How Japan's first F1 racer accelerated Tsunoda's rise

AlphaTauri Formula 1 rookie Yuki Tsunoda’s meteoric rise up the ranks is well-documented, but less well known is the contribution of Japan’s first full-time grand prix racer to that progress.

How Japan's first F1 racer accelerated Tsunoda's rise

From winning the Japanese Formula 4 title to earning a drive in F1 in the space of three years, via standout campaigns in FIA Formula 3 and Formula 2 - it’s an impressive rate of progression by anybody’s standards. But, it could have all been quite different without the intervention of a certain Satoru Nakajima, who in 1987 became the first Japanese driver to complete a full season in F1 as Ayrton Senna’s teammate at Lotus-Honda.

As well as running his own team in Super Formula and SUPER GT, Nakajima kept himself busy in the years following his F1 retirement as principal of the Suzuka Racing School (SRS), which over the years has churned out a considerable number of drivers that have gone on to represent Honda at the highest level - most notably 1997 graduate Takuma Sato.

But, Nakajima made perhaps his most important contribution to unearthing future Japanese talent in 2016, when Tsunoda graduated from the school.

Read Also:

Tsunoda was one of four finalists in 2016 that competed for two scholarships for a fully-funded season in Japanese F4 the following year and a prized place on the Honda junior scheme.

The others were Toshiki Oyu, Ukyo Sasahara and Teppei Natori, but Tsunoda missed out as the scholarships went to Oyu and Sasahara - the former having already a season in F4 under his belt and the latter having just come back to Japan after a spell racing in European junior single-seaters.

But on Nakajima’s recommendation, Tsunoda was still handed a limited amount of backing by the SRS to help him contest the full Japanese F4 season in 2017 with Kochira Racing, the same team that would run scholarship winners-turned Honda junior drivers Oyu and Sasahara.

While Oyu and Sasahara ran under the ‘Honda Formula Dream Project’ banner, with all their expenses taken care of (deducting 'crash fees'), Tsunoda and another past SRS graduate, Takuya Otaki, were entered simply as ‘SRS/Kochira Racing’, with around half their budget covered.

Without that help, Tsunoda may not have been able to gain the experience needed to mount a full title bid in Japanese F4 in 2018 - and for that, he has Nakajima to thank.

Satoru Nakajima, Nakajima Racing

Satoru Nakajima, Nakajima Racing

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Speaking to Motorsport.com, Nakajima recalled: “[Tsunoda] was so quick from the beginning and it was a bit unlucky that he didn’t earn the scholarship. I felt sorry that this kid with great speed and smooth driving missed out, and I managed to get him a [partial] scholarship.

“My choice paid off, but I was wondering whether my decision was correct or not at that time. I am quite happy to see him in F1, but honestly I didn’t expect how fast he would rise up the ladder. I was so impressed by his growth that his confidence in a F1 car shows.”

With the help of the SRS, Tsunoda placed third in Japanese F4 in 2017 behind Toyota protege Ritomo Miyata and the much more experienced Sasahara, outscoring Oyu. Off the back of that, he was made a fully-fledged Honda junior in 2018, re-entered the series under the HFDP banner and duly won the title ahead of Natori, who won the SRS scholarship in 2017.

Yuki Tsunoda(HFDP/SRS/Kochira Racing)

Yuki Tsunoda(HFDP/SRS/Kochira Racing)

Photo by: Tomohiro Yoshita

Tsunoda and Natori were then chosen to race in FIA F3 in Europe, bucking the previously established trend of Honda taking drivers from All-Japan Formula 3. Nobuharu Matsushita, Nirei Fukuzumi and Tadasuke Makino all followed this path, but with none of them producing the desired results in F2, the decision was made to start sending the most promising Honda juniors to cut their teeth on the European ladder a stage earlier with the help of the marque's new engine partner Red Bull.

As a result, that year’s Honda All-Japan F3 crop - Oyu, Sasahara and Sena Sakaguchi, the 2015 SRS scholarship winner - were all overlooked for a potential chance overseas and are now plying their trade in Japan’s domestic Super Formula and SUPER GT categories instead.

Without Nakajima's help, perhaps Tsunoda would have shared a similar fate. Maybe he would have ultimately made it to F1 in the end anyway, but it’s certainly unlikely that he would have made it to the end of 2020 able to call himself Japan’s first grand prix racer in seven years.

Yuki Tsunoda(SRS/Kochira Racing)

Yuki Tsunoda(SRS/Kochira Racing)

Photo by: Kenji Takada

shares
comments

Related video

The stark challenges Vettel’s new start now faces

Previous article

The stark challenges Vettel’s new start now faces

Next article

Alonso: ‘Good sign’ Enstone has changed a lot since last F1 stint

Alonso: ‘Good sign’ Enstone has changed a lot since last F1 stint
Load comments

About this article

Series Formula 1
Drivers Satoru Nakajima , Yuki Tsunoda
Author Jamie Klein
Why Mercedes isn't confident it's really ahead of Red Bull at Imola Prime

Why Mercedes isn't confident it's really ahead of Red Bull at Imola

While Mercedes struck back against Red Bull by topping the times at Imola on Friday ahead of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, the overall picture remains incredibly close. Despite having a possible edge this weekend, the reigning Formula 1 world champion squad is not taking anything for granted...

Formula 1
Apr 16, 2021
What Mercedes must do to keep its F1 title challenge on track Prime

What Mercedes must do to keep its F1 title challenge on track

Mercedes may find itself leading the drivers' and constructors' standings after Lewis Hamilton's victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix, but it is well aware that it came against the odds, with Red Bull clearly ahead. Here's what the Brackley team must do to avoid its crown slipping .

Formula 1
Apr 16, 2021
The double whammy that is defining Vettel’s F1 fate Prime

The double whammy that is defining Vettel’s F1 fate

It's been a tough start to Sebastian Vettel's Aston Martin F1 career, with a lack of pre-season testing mileage followed by an incident-packed Bahrain GP. But two key underlying factors mean a turnaround is no guarantee.

Formula 1
Apr 14, 2021
The themes to watch in F1's Imola return Prime

The themes to watch in F1's Imola return

Three weeks is a long time in Formula 1, but in the reshaped start to the 2021 season the teams head to Imola to pick things up after the frenetic Bahrain opener. Here's what to look out for and the developments to follow at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

Formula 1
Apr 13, 2021
The 'new' F1 drivers who need to improve at Imola Prime

The 'new' F1 drivers who need to improve at Imola

After a pandemic-hit winter of seat-swapping, F1 kicked off its season with several new faces in town, other drivers adapting to new environments, and one making a much-anticipated comeback. Ben Anderson looks at who made the most of their opportunity and who needs to try harder…

Formula 1
Apr 12, 2021
The delay that quashed Aston Martin’s last F1 venture Prime

The delay that quashed Aston Martin’s last F1 venture

Aston Martin’s only previous foray into Formula 1 in the late 1950s was a short-lived and unsuccessful affair. But it could have been so different, says Nigel Roebuck.

Formula 1
Apr 10, 2021
Verstappen exclusive: Why lack of titles won't hurt Red Bull's ace Prime

Verstappen exclusive: Why lack of titles won't hurt Red Bull's ace

Max Verstappen’s star quality in Formula 1 is clear. Now equipped with a Red Bull car that is, right now, the world title favourite and the experience to support his talent, could 2021 be the Dutchman’s year to topple the dominant force of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes?

Formula 1
Apr 9, 2021
Is Formula 1 as good as it has ever been now? Prime

Is Formula 1 as good as it has ever been now?

For many, many years Formula 1 has strived to do and to be better on all fronts. With close competition, a growing fanbase, a stable political landscape and rules in place to encourage sustainability, 2021 is on course to provide an unexpected peak

Formula 1
Apr 8, 2021