If you ask Yuki Tsunoda where to get the best Sushi from, he will not tell you a place, he’ll tell you a moment in time. Sushi tastes best after you’ve received good news, says the Carlin driver, and that is exactly what he is fighting for this season: good news sushi.
The last few years have been a whirlwind for Tsunoda; he arrived in Europe less than two years ago, with just three years’ experience in single-seaters and next to no knowledge of the circuits.
Backed by the Honda Formula Dream Project and Red Bull, he flew under the radar in the first half of his Formula 3 rookie season, acclimatising to a new continent and an entirely new Championship.
Arriving from Japan, it was difficult to know what to expect of Tsunoda, but two years on and he’s at the heart of the Formula 2 title battle and the forefront of rumours for a seat at Red Bull’s sister team Alpha Tauri. He’s forged a name for himself as one of the brightest young talents in motorsport, bold and aggressive, yet calculating and clever. Standing at just 5ft 2in, Tsunoda is the shortest driver on the grid, but he’s got guts as big as any.
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Born in Kanagawa, Japan, Tsunoda clambered into a go-kart as young as four-years-old and was asked by his father whether he preferred four wheels or two. Without hesitation, he chose the former.
Age limits in Japan restricted him to karts until he was 16 – the rule is 14-years-old in Europe – but Tsunoda wasted no time when he did make the step-up, finishing third in a Japanese Championship where the prize for first and second was a contract with the Honda junior team.
“They chose to take the first and second placed drivers,” Tsunoda recalled. “That’s what they normally do, but those drivers were more experienced than me and already driving in Formula 4. Satoru Nakajima - who raced in Formula 1 - was in charge and he recommended that Honda sign me as well, although not initially as an official full junior driver, yet.”
Tsunoda spent two more seasons in Japan, finishing third and then first in F4, during which time he was officially confirmed as a Honda Junior. The results prompted a three-day test at the Hungaroring with Motopark, organised by Honda who promised him a drive in Europe if he performed.
This wasn’t the only deal on offer.
“Helmut Marko was looking at the results and decided to make me a Red Bull junior,” Tsunoda recalled. “That test is one of the biggest moments of my life so far. If it had gone badly, I’d not be where I am right now – I’d probably still be in Japan.”
That test is one of the biggest moments of my life so far. If it had gone badly, I’d not be where I am right now – I’d probably still be in Japan.
A SEASON OF TWO HALVES
It was a case of sink or swim for Tsunoda, as Red Bull and Honda put him straight into the deep end, placing him in F3, racing in-front of F1 on Grand Prix weekends.
“In Japan, I had confidence in myself to perform and be competitive, but I’d never raced in Europe in my life before and had no experience,” he admitted. “Helmut told me that if I was going to be a Red Bull junior, then I would need to be competitive with the other drivers in F3. I would need to be performing at a similar level and I had to deliver.
“I had never driven on any of the tracks really, although I did have confidence from that test at the Hungaroring because I could compare the data with other drivers too.”
Tsunoda immersed himself in F3, moving to Switzerland in order to be close to his F3 team, Jenzer Motorsport. His initial results showed some promise, but few could have predicted the impact he would have in the final half of 2019. Two points’ finishes from the first seven races was followed up by seven from the next seven, including a win and two podiums.
“I wasn’t thinking much about the results at first,” said Tsunoda. “I was just pushing hard and waiting to see how it went. Spa was a real turning point for me in 2019. We tragically lost Anthoine Hubert that weekend and he played a part in my results afterwards. I learned from him and raced for him and in Race 2, the day after his accident, I got a podium for the first time that season.
“The round after in Monza, I got another podium and my first win. It was a real turning point for my driving performances. That made Helmut a little bit impressed.”
SETTLING INTO A NEW CULTURE
Tsunoda’s English has improved drastically since his arrival in Europe nearly two years ago. Of course he still misses Japan, but the Red Bull junior is growing increasingly settled in Europe. He’s close friends with former F2 racers Tadasuke Makino and Nirei Fukuzumi and spends a lot of his downtime gaming online with the duo.
He’s a big football fan and always brings a ball with him to the track. Tsunoda used to play futsal with the locals back in Japan and he recalls buying a Bayern Munich jersey ahead of the first round of the season in Austria. He also watched this year’s Champions League final between Bayern and Paris Saint German.
“It was a big match between two big teams,” he said. “I was kind of supporting Paris Saint Germain because of Neymar, but I like Bayern Munich as well and they were really strong.”
We tragically lost Anthoine Hubert that weekend and he played a part in my results afterwards. I learned from him and raced for him and in Race 2, the day after his accident, I got a podium for the first time that season.
It’s the online version of the sport which captures his attention more than anything, and of course, he plays Japanese produced PES as opposed to America’s version, FIFA.
“This is a time when I can be separate from racing and get away from it,” he explained. “That helps me to focus when it comes to a race week. I play PES quite a lot with my friends. It’s good for finding out which players are good and who to watch for.
“For example, Cristiano Ronaldo is very good at shooting, Lionel Messi is very good for dribbling. I am playing it a lot, so I know a lot of the PES player data… Raheem Sterling is good at sprinting and dribbling, but not as good at shooting.”
A CALCULATED RISK
Tsunoda was a surprise graduate into F2 for 2020, signing a deal with British based outfit Carlin to drive alongside fellow Red Bull protégé Jehan Daruvala. Despite his impressive end to the season, Tsunoda’s P9 finish in F3 suggested he may need another year in the third tier.
How wrong that has proven to be.
The logic to the promotion lay in the second tier’s switch to 18-inch tyres, which was expected to level out the playing field and put the rookies on par with the experienced drivers. It felt like an unmissable opportunity and that’s been borne out.
WATCH: Tsunoda turns the wheel of an F1 car for the first time
“Formula 2 was the biggest challenge in my whole life,” he asserted with a smile. “But I came into the season feeling stronger than I had done at the start of my F3 season. I had good pace and I was with a good team.”
Ahead of the campaign, the 20-year-old moved to Milton Keynes in England, basing himself on the doorstop of Red Bull and within driving distance of Carlin which reside in Surrey. It was another culture shock.
“It was not easy to come here from Japan,” he continued. “I struggled with the food when I first moved here. Japanese food for me is too good, and when I came to Europe, it wasn't the same - I miss Japanese food.
“I’m not a huge fan of English food, although I do like fish and chips and I like sweet potato wedges as well. I love Italian and Spanish food like jamón and prosciutto, but for me, Japanese food is the best. On social media I am always seeing photos of ramen and sushi and I get a little bit frustrated that I can't eat it.
“If I achieve my targets this season, then I want to eat some really good sushi, that’s how I would celebrate. Sushi tastes different when you celebrate. If you do an okay year and eat sushi, it tastes normal. If you get good news and eat sushi, it is a different taste - even if it is the same sushi. I’ll work hard to eat really good Sushi and real ramen.”
Sushi tastes different when you celebrate. If you do an okay year and eat sushi, it tastes normal. If you get good news and eat sushi, it is a different taste - even if it is the same sushi. I’ll work hard to eat really good Sushi.
EARNING GOOD SUSHI
But what are those targets, and what would qualify Tsunoda for good news sushi?
“I was given information from Helmut that I had to do well this season and that I would need to be fifth to get a Super Licence,” he explained. “He said if I was fifth, then I would qualify to drive in Formula 1, but if I was not, then I would need to drive in Japan again.
“It was strict, but I agree with him. If you’re a good driver, like George Russell, Lando Norris or Charles Leclerc, then I think you only need one year in F2 - they didn't need two or three years.”
So far, so good. Tsunoda sits third, with the second most pole positions. He’s joint third for podiums and tied on second for wins. It’s quite remarkable considering the unexpected nature of his promotion to F2.
Tsunoda says that like Max Verstappen, he has never really had an idol in motorsport, but instead chooses to take bits and pieces from his competitors. F2 graduates Russell, Norris and Leclerc pop up multiple times throughout the duration of a near hour-long conversation, as does Hubert. “He made me a better driver,” Tsunoda says of the late Frenchman.
“You have to perform big in every single race,” he continues. “That is pressure, but it’s a good mentality. This year has not been too bad, but we’ll see what happens in the future. My dream is to be a Formula 1 World Champion and if I’d struggled in Formula 2, then this would have been really difficult.
“You know, fans in Japan are waiting for a driver to be in Formula 1. I can see this from social media. I would say that I have pressure from Japan, but a good pressure, not a bad pressure. They are waiting for a Japanese Formula 1 driver and I am one of the closest to achieve this. I would like to deliver for them.”
Tsunoda stands on the cusp of delivering that, and while the decision remains out of his hands, he is on course to fulfil his part of the bargain: he just needs to prove he deserves a seat more than anyone else. Then, and only then, can he taste some good news sushi.