AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda was surprisingly harsh on himself as he reflected on his debut performance that saw him labelled as the "best rookie Formula 1 has had for years”

Following his rapid rise up the single-seater ladder, the 20-year-old Japanese racer impressed on his F1 bow in the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix as he became the 65th driver to score points on his debut, and the first since Stoffel Vandoorne at the same track in 2016. 

Although he failed to join his teammate Pierre Gasly in progressing to Q3 on the Medium tyre, Tsunoda charged from his P13 grid slot to finish ninth at the chequered flag with a performance that justified the hype surrounding his arrival in F1 after a sole season in Formula 2. 

F1 2021- Imola GP Race Preview

But when asked in the drivers’ press conference ahead of this weekend’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix to score his debut performance out of 10, Tsunoda replied: “Five I would say.” 

Speaking exclusively to earlier on Thursday, Tsunoda explained in detail why he had left Bahrain with “mixed feelings” after what appeared to be an incredibly accomplished start to life in the sport. 

“Of course I was happy but there was a lot of things I learned in the race weekend,” he said. “I was aiming for a more high position in the race to be honest.

“When I see the Q1 performance, the car was there already and I would say top five or top six was possible. So I didn’t feel fully happy. I just analysed the data a lot to prepare for Imola and I also think ‘how can I improve?’ So it was really mixed feelings.” 

After delving into the data from his maiden race, Tsunoda is confident he can turn in an even better showing this weekend at a track he tested at regularly as he prepared for his rookie F1 campaign over the winter, with AlphaTauri taking advantage of Imola being just a short drive away from its Faenza base. 

“I’m really looking forward for Imola especially,” he continued. “I drove here a lot at the beginning of the year, so I don’t have to focus too much on the driving. 

“I can focus on other things like [what] I learned in the Bahrain race. So I’m looking forward to use that experience and try new things for this week.” 

Tsunoda, who is aiming for his first Q3 appearance at Imola, revealed the biggest takeaways from his first grand prix weekend and singled out two areas in particular where he feels he has plenty of work to do - starting with tyre warm-up preparation for a flying lap in qualifying.

“For qualifying I would say warm up and track positioning especially,” Tsunoda replied when asked where he felt he could improve the most. 

“In Q2 we used two sets of Medium tyres and the first set for me was normal, I felt okay. I just messed up a little bit my lap, a couple of laps I overshot just a little bit too much but actually it was a normal feeling. 

“But on the second set I felt less grip than the first set. And after the race weekend my engineers analysed the data and told me that the [tyre] warm up was not enough. 

“I was slowing down too much before the last corner to make the gap [to the cars] in front and that caused the tyres to get a little bit too cold, we think. That caused let grip and then I couldn’t perform well like I wanted to.” 

In the race itself, Tsunoda felt he paid the price for being overly cautious on the opening lap in Sakhir following a slow start that was in part hampered by a minor engine issue in his Honda-powered AlphaTauri during the initial launch phase off the line.

“The main thing in the race was the start,” he explained. “The initial start was not just my problem, there was also a little bit of an issue in the engine, but also after the start my track positioning was horrible. 

“I lost two or three positions in the first lap just with track positioning. I was too cautious not to pick up any damage. Especially with it being my first race, I wanted to experience as much as possible and finish the race to have experience for the future. 

“But I think track positioning can be improved a lot, especially for Imola, as I know how others are going to move around in the first lap. I have the experience so I can go more aggressive than the first race for sure. So I will try to improve those parts especially to have a good step.” 

While he may have been too careful at the start, Tsunoda demonstrated that he isn’t afraid to pull off an outrageous lunge on some of the biggest names in the sport, including a bold pass on returning two-time world champion Fernando Alonso. 

Tsunoda entertained throughout the race with a string of excellent overtakes, culminating in a successful last-lap divebomb on Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin to snatch an extra point in P9.

“I was cautious in the first lap because I knew that If I don’t have anything damaged in the first lap, I have pretty good confidence that I can gain a lot of positions,” he said. 

“But after the first lap, I was nearly last, and I just had to gain the positions as much as possible. After that I just trusted myself and do my driving style. 

“Naturally for me, the most strongest part is the braking and I just used that, especially overtaking a lot of drivers. I think overtaking especially Fernando [Alonso], and [Lance] Stroll on the last lap, for me that was quite good and definitely I built up more confidence.”

Tsunoda naturally faces a steep learning curve in F1 but if the early signs are anything to go by, it looks as though we have a real star on our hands.