Formula 1

Why Yuki Tsunoda’s remarkable rise to F1 cannot be stopped

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Yuki Tsunoda looks set to be named an AlphaTauri F1 driver just two years after he was racing in Japanese F4. But his incredible progress in that short time now outweighs his inexperience, making his graduation for 2021 almost a no-brainer.

When the Formula 2 field finally lined up for the start of the 2020 season at the Red Bull Ring in July, it was hard to pick a favourite from a large number of potential candidates, such was the quality on show. Very few were as bold as to pick out Yuki Tsunoda as a championship contender – as you can see here, Formula Scout certainly wasn’t.

Helmut Marko publicly set his Japanese charge a target of finishing in the top four in the championship in order to earn a superlicence, but this seemed like another case of a Red Bull junior driver being set the sort of unrealistically high expectations under which they have so often crumbled. After all, Tsunoda had gone into 2019 yet to start a race either outside of Japan or above Formula 4 level, having won his domestic series the previous season.

Yes, he had impressed with his progress during his maiden European campaign. As well as fighting at the front in Euroformula from the off with his Motopark team-mate and fellow Red Bull prospect Liam Lawson, he gradually got to grips with the challenges of FIA Formula 3 with Jenzer Motorsport, claiming a podium finish on a Saturday at Spa-Francorchamps and a win on a Sunday at Monza. By becoming one of the strongest drivers on a very strong grid by the end of the year, he had already exceeded expectations once.

But to then go up to F2 and keep performing at a similar level would surely be too much of an ask – or so said conventional logic. While clearly promising, Tsunoda’s talent still looked very raw: see his fairly bruising weekend with Hitech GP at the Macau Grand Prix, as his one-off team-mate (and fellow Red Bull junior) Juri Vips lapped effortlessly at the front throughout.

That conclusion looked to be proven right on the very first racing lap of the F2 season, when Tsunoda clattered into his Carlin team-mate Jehan Daruvala. But the back-to-back weekends at Red Bull’s home circuit would demonstrate Tsunoda’s remarkable ability to learn, improve and make up for disappointment. A week later, he qualified on pole position and led a large portion of the feature race in soaking wet conditions.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency/Red Bull Content Pool

In the middle of the race, a radio issue did expose Tsunoda’s inexperience, when he took too long to see his pitboard telling him to pit for fresh wet tyres (or to make the decision to come in regardless) and lost too much time to Robert Shwartzman, who beat him to victory. But Tsunoda had already shown he could be a force to be reckoned with as an F2 rookie.

When his first win came at Silverstone it was gifted to him by Prema team-mates Shwartzman and Mick Schumacher colliding in front of him in a sprint race. But he was soon fighting for glory in a feature race once more, thanks in no small part to his increasingly strong qualifying form. He took his second pole position at Spa, and in the race he went toe-to-toe with the uncompromising Nikita Mazepin, and forced the Hitech driver into a defensive move that ultimately fell foul of the stewards on the cool-down lap, handing Tsunoda the win. Another pole came at Sochi, where he and Carlin then didn’t have an answer to the most commanding drive of Schumacher’s season.

That was also Tsunoda’s standout drive of the season so far as far as his Carlin engineer Matt Ogle was concerned. Ogle was also new to F2 this year having made a similar step up from FIA F3 – albeit after several years with Carlin in various categories. Indeed, he knows what it’s like to work with a future F1 star, having engineered Lando Norris to his European F3 title in 2017 – after going pretty close two years earlier with Antonio Giovinazzi.

“I was particularly impressed with him at Sochi during race one,” Ogle told Formula Scout prior to the final rounds of the season in Bahrain. “He was dominating the race but then had some difficulties passing some cars on an alternate strategy.

“He quickly dropped to third after being forced off line and picking up a lot of dirt on his tyres but he regained his composure and was able to fight back to P2. I thought that showed how far he has come during the year.”

He might not have got the win, but Tsunoda’s championship position and his stock were both on the rise. In the two-month break from F2 action that followed Sochi, preparations began to ramp up for an F1 debut with a test in a two-year-old car at Imola following the circuit’s grand prix return. Marko made it clear that Tsunoda would be racing for AlphaTauri in 2021 as long as he clinched his superlicence.

Photo: Scuderia AlphaTauri

He therefore arrived at the season-ending Bahrain double-header under an increased media spotlight, as well as the twin pressure of being in with a shot at the championship but not yet over the line for his superlience. And that pressure appeared to show when he spun and stalled on his first flying lap in qualifying, condemning him to the back row of the grid. But his fightback to sixth in the feature race was superb, making use of Carlin’s strong pace around the Sakhir circuit.

His spirit in adversity has been evident throughout his short spell so far in Europe. Alongside his Monza FIA F3 win, there was another defining image of his 2019 season that involved a close battle for the lead with Lawson: their Euroformula collision at Spa. Both drivers were pretty desolate, possibly out of fear for the reaction of their team principal, after a collision that was not their first of the Euroformula season. But Tsunoda seemed to get over the dejection of the result quicker than his team-mate.

Similar qualities were on show again in the F2 season finale on Bahrain’s wild Outer loop. A puncture from early contact in the previous weekend’s sprint race had meant Tsunoda could hardly afford another bad weekend in his superlicence quest now that he was down from third to fifth in the championship. His title hopes were all but over too: he needed a perfect weekend and a maximum score of 48 points to even stand a chance.

By claiming his fourth pole of the season in qualifying, winning the feature race and charging through to second in the sprint behind team-mate Jehan Daruvala (with the fastest lap along the way), he came mightily close, missing out on only five points. With both Schumacher and Virtuosi Racing’s Callum Ilott having below-par weekends, Tsunoda finished just 15 points behind the champion and one behind the runner-up.

Tsunoda’s performance in the most important race weekend of his life was the mark of a driver who had not only fully found his confidence in European racing, but in the Dallara F2 2018 car too. That was no doubt helped by his Carlin team being the one to beat on both of Bahrain’s track layouts, and the British team can take plenty of the credit for the development of Red Bull’s latest F1 prospect. This, some 20 years after it made its name by turning another rapid Japanese racer – Takuma Sato – into an F1-ready talent.

Language barriers and culture shocks are often naturally part of the process for young Japanese drivers heading to Europe, like they would be in the other direction. But Tsunoda has evidently gelled well with Carlin this year.

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

“I think he sometimes comes across in the media as being quite a shy and timid character but the reality couldn’t be any more different,” Ogle says.

“He’s a very funny and cheeky guy with a brilliant sense of humour. Always making jokes – often at my expense!”

The perception of Tsunoda’s shyness, which by all accounts disappears once you spend some time with him, can be pinned down to how his English can sometimes be broken in media interviews. While there is definitely room – and a need – to improve on that before he races in F1, it doesn’t seem to have held him back the cooperation with his engineers.

“During debriefs things with Yuki are generally very straightforward,” says Ogle. “He always knows how and where he can drive better in the next session. He’s also very clear with what he wants from the car in order to go quicker but it is never over complicated; just a few tweaks to the balance and the rest he can take care of with his driving.”

That ability to adapt his driving to the complex demands of F2 is impressive and valuable in a year when understanding and getting the most out of the 18-inch tyres has been critical to achieving results on a consistent basis. Tsunoda’s quality in that regard even earned him an end-of-season award from Pirelli, voted for by the paddock.

“It’s really special for me, especially as it’s only two years that I’ve had to adapt to the Pirelli tyres, because I came first time to Europe last year for FIA F3, and I think in F2, F3, the biggest thing is to learn the tyres,” said Tsunoda upon receiving the award. “And if you want to win the championship, you need a really good understanding about the tyres.

“I got a lot of experience from Carlin and they tell us how to drive and how to make the tyre better in a wider race. And I learned race-by-race, and in the end, especially today, was the best race for me in the whole season, especially in tyre management, so a big thanks to Pirelli for giving me this award.”

The scale of Tsunoda’s improvement from his first race of 2020 to his last is pronounced. The push from Red Bull (and Honda) for superlicence points took him to New Zealand in January for the Toyota Racing Series, where he was pitted against Lawson and a list of F3-level stars in Regional F3 equipment on Hankook tyres. He finished 105 points short of the champion (equivalent to more than a round’s worth of points), and his performances didn’t even bear merit in Formula Scout’s season review, despite winning on his second start in a series known for refining drivers on the road to F1.

Photo: Bruce Jenkins / Toyota Gazoo Racing NZ

This wasn’t Tsunoda’s first time outside of Japan nor in a new car – he’d spent the whole of 2019 switching series and vehicles in Europe – but this time things didn’t seem to click. After his sole win at Highlands Motorsport Park, he stated: “Everything is new: new car, new circuit especially. I’m really struggling to adapt to the car.”

That fact seemed to hold him back in qualifying in particular, and he only made the podium again twice on his way to fourth in the standings. He did at least demonstrate his battling racecraft, most notably coming from 16th to fourth at Pukekohe. But overall, his TRS campaign did little to dispel the idea that he was being pushed towards F1 too quickly by Honda’s desire to promote a Japanese driver and Red Bull’s dearth of F1-ready talent.

That perception has gradually been overturned by the impression Tsunoda has made in F2, culminating in that performance in the final round in Bahrain. When Honda announced its shock withdrawal from F1 at the end of 2021, there were immediate question marks over Tsunoda’s future, but the truth was that he was now a strong enough prospect for Red Bull regardless of his Honda backing.

The biggest complication, aside from the superlicence issue, could have been the possibility that Red Bull might replace Alex Albon with a driver from outside of its own pool, and therefore want to place Albon back at AlphaTauri alongside Pierre Gasly. But, again, Tsunoda’s performances have made the case that he should be in F1 next year irrespective of what’s happening with any other driver.

Adjusting for the current system, only nine drivers have scored more points as a rookie in GP2/F2 since 2005 than Tsunoda has done this year. Six are still active in F1, two became world champions and one is Formula E’s most recent title runner-up.

Tsunoda wasn’t simply a rookie this year, either. In a crop of newcomers that included FIA F3 champion Shwartzman as well as rivals Marcus Armstrong, Daruvala and Christian Lundgaard, he was quantifiably the least experienced driver in the championship on the basis that he’d only had one year’s racing since graduating from F4 – even if that did take in both FIA F3 and the more traditional form on offer in Euroformula.

That lack of experience will still understandably raise concerns about Tsunoda being put into F1 too early. After all, we’ve been here before with Red Bull, when Daniil Kvyat was promoted prematurely and arguably paid a long-term price for that lack of development time. But unlike Kvyat, Tsunoda has raced in F2 – and he has absolutely mastered it by the end of the season.

Yes, he could have returned for a second season and continue to learn by trying to manage a championship bid under the weight of expectation, against much of the same opposition he’s beaten in this year’s standings. Or he could take on a different challenge against professional drivers in Super Formula.

However, the momentum that Tsunoda has right now after such a remarkable rise is too much to be ignored. Above all, he deserves his place on the F1 grid next year, and has proven that no challenge is too big for him to overcome.

Additional reporting by Elliot Wood

Photo: Scuderia Alpha Tauri

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