Three rookies will make their debut at the opening race of the 2021 Formula 1 season in Bahrain, all stepping up from Formula 2. Champion Mick Schumacher, Nikita Mazepin and Yuki Tsunoda.
Tsunoda was the winner of the Anthoine Hubert Award (best placed rookie of the year) and finished third in the championship. On paper his campaign is nothing special with just three victories and four more podiums but it was only his second season in Europe.
Compare this to his F2 rivals Schumacher, Mazepin, Callum Ilott, and Robert Shwartzman, this is a very short amount of time because they have been racing single seaters in Europe for at least twice as long as Tsunoda.
The 2018 Japanese F4 champion was thrown in the deep end into a highly competitive FIA Formula 3 Championship for 2019 with Jenzer Motorsport. His results were excellent for a rookie in a small team, outpacing his teammates despite having just 45 minutes at each venue to learn the track during practice before heading straight into qualifying. Tsunoda got up to speed and was very impressive on tracks that were new to him, as well as a new car and a new environment.
Coming from Japan to Europe is a massive culture change and something that cannot be underestimated. Learning a new language and adapting to European life is difficult itself yet Tsunoda has taken it in his stride.
Last year, the 20-years-old began to really shine on his debut season in F2. For many he was the driver of the year. Four pole positions showed he had the speed and raw talent and in torrential conditions at the Red Bull Ring Tsunoda made a mark by coming second, missing out on the win due to a radio failure.
Every driver suffered some misfortune and with some better luck, Tsunoda could have been champion. He managed to get on top of the Pirelli rubber too, improving his tyre management significantly as the year went on as we saw at the season’s climax in Bahrain.
Tsunoda has a strong racing brain and managed to keep his head and bounce back from disappointments as shown in both Bahrain feature races on the main layout and outer loop.
Reliability woes in qualifying put him at the back of the grid when he was on course for pole position. But he drove superbly to finish sixth by overtaking cars one by one and managing his tyres perfectly.
One week later on Sakhir’s outer layout, Tsunoda shone and this time was rewarded with victory after a hard-fought battle for the lead against Shwartzman and Mazepin. This time, he was able to show his patience and race craft to come out on top against Mazepin who defended vigorously. Confirmation of Tsunoda’s promotion to F1 with AlphaTauri was announced a few days after that win.
Tsunoda has a difficult task against teammate Pierre Gasly at AlphaTauri. Gasly rejuvenated his F1 career in 2020 with some magnificent performances including a famous win at Monza.
The new Pirelli compound for the upcoming season will be one of the biggest challenges for the teams and drivers. It levels the playing field and the drivers who can adapt quickly and find the sweet spot of the narrow operating window will be strong early on, so Tsunoda will be looking to replicate his impressive learning curve from Formula 2 and Formula 3.
"The hardest thing so far is the steering wheel, which is completely different from the previous cars I drove,” said Tsunoda.
“My goal in the beginning will be to understand all the buttons on the steering wheel, so that I don't have to look while driving to see which button to press. With more distance covered, you also learn more from the car and it becomes easier to drive.”
There are only three days of pre-season testing this year, meaning Tsunoda will drive for one and a half days, the event will take place in Bahrain just two weeks prior to the season-opener which is at the same circuit after the postponement of the Australian Grand Prix.
Friday’s practice sessions have been shortened from 90 minutes to one hour but Tsunoda will still have three hours of practice at each grand prix prior to qualifying, a contrast to the little practice time he had in junior formula series.
Red Bull have a history of being harsh on drivers who don’t meet their high expectations or show enough potential to be promoted from AlphaTauri (previously called Toro Rosso) to Red Bull. Jamie Alguersuari, Sebastien Buemi and Jean-Eric Vergne found themselves out of F1 despite the solid performances that all three had during their time at Toro Rosso.
But Red Bull have a different approach with Tsunoda. Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko rates him highly and AlphaTauri team principal, Franz Tost said Tsunoda’s test at Imola last November was “quite impressive”.
“Yuki gave valuable technical feedback regarding the behaviour of the car, which was in line with what we expected,” Tost said. “In the last run, he did a race simulation and he was very consistent, which is clear evidence he had everything under control.”
Tsunoda will be given time unless he seriously underperforms and Red Bull are eager for him to succeed. Alexander Albon was given plenty of chances in 2020 and was backed by the team despite the significant pace deficit to teammate Max Verstappen during every event.
Conquering the Asian market and having a driver that is loved by the fans is incredibly valuable to Red Bull. Tsunoda will become the first driver to start a Grand Prix who was born in the 2000s at the season-opener in Bahrain and during a time when Formula 1 is thriving with young stars, he has a great opportunity to stamp his authority and join the party.