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Why AlphaTauri is raving about its under-the-radar rookie

Japan’s newest Formula 1 driver Yuki Tsunoda has enjoyed a mercurial rise through the ranks, spending just one year apiece in F3 and F2 before his graduation this year with AlphaTauri.

Tsunoda's ascension through the junior ranks to a Formula 1 race seat happened so quickly that there hasn’t been time for the usual apprenticeship of FP1 sessions, or a season spent embedded in the team at the track.

He thus faces a steep learning curve, and like his 2021 fellow rookies Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin he will enjoy only one-and-a-half test days in the new car before the first race in Bahrain, plus a little filming day running.

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To further complicate matters this is only his third season in Europe, and he still has much to learn off the track as well. Regardless, Tsunoda has already made a big impression on everyone at AlphaTauri, and it’s apparent that the team has a lot of faith in him.

Yuki Tsunoda, Alpha Tauri

Yuki Tsunoda, Alpha Tauri

Photo by: AlphaTauri

“I would say considering his age, he's very focused on what he's doing,” says Graham Watson, AlphaTauri's team manager. “And he has a lot of self-confidence, which is a good thing. When I first met him, I thought he was a little boy, but actually he's really got some self-confidence. Not arrogance, but enough to believe in himself, and then you believe in him as he carries that through.

“I know that the other day that he was asked by a journalist, ‘What's your plan for 2021?,’ and he said: ‘Beat Gasly!’ If that's his attitude, you can't knock him for it. At the end of the day, as everybody says, you're judged on your teammates. He's got to do his job. I think there's going be some fun along the way, for sure. Young guys always have to have their first big accident, and all those things, as you go along. But he's definitely got some talent, there's no doubting that.

“Franz Tost is a massive fan of his, and when it comes to drivers, he knows what he's talking about. He could see pretty soon that Yuki has got the ability to do the job. We are seeing good, positive signs every day he gets in the car.”

Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda, Alpha Tauri

Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda, Alpha Tauri

Photo by: AlphaTauri

The 2021 season is a tough one for a rookie driver, given pre-season testing has been limited to just three days in Bahrain ahead of the opening round of the season. To make up for a lack of mileage in the new car, AlphaTauri has found a way to help Tsunoda to adapt faster, while enabling the team to learn about its new driver at the same time.

It’s been possible because AlphaTauri has finally been able to field a two-year-old car and take advantage of the unlimited testing mileage the FIA regulations allow. Testing of previous cars, as the FIA terms such running, has become a routine way for teams to give young drivers seat time now that regular opportunities to run current machinery are so limited.

Renault and Ferrari have been very active in this area with their respective squads of young drivers, with Mick Schumacher among the recent beneficiaries. Meanwhile Nikita Mazepin has undertaken extensive and very private testing worldwide with an old Mercedes – a strategy previously employed by Williams with Lance Stroll.

Yuki Tsunoda, Honda Formula Dream Project, tests the AlphaTauri

Yuki Tsunoda, Honda Formula Dream Project, tests the AlphaTauri

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

In recent years AlphaTauri has not been able to do such running with its young drivers due to its regular changes of engine supplier. In five seasons from 2013 to 2017, the then Toro Rosso team went from Ferrari to Renault to Ferrari and back to Renault, before joining forces with Honda in 2018. The team simply never had the ability to a run two-year old cars because it didn’t have access to suitable power units.

That changed in 2020, when the first Honda-powered Toro Rosso STR13 from 2018 became eligible. It was first used before the delayed start of last season to help Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat get up to speed, and latterly it has been run regularly by Tsunoda.

Watson says: "It worked out very well for us and it's given us an opportunity to put Yuki in the car just to pound around the circuits. We obviously want Yuki to succeed. I feel that he's got a very big talent. He hasn't done a lot of European racing, and yet he still was fairly strong in F3, and then really came into his own in F2 last year against Schumacher and Mazepin and those guys. So I think he deserves his chance.”

Yuki Tsunoda, Toro Rosso STR14

Yuki Tsunoda, Toro Rosso STR14

Photo by: Davide Cavazza

Tsunoda ran his first F1 miles in the repainted Toro Rosso at Imola in the week after the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix last year. He subsequently enjoyed a public outing in the 2020 AT01 at the Abu Dhabi test in December, before logging more miles over four days in an older machine – now upgraded to the 2019-spec Toro Rosso – earlier this month (above).

Preparing and running 2018 and 2019 spec power units has required considerable effort from Honda, and the fact that it has happened is a sign of the manufacturer’s faith in the youngster.

“We did two days in Imola, then two days in Misano,” says Watson. “And luckily – I don't know how – we ended up on those four days of running with blue skies and a bit of wind. We dodged a bullet, I think! He's going to be well prepared when he gets to the first grand prix. We're doing another three days in Imola on 23-25 February. But we'll split that between both the guys, between Yuki and Pierre [Gasly], to give Pierre a chance as well.”

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT01

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT01

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The team has seen steady progress from Tsunoda on each outing, which is the point of the exercise.

“It's just miles really, and the chance to understand all the complexities of the steering wheel and everything else that goes with the engineering side,” Watson adds. “He's really grown, and we've seen a massive change with him since Abu Dhabi.

"In Abu Dhabi [above] he did a good job, but every time he gets back in the car now he's just becoming more and more mature, with more understanding, as you'd expect. He's only a young guy, 20 years old. He's done very good work for us, actually. And I'd say when you get to the test in Bahrain, he'll be probably one of the highest mileage rookies for many seasons.”

Full days of testing on an empty track have allowed the team to guide Tsunoda through run plans that would not usually be possible, given how precious any running is, further bedding him in for his F1 debut in March.

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT01

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT01

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

“I don't think people can quite appreciate the speed these things are doing,” says Watson. “And with an engineer yelling in your in your ear to change a switch, default this, and default that. So basically we are just bombarding him with lots of unnecessary changes, just training for when they do become necessary, and giving him the opportunity to deal with it.

“And then on top of that, just giving him a chance to try some different springs and bars and ride heights and downforce levels, so he's got a really good feel for the car, and how it should feel, as opposed to how it shouldn't feel. It's a luxury to have this previous car to do that, because a lot of young guys will turn up at their first race probably a bit like Schumacher. He had a run in the Ferrari the other day, but his experience will be quite small compared to Yuki.

“It's a benefit for Yuki, but it's also a massive benefit for us, because it gives him a good experience, and creates a line of trust in what he's telling us. And vice versa, what we're telling him.”

Yuki Tsunoda, Honda Formula Dream Project, in his car

Yuki Tsunoda, Honda Formula Dream Project, in his car

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Getting used to F1 tyres is one of the main challenges for any rookie. Running a two-year-old car does not allow use of pukka Pirelli race rubber, but it still helps to provide an education.

“One of the biggest performance advantages is understanding the tyres,” says Watson. “You watch these young guys come into the sport, and they generally burn the tyres up in the first few laps, and are screaming for a new set, so this is quite valuable as well.

“Although the tyres aren't race tyres, they are still a Pirelli product, and they give him a chance to understand about making them live, and how to get the best out of them without destroying them. So it's a good training ground as well. One thing I noticed in F2 last year was that he was probably one of the few drivers that could really find lap time in qualifying. I think his direct competitors weren't always able to.

“Maybe I'm wrong, but I just felt like if he had to find a couple of tenths, he was able to do it, while the guys he was fighting in the championship were never quite there. And it's something we see with him in the F1 car. He knows where to find the time, which is a good sign.”

Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda, Alpha Tauri

Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda, Alpha Tauri

Photo by: Scuderia Alpha Tauri

Tsunoda has spent a lot of time in Italy in recent weeks, although he’s not seeking a permanent home near the factory. He’s also been getting to know his new physio.

“There's a golf course up the road in Faenza, with a hotel, and we've put him in there,” says Watson. “It's a very nice hotel, but I'm sure he's bored! His physio is here with him, Noel Carroll, who was with Dany [Kvyat] last year. It's a new relationship, and it seems to be going really well.

“I know Yuki is not a big fan of the gym; he told me himself! Unfortunately it's part of the job, so he has to deal with it. He's pushing hard, he's going for it. And they're basically using the gym here on site at the factory for training for three or four hours a day, and staying in the hotel.

“I think the plan long-term is for him to live in Milton Keynes and be near the simulator, so he can use it. Then he can just fly in and out of the UK. Hardly any driver needs to spend much time in a factory these days other than for the simulator, so it makes sense to be located as close as possible.”

Despite pretty much being thrown into the deep end for his F1 debut, AlphaTauri's efforts coupled with Tsunoda's own approach to his rookie campaign looks like they will ensure he will be well prepared for his first grand prix next month.

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