In the final round of the 2020 season, in Bahrain, Yuki Tsunoda aced his final audition for a seat in Formula 1 with Alpha Tauri next season, securing his Super Licence in the season finale with the strongest and complete weekend of his Road to F1 career. In the space of one weekend, he scored a pole position, a third victory of the year in the Feature Race and a seventh podium in the Sprint Race.
Following today's announcement that this year's best rookie will debut in F1 in 2021 alongside Pierre Gasly, we take a look at five key moments on the 20-year-old’s journey from Formula 3.
1. SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS 2019
Arriving in Europe less than two years ago as a relative unknown, very few people knew what to expect of Yuki Tsunoda. Backed by the Red Bull Junior Team and the Honda Formula Dream Project, he’d only even raced in Japan and had next to no knowledge of the circuits in F3.
Inside of Red Bull, there was an expectation on Tsunoda to deliver, but outside of it, he was able to fly under the radar. The then Jenzer driver took just two points’ finishes from his opening seven races, but never finished outside of the top 14 as he slowly grew accustomed to the machinery.
The points began to flow from Round 4, but it was Round 6 in Spa where his season truly turned around. It was on that weekend that the world tragically lost Anthoine Hubert and Tsunoda is quick to credit the late Frenchman for the role he played in his career.
“I learned from him and raced for him,” Tsunoda explained. “The day after his accident, I got a podium for the first time that season.”
Just like his season up until that point, it was a no thrills and spills performance – the swashbuckling style we’ve gotten used to came later. Starting from third, the 20-year-old crept ahead of the more experienced Leonardo Pulcini in the opening laps and calmy closed out P2.
2. HIS FIRST VICTORY
Tsunoda’s maiden victory in F3 was the Road to F1’s first glimpse of the real Tsunoda. Brave, bold and aggressive, the 20-year-old began the day in sixth, but had made it all the way to third by the first corner alone.
The next couple of moves were just as slick as he fearlessly thew his Jenzer up to first, but Jake Hughes wasn’t about to make it easy.
The experienced Briton fought back and went side-by-side with him around the outside of Parabolica. That the Japanese driver daringly out-braked the Briton was a clear indication of his increased confidence. He was coming into his own.
3. COMING OF AGE IN F2
Tsunoda’s promotion into F2 came as somewhat a surprise. The Jenzer driver had impressed in the second half of the F3 campaign, but finishing ninth overall, most expected a second season in the third tier to follow.
But, Red Bull, Honda and Tsunoda were all confident that he could make the step up and perform. The 20-year-old is a quick learner and they felt that another season of F3 would ultimately stall his progression.
Finishing the very first Free Practice session of the season in first place was proof of his pace, but just like in F3, the first few races were a little trickier. Tsunoda failed to score in six of the opening eight, but sandwiched in-between those results were two Feature Race podiums – evidence that Tsunoda could make the step up.
Then came his first win, albeit it in unusual circumstances. Tsunoda had been chasing victory from third in the Silverstone Sprint Race, but had title rivals Mick Schumacher and Robert Shwartzman in front of him. The duo came to blows at Turn 6 and gifted Tsunoda the lead with two laps to go.
It’s probably not how he’d have envisaged his first F2 win, but Tsunoda’s stock was quickly rising.
4. TESTING F1 MACHINERY
Tsunoda’s first experience of F1 machinery was a learning curve. The Carlin driver got the opportunity at Imola in early November and covered 325km in the 2018 Alpha Tauri, in both wet and dry conditions.
The step up was noticeable, with the Red Bull junior admitting that he was “surprised,” by the power and physical demands of the F1 car, going on to say that his neck struggled to cope at times.
That makes the experience all the more important. Tsunoda now knows what to expect next season and will have worked tirelessly to improve himself. “I need to do lots of training until the next session or next event I drive Formula 1 to prepare a lot.”
5. SECURING HIS SUPER LICENCE WITH A DOUBLE PODIUM
After a sub-parr Round 11 by his own high standards, where he took sixth and 15th, the likelihood of Tsunoda securing a full Super Licence hung in the balance.
The Carlin racer needed to finish fifth in the Drivers’ Championship but had Christian Lundgaard breathing down his neck from sixth. He could hardly have achieved it in more dominant fashion, finishing first in three out of four sessions, and second in the fourth.
The weekend started with Tsunoda on top in Free Practice before he followed it up with his fourth pole of the year – only Callum Ilott has more. He then battled to a brilliant third F2 win in the Feature Race, brushing off tough challenges from Guanyu Zhou and Nikita Mazepin.
His most dazzling performance of the weekend came in the Sunday Sprint Race. Starting P8 on the reverse grid, Tsunoda’s charge through the field almost went unnoticed until he popped up in P4 at the midway point.
Shortly after, Ilott was mugged for third, before Tsunoda snatched second from Dan Ticktum in dramatic fashion on the final straight of the final lap. Anyone who wasn’t already aware, now knew that Tsunoda was special.