Rookie Yuki Tsunoda Learns From, Beats an F1 Master at Bahrain

Those who think that there was no overtaking in the Bahrain Grand Prix are just not watching closely enough.

The race was packed with action, right down through the field and the signs are that this has the chance to be one of the more competitive seasons in F1 in modern history, at all levels. At all levels, that is, except perhaps with the Haas team, which is a little far from the pace and knew it would be. Haas is focusing more on 2022, as are a number of other teams.

F1 fans voted Sergio Perez as the driver of the day in Bahrain, for his recovery from the back of the field to take fifth, but he was still 51 seconds behind teammate Max Verstappen after 56 laps, which is nearly a second a lap off the pace.

The driver who most impressed a lot of Formula 1 insiders was debutant AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, who became the first driver in five years (Stoffel Vandoorne, 2016) to score points on his debut. He joins a very select group of drivers in that class, including Carlos Sainz, Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, Jacques Villeneuve, Alain Prost and Jackie Stewart.

Tsunoda, who finished third in the Formula 2 standings in 2020, is also the first Japanese driver to score points in nearly a decade, the last being Kamui Kobayashi in 2012.

It was clear from the start of testing that the 20-year-old from the Kanagawa Prefecture, to the west of Tokyo, has not overawed by becoming a Formula 1 driver. He looked good until qualifying, when he was caught out as rival chose soft tires and he stayed on mediums. Thus, he qualified 13th on the grid. But in the race, that became an advantage as he was able to run a faster strategy, although he didn’t help himself by making a slow start, dropping to 16th early on.

After the conservative start, Tsunoda worked his way through the field like a veteran, passing George Russell, Sebastian Vettel (twice), Esteban Ocon, Fernando Alonso and then Kimi Raikkonen to get into the top 10 with 20 laps to go. He closed in on Lance Stroll and on the last lap went past the Aston Martin to grab ninth.

“I’m glad to get points,” he said. “I lost quite a lot of positions on the first lap. That was my big mistake and I had to recover from there. I’m happy 50 percent, but still 50 percent it was my big mistake. It was possible to go more forward for positions, so first points feel OK, but I think there was a lot of space to improve in Imola.

“The pace was good but in the last three laps I was behind Stroll and I got dirty air and really, really struggled to adapt to that and made quite a lot of mistakes. But on the last lap, first corner, there was still quite a big gap but I went for it.”

Tsunoda admitted that passing Alonso was an emotional moment for him, outbraking the Alpine driver going into Turn 1.

“My father is quite a big Fernando fan, especially his driving style,” Yuki said. “I think first time my dad saw Fernando was in Suzuka and he said that at the last corner, his acceleration, he was the best driver on the grid. So in Turn 1, I just trusted Fernando’s skills and I just launched it like a rookie. I felt a bit sorry, because I really came from quite far away but it was definitely a pretty emotional thing.”

Tsunoda added that he learned a lot in the laps he was following Alonso.

“The things I learned from him were really big for the future,” he said.

After the race, F1 head of racing Ross Brawn said that Tsunoda was “the best rookie F1 has had for years.”

“I’m really impressed with Yuki Tsunoda,” Brawn said. “I met him at the weekend for the first time and he’s a really impressive character. He is quite amusing and his language in the car can be a bit fruity but he showed some brilliant spells in the race. His promotion by Red Bull looks like a brilliant move.

“We can all remember the glorious days of full grandstands at Suzuka and the passion of the Japanese fans,” Brawn added. “I think we are going to have that again, which is incredibly exciting.”

Chinese, U.S. Hopefuls on F1 Horizon

There is plenty of excitement in F1 circles after the Formula 2 races in Bahrain saw China’s Guanyu Zhou emerge with a big lead in the junior championship. He’s an Alpine young driver and has already done a lot of F1 testing. There is talk that Zhou could be seen in a Williams F1 car in 2022, which would be terrific news for F1 as it looks to make a bigger impression in the vast Chinese market.

It’s harder to find a good American but there will be two racing in FIA Formula 3 this year: Juan Manuel Correa (21), who returns to action after missing 2020 with serious leg injuries sustained in the Formula 2 accident at Spa in 2019, which killed Anthoine Hubert; and a Red Bull youngster Jak Crawford, the 15-year-old son of the owner of the owner of the Speedportz Racing Park kart circuit, near Houston, Texas.

F1 continues to search for drivers from its target markets who are good enough to be there, but does not believe in promoting those without the talent required.

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