Shortly after Hideki Matsuyama sank his final putt at Augusta National to become the first Japanese golfer to win the Masters Tournament, Yuki Tsunoda’s phone started buzzing.

Swept up in ‘Matsu-mania’ created by the 29-year-old’s historic one-stroke victory, fans back in Tsunoda’s native Japan sent the AlphaTauri Formula 1 driver a clear message; now it’s your turn. 

With Tokyo set to play host to this year’s Olympic Games - COVID permitting - 2021 was already shaping up to be a huge year for sport in Japan long before Matsuyama got his hands on Golf’s famous green jacket. 

A fortnight earlier, Tsunoda had started out embarking on another milestone moment for the country as the first Japanese driver to race in F1 since Kamui Kobayashi in 2014. 

Following a remarkably rapid rise through the motorsport ladder, Tsunoda - who was born just 50km away from Japan’s capital in Sagamihara 21 years ago this May - made his debut at last month’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix. Tsunoda took a superb ninth-place finish to become the eighth Japanese point-scorer in F1 history. 

Out of the 17 drivers to have taken part in an F1 race before Tsunoda, Kobayashi was the most successful, racking up 27 points-scoring finishes in his 75 starts, with a memorable best result of third place coming at Suzuka in the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix. There have been several very fast and popular drivers from Japan over the years, but none have ever graced the top step of the podium. 

Speaking to Crash.net in an exclusive interview last Thursday ahead of the second round at Imola, Tsunoda reflected on his personal ambition to make his own piece of sporting history in F1. 

“I’m not currently thinking too much about becoming a world champion or winning a race,” said F1’s first driver to be born in the 2000s. 

“I really just focus on each session-by-session. That makes me better on the mentality side to focus on the driving in the session. 

“If I get a win this season, the first win for a Japanese driver, that would be really good. It would be really great for me. Most of the Japanese motorsport fans are waiting for that. 

“I got a lot of messages after the Masters when [we had] the first Japanese golf winner in history. Especially after that, I got a lot of messages from Japanese fans saying, ‘next, it’s your turn’. 

“It would be great if I got that win but now I’m thinking about each race-by-race and just focusing on my driving to improve.”

SEE ALSO: Why Tsunoda only rated his F1 debut '5 out of 10' and where he can improve

Three weeks after the highs of his brilliant Bahrain debut, Tsunoda was brought back down to earth with a bang at Imola in what proved to be a tricky weekend for the youngster. 

Hopes were high for a first Q3 appearance at a venue Tsunoda had completed several tests at during the winter in preparation for his rookie F1 campaign, but a hefty crash in qualifying doomed him to a back-of-the-grid start. 

Tsunoda recovered strongly in an action-packed race held in mixed conditions to work his way into the top-10, but moments after pulling off a bold pass on seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes to grab P8, he paid the price for getting too greedy on the throttle and spun around at the first chicane. He would go on to finish 13th. 

Making mistakes is part of the game in F1, especially considering the steep learning curve that Tsunoda faces following just two full seasons of single-seater racing in Europe, including a sole campaign in Formula 2 in which he finished third in the standings as the best-placed rookie with three victories. 

The 20-year-old made it clear before the season started that he is not afraid to make mistakes during his first year in F1, knowing that he has the full backing from his AlphaTauri team to develop and grow as a driver. 

Tsunoda has so far stuck true to his vow to push hard from the off in his bid to make an early impression and repay the faith that the Italian squad has shown in him, even if it does sometimes come at a cost. 

The trust that AlphaTauri is putting in Tsunoda is enabling him to drive with a sense of freedom that he hopes will help him extract a greater level of performance and ultimately reach his full potential. 

“I can say stuff like that because the team supports me a lot,” Tsunoda explained. 

“Even Franz [Tost, AlphaTauri team principal] said to me, ‘do what you want when you are driving and try to experience a lot. Even when you have mistakes, it doesn’t matter, just try to improve from there.’ 

“For me, that helps a lot with my mental side. I have the feeling now that I can do anything I want when I drive and that gives me freedom. 

“It’s a good way to approach each session, even if I make mistakes. I don’t have any regrets about those mistakes. I will just carry on and use that experience for the future.” 

Out of the car, Tsunoda is a calm, polite, and entertaining individual. However once the visor comes down, he is a fiery competitor - demonstrated by several expletive radio rants across his first two grand prix weekends.  

Such outbursts amid a burning desire to succeed are understandable given the extreme pressures that are placed on the shoulders of F1 rookies, none more so than those part of the Red Bull programme. 

After a flying start to life in F1 with Toro Rosso (AlphaTauri’s previous guise) in 2019, Alex Albon was fast-tracked into the Red Bull team after just 12 grand prix starts. But little over 12 months after earning a dream opportunity, Albon had lost his spot on the grid altogether at the end of 2020 having failed to live up to expectations. 

Albon’s rise and fall is just one example of the harsh reality of the often unforgiving world of F1. 

Honda-backed Tsunoda is the latest talent to be brought through Red Bull’s junior programme and his arrival in F1 has generated huge excitement. He has replaced Daniil Kvyat - a former Red Bull graduate dropped just four races into the 2016 season - to partner Pierre Gasly, who himself is no stranger to feeling the wrath of suffering demotion from the senior team. 

Despite the weight of expectation surrounding the start of his F1 career, Tsunoda insists he isn’t feeling the pressure.

“Most people think that I am going to have pressure and get nervous, but for me, I don’t feel anything like those things,” he explained.

“I don’t have to think much about that because there’s no space to feel the pressure. I didn’t have any pressure or nervous feelings before the first race, I just enjoyed it as much as possible.”

Red Bull’s at times ruthless and gold standard approach to its driver selection process has resulted in it helping to create some of the biggest talents F1 has seen in modern times. 

During his long tenure as AlphaTauri’s team principal, Franz Tost has dealt with the very best of Red Bull’s proteges. That includes a golden generation that features four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, seven-time grand prix winner Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull’s latest star Max Verstappen, all of whom progressed via its sister team. 

So how does Tsunoda compare to the crème de la crème?

“You know there are many parallels to other drivers that we had in the Red Bull driver pool,” Tost replied in response to a question from Crash.net

“First of all they are all talented, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the pool. Second, they are focused and they are orientated and disciplined just to perform well.

“What impresses me about Yuki is that he is learning quite fast. He is very strong under braking. He has real good car control and he gives already quite good feedback about the behaviour of the car and helps the engineers in setting up the car - and this is not so usual for someone who is coming directly from Formula 2.”

Tsunoda has been provided a fantastic platform to showcase his talent with a seriously fast car that has already lined up fifth on the grid at the opening two races of the season. 

AlphaTauri’s early season form has led to suggestions that it could be the surprise package of 2021 with its updated AT02 car that is a clear improvement on its race-winning predecessor that Gasly steered to a shock victory at last year’s Italian Grand Prix. 

If Tsunoda can harness his electrifying speed and huge potential, Japan might not have to wait too much longer for its breakthrough F1 win.

 

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