24 months ago the name Yuki Tsunoda was an unknown name to many. Fast-forward to 2021 and the Japanese driver is preparing to take on the world in F1, the pinnacle of motorsport. How rapidly this 20-year old has risen through the ranks. You could be forgiven for thinking that the daunting task of driving the most advanced and fastest cars in front of millions of viewers will phase Tsunoda. But looking at his recent history, I don’t think so…
Ahead of the 2019 season, 24 months ago, Tsunoda was coming off the back of his Japanese Formula 4 championship win. Perhaps those who feverishly follow all the junior series might’ve taken note, but the racing programmes in Japan haven’t exactly been the place to look for up and coming teenage talent. The Honda Formula Dream Project, for example, only has Nobuharu Matsushita racing in F2 as its crowning glory. Why would Tsunoda be any different?
Nonetheless, two years ago, Yuki raced in Europe for the first time. Not just a new continent, but a new car specification above any formula he’d ever competed in. As GP3 shook off its title in favour of Formula 3, Tsunoda joined the 2019 F3 season. This was a time when Honda were Red Bull’s saviour after their divorce from Renault and a successful year working with the Japanese engine supplier at Toro Rosso. The fateful decision to have Tsunoda as both a Honda Formula Dream and a Red Bull Junior driver was made.
Without any F3 experience, or any running at the “traditional” European venues, Tsunoda embarked on not one, but two Formula 3-level championships. As well as racing FIA Formula 3, he and fellow Red Bull Junior, Liam Lawson, competed in Euroformula, too.
That double helping of experience seemed to work wonders throughout 2019. Nine podium visits across both series wasn’t a bad return. All three of the FIA F3 silverware thanks to Yuki’s drives at the tail end of the season, too; a real sign of development. And all sixty-seven points for Jenzer Motorsport that year came from Tsunoda.
As well as getting to grips with the car and the racing, Japanese drivers have an additional challenge. Any eighteen-year-old kid plucked from the familiarity of East Asia and dropped into the wild western European way of living without knowing English is in for a tough time. Add in the pressure of two global mega-corporations of Red Bull and Honda, and an F3 9th place championship finish of 30 drivers should be considered an absolute win. Not necessarily on the racetrack, but in showing Tsunoda could handle pressure of the highest degree.
Roll on 2020 and a big step up to Formula 2. Not just a graduation but a move to Carlin… A team where what feels like a quarter of F1 graduates raced at some point. Vettel, Norris, Kvyat, Magnussen all had stints with the British outfit. Ricciardo, Sainz and Kubica enjoyed racing the Macau GP with them, too.
So after 2019 where the stakes were raised massively for Tsunoda, here comes 2020 when the same thing happens again. And how does Yuki handle it? Well, once he got a teammate crash out of the way in the first round, pretty impressively.
Four pole positions, seven podiums, and three wins helped Yuki Tsunoda to third place in the championship, just one point shy of Callum Ilott in second. Perhaps most spectacular performance was his double-podium finish at Sakhir in F2’s season finale. Not just because of the pole position together with P1 and P2 finishes, but because these came amid Tsunoda being under the spotlight.
Ahead of Formula 2’s trip to Bahrain, Helmut Marko indicated that an F1 seat awaited Tsunoda. But in order to fill it, Yuki needed to finish fourth in the championship in order to get the necessary super license points. A disastrous Bahrain Grand Prix where Tsunoda’s qualifying mistake meant he started from the back row for the feature race had him leave the weekend 5th in the standings. A 33 point turnaround on Ilott had Yuki leapfrog Mazepin and Schwartzman back to 3rd, and finish only 15 points behind title winner Schumacher.
Perhaps Tsunoda wanted a touch of drama, but personally, I think Red Bull would’ve been happy with two weekends of point-scoring finishes. Anything to clinch P4 in the championship. But a dominating Sakhir race weekend full of headlines is certainly on-brand for the energy drinks company.
Now Tsunoda enters 2021 as an AlphaTauri driver. A Formula One driver. The stakes can’t get higher than this, can they? Aside from a seat at Red Bull in the season, AKA the Albon manoeuvre, probably not. But for a man whose entire time since he left Japan just 2 years ago has been all about higher and higher expectations, don’t be surprised when Yuki surprises you this year.