Yuki Tsunoda: Japan's First World Champion?
Motorsport has been kind to manufacturers like Honda and Toyota, but unfortunately Formula 1 hasn't yet yielded a championship to a Japanese driver.
The date of 11th April 2021 will go down in sporting history as the day a Japanese man was victorious at one of golf’s Major Championships for the very first time. Yesterday evening, Hideki Matsuyama donned the historic green jacket given to winners of arguably golf’s most coveted major, The Masters Tournament at Augusta National. The legendary Tiger Woods said this was a historical win that will impact the entire golf world, but I think perhaps he is understating the effect that Hideki’s victory might have. For the 29-year-old to break the curse and prove to others it’s possible, it will inspire Japanese sportsmen to achieve greatness in their own fields. One sportsman who’ll be looking to emulate his countryman is AlphaTauri’s new hotshot Yuki Tsunoda.
Japan's Hideki Matsuyama dons the Green Jacket as winner of the Masters Tournament in golf. In his speech, he said he hoped his win would inspire youngsters in Japan to take up golf, but it could have effects on those in other sports too.
Now, it’s highly unlikely Tsunoda will challenge for victory with AlphaTauri on pace alone, but his long-term plans won’t lie with that team. As is the case with a lot of drivers who don the overalls for the Faenza outfit, their paths lead towards a seat at the works Red Bull team. At just 20 years of age, the young Japanese driver has his whole career ahead of him to take that final step in his progression through the Red Bull program, or prove he has enough ability to secure a seat at another front-running team.
Helmut Marko has indicated that Red Bull see Tsunoda as the new Max Verstappen, so he obviously has a bit of a soft spot for his new driver. This isn’t just a hair-brained Marko-ism with no real evidence to support it, though, there are some noticeable similarities between them. The two drivers have had similarly speedy rises to the top tier of the sport, with Tsunoda racing in Japanese Formula 4 until just two-and-a-half years ago. He then did a single year in both FIA Formula 3 and Formula 2 series, attracting plenty of attention and, crucially, enough super licence points to qualify for a seat in Formula 1 for 2021. The two drivers both impressed in their first race weekend for Red Bull’s sister team, though Verstappen did eventually retire from the 2015 Australian Grand Prix with engine failure.
After just 23 Grands Prix for Toro Rosso, Verstappen was promoted to Red Bull and won his first Grand Prix for the team in Barcelona. If Tsunoda completes the entire 2021 season for AlphaTauri as expected, he’ll have matched Verstappen’s race tally of 23 for the sister team. Is that a good omen or just a massive coincidence?
It’s certainly something to keep an eye on as this season unfolds. Red Bull are not afraid to promote quickly and their latest recruit Sergio Perez is only contracted until the end of this year, perhaps an indication they’ll be running the rule over Tsunoda for a promotion in 2022. But there lies a problem – what happens if Tsunoda is outperformed by his teammate Pierre Gasly and Perez builds on his solid, though eventful start to the season?
Red Bull have recruited the experienced Mexican Sergio 'Checo' Perez to race alongside their lead driver Max Verstappen this year, a decision they hope will boost their fight at the front and help them secure more championship points.
Gasly has already been snubbed for a second bite at the Red Bull cherry at the end of his stellar 2020 campaign, so it’s a little uncertain what more he must do to convince the team that dropped him almost two years ago that they made a mistake. Honestly, it appears Gasly’s future at the front of the grid, if indeed he has one at all, does not lie with Red Bull. For 2022, it’s either stick with AlphaTauri and hope they get on top of the regulation changes as well as anyone or take a punt on a move to another outfit where it may become available. There could be two seats available at the works Mercedes team next year if gossip is to be believed and, given his performances in the past eighteen months, he’d surely be high on Mercedes’ wish list if that situation, doubtful it may be, became reality.
There is, however, a clause in Max Verstappen’s contract which indicates he can move away from Red Bull should they fail to give him a car worthy of challenging for world titles by the end of the year. It certainly appears they’ve started on the right foot in 2021, but it’s too early to suggest whether they can sustain that challenge. Verstappen would surely top any team’s list if he was available, which could close the door completely for Gasly in his hunt for a front-running seat outside of his current academy.
Pierre Gasly's new teammate could spoil his party at AlphaTauri, with whom he won the 2020 Italian Grand Prix, as the young Japanese starlet could soon end the Frenchman's chances of driving a Red Bull car again.
Based on the first Grand Prix of the season, I suspect Verstappen will stay with Red Bull and Perez will impress enough to keep that seat alongside him. It’s in both Red Bull and AlphaTauri’s best interests to keep Gasly and Tsunoda on board for the foreseeable future, just to be that little bit more certain that Perez’s successor is the right man for the job. If there’s one thing the two teams need as they enter a new era with Red Bull-branded powertrains, it’s stability. It’ll help them keep hold of Verstappen, too, if he has a proven and consistent teammate like Perez for a couple of years to help him fight for championships. Far too often in the seasons since Daniel Ricciardo’s departure have Red Bull been fairly equal on pace with the lead Mercedes team, but unable to spice things up with strategy with Verstappen fighting two cars all on his own. They must avoid promoting Tsunoda prematurely and suffering the same problems again.
Once the young Japanese driver gets to the top, though, I don’t think he’ll look out of place. Throughout his junior career, he picked up a knack for adapting to a new car incredibly quickly and this repeated itself in Formula 1, posting a fabulous (albeit not representative) lap time on the final day of testing to sit just behind Verstappen in 2nd place. The confidence and understanding he seemed to gain after just a day and a half behind the wheel was incredible, but not entirely unexpected after his similar rise in his rookie Formula 2 season last year. He slipped back at the start of his first Formula 1 race but recovered excellently to a respectable P9 while teammate Gasly made mistakes and retired. Performances like that stand the youngster in good stead for a future front-running seat, plus he’s showing both the confidence and pace to suggest he’ll hold his own up there.
Driving for the famous Carlin team in Formula 2, Tsunoda excelled in his rookie season to take third in the 2020 F2 Championship, just one point behind second-placed Callum Ilott.
Given the amount of young talent in Formula 1 at the moment with Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, George Russell and others all under the age of 25, it seems Formula 1 has already been introduced to its next generation of superstars. I’m cautious of being premature but Yuki Tsunoda could soon be the new addition to that list. I’d give him the season to be sure, but I’m mightily impressed by the young man and he could very well follow in Hideki Matsuyama’s footsteps as the first from his country to reach the summit of his sport. Ganbatte, Yuki.