Yuki Tsunoda could be Red Bull’s most significant Formula 1 driver appointment in years. He is the most exciting driver to emerge in this stable since Max Verstappen. And he is a Formula 2 graduate of the ilk of George Russell, Charles Leclerc or Lando Norris.
Comparisons to Verstappen can never be made lightly. Verstappen is an impossible benchmark for his Red Bull Racing team-mates let alone a rookie driving at AlphaTauri in 2021 so this is not about comparing Tsunoda to Verstappen like-for-like as a driver.
In fact, before he even gets close to Verstappen’s level he’ll need to match or surpass the quality of a couple of the other proper drivers Red Bull has nurtured in the last decade – Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz (now, or in a couple of weeks, at Ferrari).
Gasly and Sainz were champions of F1’s primary feeder categories GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 respectively and arrived in F1 with plenty of promise and expectation.
There was so much to learn but I had to be a quick learner :: Yuki Tsunoda
But neither seem to have had the faith of Red Bull’s management – Sainz never more than a Toro Rosso driver with the stigma of a tense season as Verstappen’s team-mate keeping him away from Red Bull Racing long-term, Gasly a driver Red Bull never seemed fully convinced by and jettisoned from the senior team much quicker than he made it there.
Their respective seasons at McLaren and AlphaTauri in 2020 count as evidence that Red Bull misjudged them. Its losses have been others’ gains.
But there is something about Tsunoda that suggests he has a better-lit path to the senior team. And while we are getting a little ahead of ourselves given he will need to learn the F1 ropes and excel alongside Gasly at AlphaTauri before even contemplating the next step, the buzz around Tsunoda is only likely to grow.
There is a reason Red Bull is so excited by this driver and why he’s the first modern-day Honda protege to make it to F1. He’s very quick. He’s a great racer. He seems to have got over the language barrier and emotional immaturity that were the most obvious hurdles in his first year racing in Europe in the 2019 Formula 3 season.
But, above everything, Tsunoda has thrived with every challenge thrown at him.
A Honda protege in Japan, he was launched onto the F1 package in F3 for his first year outside his home country. And he won a race driving for arguably the worst team.
But there would be no second season and a title bid: no, Red Bull launched him up the ladder into F2. And he starred again, winning three races, scoring four pole positions and finishing third in the championship – top rookie and, in the end, damn close to winning the title not just finishing second.
So, this is a driver who gets thrown in the deep end and swims. Where else would Red Bull put him after a year like this, than straight into F1? That’s the fastest route to Helmut Marko’s heart, and a little in the Verstappen mould of jumping from karts to F3, then F3 to F1.
“There was so much to learn but I had to be a quick learner,” says Tsunoda. “Dr Marko was also expecting me to learn quick too.”
Sometimes it’s less about development and refinement and more about showing sparks of brilliance in difficult situations.
That’s a rudimentary approach, some might even say outdated, and Red Bull’s dearth of serious junior options in recent years suggests it has often paid the price for asking too much, too soon of its proteges.
However, Tsunoda breaks that chain. And it’s important to note Red Bull has been impressed by more than just his capacity to thrive under pressure.
“Yuki learned that races are not won in the first turn or in the first round,” says Marko. “He learned a lot and whenever it is important, he has amazing moves for overtaking, and he proved so in the last two Formula 2 races. This means he has an amazing speed, he is a small but smart driver.
“And beside his talent, being a good driver, he also has a good charisma which will influence the whole Formula 1, but of course also Japan.”
It will be very physically challenging for the first races :: Franz Tost
It is so exciting to consider the prospect of his first F1 season: how he will handle the added complexity, whether he can mature enough to work efficiently with the engineering team, which pitfalls he will avoid and which will briefly get the better of him, and most importantly just how fast he will be.
One thing that has been notable in Tsunoda’s F2 rookie season is the relative absence of blatant driving errors. For a driver with the CV of an old-school rough diamond he has smoothed out his edges quite rapidly on his ascent up the ladder. Of the leading F2 drivers this year, Tsunoda made fewer costly mistakes. And if the championship was decided on feature race results (i.e. the real part of the weekend) he’d have been champion.
Nobody gets to F1 as the finished article and there are bound to be many areas Tsunoda needs to improve, with some weaknesses bigger than others. There will also be key challenges as he learns new tracks, particularly early in the year, and the obstacle of only one-and-a-half days in the car in pre-season testing.
“That means for a young driver he needs a lot of mental strength but also it will be very physically challenging for the first races,” admits AlphaTauri team boss Franz Tost.
But Red Bull and AlphaTauri have faith, which is why they expect him to challenge Gasly sooner rather than later – with Tost setting the goal of making Q3 and scoring points once F1 moves to the European circuits Tsunoda is now more familiar with.
Tsunoda’s development has been rapid. His speed is evident. And his place as Red Bull’s new flavour of the months seems firmly secured.
It’s always thrilling when F1 welcomes a driver with seemingly boundless possibilities. Verstappen was exactly that. Red Bull seems to believe it’s found another.