Rob Leupen's story: From HR manager to managing director of Toyota Gazoo



interview rob leupen toyota on his remarkable career in motorsport
29 May at 17:00
  • Ludo van Denderen

At first glance, it is a remarkable story: a friendly Dutchman who rolled into the world of motorsport as an HR manager - somewhat by accident - and rose to become the Team Director of the highly successful Toyota works team in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and, within Toyota Racing, to Managing Director. Although Rob Leupen (60) now co-leads one of the biggest motorsport teams in the world, he may not be so well known domestically. So time for a background story.

The conversation with GPblog has barely started, and Leupen says, "No, I don't work here because of the press or the fame. I'm at Toyota Gazoo Racing (Toyota's motorsport division) because it's just a nice company and I have a nice job." In other words; he is not a celebrity like Christian Horner or Toto Wolff - executives in Formula 1 - and that does not bother Dutchman Leupen at all. In endurance racing, however, he can more than rival Horner and Wolff in terms of success.

Toyota, the top endurance team in recently

Since 2012, the team led by Leupen has won the Le Mans 24 Hours six times, the Toyota Gazoo drivers have won the WEC's premier class five times and the Japanese based in Cologne have won the constructors' championship six times. Definitely not crazy for someone who had no background in racing before starting at Toyota. In fact, his early career led Leupen through a company in Aachen (Germany), after which he joined EMI Music as an HR manager.

"At the time, Toyota Team Europe in Cologne was looking for a head of human resources and they chose me. Yes, it was a coincidence that I ended up in this sport, but to be a bit arrogant: You have to have certain qualities, of course. You have to speak your languages, you have to know what you are doing. Actually, I never worked in the Netherlands; but I did work for a company with branches in the Netherlands. And my wife is German, an important reason why I ended up here. Then you get to compete with Toyota in Formula 1, with Le Mans. If they then want to keep you, it means you did well."

Working with Japanese colleagues

Once at Toyota, Leupen helped develop the company into what it is today. Currently, he is "the man in charge", he laughs to himself. Working together in management, Leupen does so, for example, with Kamui Kobayashi, the former F1 driver who is currently the racing team boss of Toyota Gazoo. Since Toyota is a Japanese manufacturer, there are obviously more Japanese members working within the organisation.

"It's a different way of working," Leupen explains about the interaction between Europeans and Japanese within Toyota. "The Dutch culture is a very direct one. The English culture is also quite direct and clear. The Japanese culture is sometimes more cumbersome. Even after 30 years, I'm still learning how things should be done sometimes. It is important that Japanese colleagues work with us, because we also have to coordinate with Japan since our powertrain comes from there. That's also the interesting thing about the job. You don't do this in the Dutch or European way. No, you're just bringing those cultures together. That takes some time."

Toyota are deliberately based in Germany

According to Leupen, the fact that Toyota have based their racing division in Germany since 1979 years is a conscious choice: "I think at this level in motorsport, you belong in Europe. How many teams at this level are in Japan? Zero. This is because of several reasons, for example to build a chassis, you should be in Europe. Then we in Germany are still a bit of an outlier because they are either in England or in Italy. In that respect, Toyota supported us quite strongly. We still benefit from the adventure in Formula 1 at the time (which ended after 2009) today. If you are in Germany, or you would be just across the border in the Netherlands, you are very international."

Toyota Gazoo's record proves that the approach of Leupen and his team is the right one. "The team works well together," Leupen notes with satisfaction. "With us too, there are complaints, mind you. With us too, there are people who are sometimes dissatisfied. But then you have to say, 'Okay, you are here to work with the other people at Toyota to deliver the best job'. I think then everyone's honour is diminished. You work with good people. If someone has a bad day, you shouldn't throw them out straight away. We think we take good care of our people. We have a physiotherapist there, they have a trainer for fitness. So again, we try to take good care of everyone. Although, of course, there is always room for improvement."

Absolute top drivers like to choose Toyota

And if the cars and the people are among the best, that attracts top drivers in endurance racing. Nyck de Vries, for example, came to the team last winter, hoping to take the WEC world title with Toyota. "That's a vision you have, that's part of it," Leupen says about aiming for the absolute top drivers in the world.

"We want to have the best possible drivers AND you see that we then work with them for a long time. It's not like: in, out. Buemi, for example, has been with us since 2012. He was young then, now he is starting to get a bit older. Then you notice that we are just a good team. Yes, we are maybe the benchmark. You then also have to have the material to show that you are the best."

Leupen has worked for Toyota for around 30 years; someone with a wealth of experience at the absolute top must be highly sought after by the competition, right? Leupen laughs: "No, I am no longer interesting to those people. Other teams never called. Maybe they think: 'That Rob has been there for so long, he doesn't want to leave'. I'm just comfortable here. I don't want to say it's 'my team', but it's a part of me. Many people I know well. I'm still always moving. I don't feel like I'm standing still. There are plenty of challenges. It's always exciting."