He might be the baby-faced rookie whose legs are so short his car needs adjusted pedals but don’t think Alpha Tauri driver Yuki Tsunoda is just along for the ride.
Ahead of his Formula 1 debut, the 20-year-old Japanese clocked the second-fastest time in pre-season testing, and now he’s aiming to make a name for himself when he suits up for the Red Bull junior team at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix at the weekend.
“I just want to give it everything I’ve got,” Tsunoda, who replaced Daniil Kvyat in the Red Bull-owned AlphaTauri team, said during an online news conference last week, “I don’t want to worry about making mistakes. I just want to go for it and attack.”
Tsunoda, who was born in 2000 and will be the youngest driver on the grid at 20, has been fast-tracked into the elite after spending just one season in Formula 1 last year with British team Carlin.
Three wins, seven podium finishes and four pole positions were enough to convince AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost to give him his shot at the big time, and the rookie will be grabbing it with both hands.
Tsunoda will become the first Japanese driver to compete in Formula One since Kamui Kobayashi in 2014, but admitted he had to hit the gym to build his neck muscles to cope with the F1 car’s increased G-force and superior power.
He stands just 1.59 metres tall (5ft 3in), his diminutive frame forcing team engineers to develop a made-to-measure pedal kit to make him more comfortable in the cockpit of the AT02.
Little seems to faze Tsunoda, who started racing karts at the age of four in his native Kanagawa, just outside Tokyo, “When I was racing karts, the thought of competing in Formula One never entered my mind at all. I just concentrated on the race in front of me, just thinking about taking the next step.”
Tsunoda has been backed by Honda since joining their junior driver’s programme and making his debut in Japan’s Formula Four championship in 2016.
He had stints in Formula 3 and Euroformula Open championships, before joining Carlin in Formula 2 last season.
He finished third in the title race behind champion Mick Schumacher, who will make his Formula 1 debut for Haas this week, and Callum Ilott, who has been appointed Ferrari Formula One test driver for 2021.
Tsunoda sees aggressive overtaking and braking as his strengths. “I’m confident I have the skills to push my turns to the limit more than any other driver,” he said.
Away from racing, he tries to relax by snowboarding and playing video games, which he describes as “training” for keeping his cool on the track.
“When I’m really trying to push it in qualifying for a race and I make a mistake, or the car in front is getting in my way and it spoils the lap, I’m quick to get riled up and start shouting over the radio,” he said.
“It’s the same when I’m playing video games, I make a mistake or I lose and I start shouting my head off.”
But he wants “to be able to control myself, even when I’m playing video games.”
Tsunoda’s arrival in Formula One has sparked excitement among Japanese racing fans, and the feeling is mutual.
The last time he raced at Suzuka was in Formula 4, and he is looking forward to showing how much he has developed when he competes in the Japanese Grand Prix there in October.
“There’s about a 45-second difference in the lap times at Suzuka between a Formula Four car and a F1 car, so I’m looking forward to experiencing that. I can’t wait to race in front of the Japanese fans,” added Tsunoda.
— Scuderia AlphaTauri (@AlphaTauriF1) March 14, 2021