 to the one-make series.

This initiative scouted and drafted six budding drivers based on their karting and sim racing accomplishments, overall performance and level of commitment. They will be coached by a group of instructors before being provided race seats in the fourth season of the Vios Challenge, having been undergoing on- and off-track training at the Gazoo Racing School since September.

The six drivers are sim racers Naquib Azlan, 20 and Mika Hakimi, 17, as well as karters Amer Harris, 17, Jwan Hii, 18, Putera Adam, 14, and Troy Eimann, 16. Naquib, a mechanical engineering undergraduate, has big ambitions for his motorsports career. “At 20, I may be too late for Formula 1, but my aim is to become a world champion in any of the racing series,” he said.

Mika has never driven an actual car before but spends an average of four hours a day practicing on a simulator. “The biggest difference will be the physical sensation, something you don’t experience on a simulator,” he said. “This will be an advantage because you can actually physically feel how the car is reacting on the track. It will all come down to getting a proper rhythm.”

By contrast, Putera Adam, the youngest of the rookies, already has eight years of competitive go-kart racing under his belt. He’s been the Asian champion twice and finished twice on the podium at the WSK Super Master Series in Italy. “My ultimate goal is, of course, to become a Formula 1 driver and the opportunity to be in this programme is a step closer to reaching my goal.”

Jwan Hii is awaiting entry into university and sees the programme as a natural progression from karting, which he has been doing competitively for four years. “I’ve always loved cars from when I was a kid…It is a great opportunity that not many people get, and I am truly blessed,” he said. “If I do well in this programme, the goal will be to try to find a seat with a team competing in sedan car racing.”

The Young Talent Development Programme is not the only avenue UMW Toyota has created for talented drivers. The distributor has also held the Gazoo Racing Velocity Esports Championship over three seasons and claims to still be the only local car company to be associated with esports.

The most recent champion, Taj Izrin Aiman Taj Madira, brought his talents to the regional arena in the GR Supra GT Cup Asia, where he finished second. The tournament, which used the Gran Turismo Sport racing game, featured 15 drivers from Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and India.

Taj Aiman narrowly missed out on the top prize of US$6,000 (RM24,900) – which went to Singapore’s AR Muhammad Aleef – but still bagged US$3,000 (RM12,500) for his efforts. “It has been a phenomenal year for me, having won the Toyota GR Velocity Esports Championship, given the honour to represent Malaysia and going on to finish second in the GR Supra GT Cup Asia. What an incredible experience,” he said.