How Japan's first full-time 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.

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

From winning the Japanese Formula 4 title to earning an F1 driver 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 team-mate 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.

ANALYSIS: The hidden work that helped Tsunoda grab his F1 chance

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

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.

Satoru Nakajima, Nakajima Racing

Satoru Nakajima, Nakajima Racing

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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.

"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” Satoru Nakajima

“[Tsunoda] was so quick from the beginning and it was a bit unlucky that he didn’t earn the scholarship," Nakajima tells Autosport. "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.”

ANALYSIS: The DRS trick behind Tsunoda’s standout F1 Bahrain test lap times

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, but 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

Previous article Alonso: ‘Good sign’ Enstone has changed a lot since last F1 stint
Next article The team-mate battles that will define F1 2021