It wasn’t just the Formula 1 season that got off to a hectic start with three race weekends in a row in Austria and Hungary, as Formula 2 and Formula 3 were also on the support card. That meant six races for each category over a period of just 16 days.
Last year, Yuki Tsunoda was picking up podiums and race wins in F3, but this season he has stepped up to F2 as a rookie with the Carlin team. The Red Bull-liveried car was quickest in each of the first two practice sessions and Tsunoda took pole position for the second race weekend in Austria, finishing second in the feature race.
It has been a strong start to his European career, as Tsunoda’s first races outside of Japan only took place last year, and the 20-year-old is particularly thankful to a specific member of the Honda set-up for spotting his potential.
“I joined the Honda junior program in 2017,” Tsunoda says. “We started from Formula 4. The year I was doing the tests to become a Honda junior at Suzuka, the test went quite well until the end, but then I made some mistakes like a jump start and going off track.
“I made a lot of mistakes, I failed the test at first but Satoru Nakajima was the teacher of the Suzuka Honda test, and he saw my talent and recommended I join as a Honda junior in Formula 4 the following year. So for me I am really thankful to Nakajima for recommending me.”
Tsunoda finished third in the Japanese Formula 4 championship in his first year as part of the Honda Formula Dream Project, and duly went on to win the title in 2018. And then everything started moving really quickly…
“I honestly didn’t expect to race in Formula 3. I thought I was just going to race in EuroFormula Open, and the biggest thing is I became a Red Bull Junior in 2019. That was a big surprise for me that year.
“I did a test the year before at the Hungaroring with Motorpark, and there was a lot of Red Bull Juniors there. There were lots of fast drivers in that test like Dan Ticktum - who was leading the championship in Formula 3 - but I took P1 every day. So it was a tough test but I drove hard and it gave me good confidence to race in Formula 3 the following year.”
And it didn’t take long for that confidence to show in the form of results, as Tsunoda picked up his first podium in F3 at Spa; finishing second in the sprint race after a run of four straight point-scoring finishes. Then he was third in the feature race at the following round at Monza, before winning the sprint race from sixth on the grid.
“It was difficult to adapt, especially when it comes to the tracks. For most of the tracks it was the first time I have raced on them and it was my first time in Formula 3. We just have one free practice and then straight into qualifying, so that was really hard. And I needed to score good results to step up to Formula 2 or get super licence points, so that was not an easy thing.
“But I won in Monza which was my first race weekend there, and I got second place in Spa, so it was still an OK season. At the very beginning of the year I took a little bit of time to learn about the tyres and tyre management, as well as my qualifying pace. So it wasn’t a perfect season, but it still allowed me to step up to Formula 2, so the F3 season for me was a big turning point in my career.”
The most pivotal moment for Tsunoda came during a meeting with Red Bull advisor Dr Helmut Marko in Russia, where he arrived off the back of his run of second, third and first that had marked him out as a quick learner.
“I think if I didn’t win in Monza then maybe right now I would still be in Formula 3. I don’t know the race that Red Bull and Honda decided to let me step up to Formula 2 but I definitely think those two races changed their mind allow me to move up. It was the first time I got a congratulations message from Helmut after the Monza race week, which made me really happy. The rest of the time he was always teaching me things after the race and discussing areas to improve, but I was really happy after I won at Monza and got that praise.
“While we were racing in Russia I went to the Red Bull hospitality in the F1 paddock and was told I would be racing in Formula 2 this year. I was really surprised because I was expecting to race in Formula 3. I had the win in Monza and podium in Spa, but most of the races didn’t feel like good enough results for me. So I was expecting another year in Formula 3, but he believed in me and my pace, and I’m really thankful to Red Bull and Honda for that.”
It seems Tsunoda has been surrounded by people who can spot his potential throughout his junior career so far. Red Bull and Honda’s move proved correct early on as the Japanese driver was quick throughout the first two race weekends and looked set to win the second F2 feature race in Austria from pole position before a radio problem.
“Until lap seven the radio was working because my engineer confirmed things were OK, so I thought it was still working. But then about lap 15/16 I started to struggle with the rear tyres and I still didn’t hear any radio from my engineer so I felt it was a bit of a strange situation.
“So the lap after I felt strange, I looked to the pit wall and saw the mechanics waving to me. I didn’t see it clearly, so I also did one more lap just to make sure I had to pit and the engineers and mechanics were still waving a lot and putting every effort to catch my attention to come into the pits.
“I got a bit stressed and frustrated about that but it can happen in a race and it’s good experience to have in the beginning of the year. I should see the pit board every time, so I learned to actively look every lap.
“After I pitted, the pace was there. I easily got up to P2, but Robert Shwartzman had quite a big gap. So I had to put all my effort into catching him. That meant I didn’t think about tyre management much and that paid off at the end of the race, I struggled with the rear tyres a lot and just didn’t have enough pace to pass Robert.
“For me, if I think back now, I would do more tyre management because if I did that then I think I would easily have passed Robert at the end of the race. I got a call from Helmut that said I should do that in the future, but it was still good that I got my first podium in Formula 2 and my first one for Carlin.”
While the Hungaroring proved to be a difficult weekend, even as a rookie Tsunoda has shown he has the pace to compete at the sharp end in F2 and now prepares for two rounds at a venue where he tested for Carlin before the delayed season start. His goals for the rest of 2020 are clear, and even if they’re ambitious, he has already displayed he can produce the performance level that will help him achieve them.
“I think the first target is to get the super license, which means I need to finish in the top four in the championship. But there’s already good pace and the team works really hard with me, so I also want to take the championship for both the team and for myself to step up to Formula 1 as the champion. The first target is to get the top four, but also to win the championship for the team.”