Why Yuki Tsunoda is set to surprise F1 this season - MPH

F1

AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda has had a rapid ascent up the motor sport ladder. Mark Hughes explains why the Japanese driver could be a force in F1

Yuki Tsunoda, 2021 AlphaTauri AT02

Tsunoda arrives in F1 alongside two other 2020 F2 drivers, but may have been the quickest of them

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AlphaTauri’s new signing Yuki Tsunoda, less than half the age of Kimi Räikkönen, is the first person born in the new millennium to make it to F1 driver.

He’s remarkable beyond just that fact though. He has prevailed effortlessly within the ruthlessly competitive junior Red Bull programme. A Honda discovery from its Suzuka racing school, he’s enjoyed an astonishingly quick rise from nowhere and been instantly fast in everything he’s tried.

As a successful karter in Japan, as soon as he reached the required 16 years-old he entered Honda’s annual competition at Suzuka to discover the next generation of talent. The top two drivers in the trial would be awarded Honda backing in F4.

He finished a disappointed third. But running the on-track competition was Satoru Nakajima, Japanese racing legend and one-time F1 team-mate of Ayrton Senna. Given that this was Tsunoda’s first time in any sort of car, Nakajima reasoned that his pace actually warranted an extra prize.

“Those drivers [who were quicker] were more experienced than me and already driving in Formula 4,” Tsunoda later recalled. “Satoru Nakajima recommended that Honda sign me as well, although not initially as an official full junior driver, yet.” He then won the Japanese F4 championship.

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Honda transferred him to European F3 for 2019 and introduced him to Helmut Marko, who put him on the Red Bull programme after a stunning test at the Hungaroring. Despite knowing none of the tracks, he won a race. His first podium came at Spa the day after the fatal accident of his friend Anthonie Hubert in the F2 race.

His first victory came the following weekend at Monza. Marko was said to have been particularly impressed by the way he was able to focus out the emotion from the catastrophe. There was something a little different about this guy.

Maybe that convinced the tough taskmaster Marko that despite the lack of experience, Tsunoda was ready for F2 when a second title assault season in F3 seemed more appropriate. ‘Top five in the championship’ Marko told him was the minimum required to get an F1 superlicence. ‘Outside the top five and you’ll probably be back racing in Japan.’

Tsunoda didn’t believe that he need worry unduly about that. “If you’re a good driver you don’t need two years in F2,” he later recalled, citing the examples of George Russell, Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc.

Once he’d found his feet he was probably the quickest guy there. Discount those early races as got up to speed and he’d have won the title. As it was, his dominant performance in the Abu Dhabi sprint race helped secure him third.

Yuki Tsunoda, 2019 Monza F3

Tsunoda took his first win a week after the tragic passing of Anthoine Hubert, a moment that impressed Helmut Marko

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From there it was straight into the AlphaTauri for the young driver test in the days following the grand prix weekend. He’d had some previous experience in a 2018 Toro Rosso to get his neck muscles prepared but even so his handling of the F1 car was confident in the extreme, and even if his feedback was felt to be a little binary, there was no certainly no holding back in how he expressed it.

There’s a buzz about him. His tiny size (he weighs 54kg) makes for an impression that he’s younger even than his 18 years, yet he oozes confidence in his own ability to drive a car at the limit. Controlled aggression is probably the best way to summarise his style and there have been very few incidents to date.

“He may struggle a little at first,” says AlphaTauri’s team boss Franz Tost. “But I think he’ll be very competitive within a few races… He understands the technique of the car and he is very strong in fighting duels… If you tell Yuki something, he immediately knows what to do. He is also very good with the brakes and has a good feel for fast turns in particular. If we have a good car I’m sure he can surprise us.”

Marko is said even to be earmarking him for a possible seat alongside Max Verstappen in the senior team for ’22 – before Sergio Perez has even had his first race there. Maybe that really would be too much, too soon. But who knows? It wouldn’t be the first time Tsunoda had confounded expectations.