This piece was originally published in Japanese in 2021.
The very last time I cried from being disappointed with myself….
Six years ago I was only 16, a fresh-faced student at the Suzuka Circuit Racing School. I was at the final trials for Honda Formula Dream Project (Honda’s driver development program). If I made the selection, I’d be competing in the domestic F4 competition the following year. If I failed, I was going to quit racing altogether.
Now that I’m in F1, when I look back … that final trial was the turning point in my racing career.
That year at the trials, there were not only guys who had already competed in F4 but also drivers who had competed overseas and returned to Japan. Competing with all of them, I had no idea if I’d be able to make it.
In all fairness, I’d been karting since I was four years old and had also had some good results. That same year, I was the youngest ever to have a podium finish in the Formula debut race, where I had been given a one-off spot to compete. I also had my maiden win at the Super FJ Japan Challenge. Until the final trials, I had some solid results up my sleeve and, based on overall points, I was coming in first or second overall. Unless I really screwed up in the final trials, I was confident I could keep my top position.
“I know I’m capable. If I can’t have a good result here or if I can’t attract the judges’ attention, there’s no point continuing on with racing. I’m not interested in joining other development programs or pursuing non-formula racing: that’s not me. If I’m not good enough to compete at the highest level, then I’d rather not continue, I’m not interested in leading a half-arsed life in racing.”
Those were my thoughts at the time.
What awaited me was the worst-case scenario.
Back then, my mental game was poor. At the final trials, before the race, I was so nervous my whole body tensed up. My fingers holding the steering wheel were frozen … my usual self was nowhere to be seen. I made a false start. As a penalty, I was made to run the pit road slowly and rejoin the field. As I did that, I felt so alone. I was so ashamed, so embarrassed, that I lost my will to race. The result … I came in third. I failed.
I was so disappointed with myself I cried on the train ride home. Ever since I started racing properly, this was the first time I’d experienced such a shock. Even though I was the youngest, I was confident I’d win. I was in disbelief. I couldn’t think of what to do next. I was so mortified that I didn’t even want to talk to my parents.
I had one small hope though.
One of the judges, the director of Honda F4, said to me….
“You can’t race next year as part of Honda’s development program. However, there are four Honda spots available in Formula 4. We might be able to recruit you for one of the two spots available for Suzuka Racing School instead.”
This came about because Satoru Nakajima, the former Formula 1 driver, was the head of the school there. He’d recommended me to the judges. He’d seen me racing at the final corner.
After a false start, I was rattled but I did my best so I wouldn’t regret my performance. At the last corner, through the visor I saw Satoru Nakajima standing behind the chicane. I didn’t want Nakajima-san to see me as a quitter. Even though I had no chance to win, I gave it my best shot to hang on to the front group. Nakajima-san took this in.
In 2017, I started in F4, not as part of the development program but as part of Suzuka Racing School. That year, I finished third overall in the F4 Japanese Championship. The following year, I was selected as one of the drivers for the Honda Formula Dream Project and became the overall champion.
All of this came from that disappointment at the final trials.
The biggest change I made was on the mental front. Until I experienced that failed trial, I’d always had the attitude that “everything will work out in the end.” Even before I made a false start at the final trials, I knew my starts weren’t as good as they could be. I had time to practice my starts but I didn’t. I was too easy on myself. Back then I was also scared of making mistakes. I didn’t take risks and I wasn’t sure how to improve.
Not making it in that final trial made me realize that I was far from perfect. I had to become faster … A LOT faster. I learned how to take risks, make mistakes and learn from those errors. In F3 (2019) and F2 (2020), I wasn’t nervous to miss out on points at the start of the season. “Make mistakes at the start and learn quickly from them.” That was my process.
Takuma Sato (former F1 driver, current IndyCar driver) famously said, “No attack, no chance.” I couldn't agree more. In any sport, you don’t make new discoveries unless you challenge your limits by trying, by attacking. If you don’t, you stop improving. That’s the end of the journey. These days if I screw up something or if results don’t follow, I’m calm about it. It’s up to me how I fix it. Figure out where the error came from and I’ll be faster. That’s why I’m more positive about the whole experience.
You don’t make new discoveries unless you challenge your limits by trying, by attacking. If you don’t, you stop improving.- Yuki Tsunoda
I’m so grateful to my parents. Growing up I loved playing sports: swimming, soccer, mountain biking … I even enjoyed playing the piano. My parents let me do everything I was interested in.
I got into karting because of my dad. He loved motor sports and did gymkhana himself. One day he took me to the circuit and I gave karting a go for the first time. I also tried out the pocket bike, too, but apparently I said, “Karting is more fun.” Even though I don’t remember saying that. LOL.
Of course, there were times I hated karting.
One day when I was about seven, I was playing a game console during my waiting time at the kart circuit. My dad told me to focus on the race and took away my game. I got really upset. As the years went on, in order to improve my driving skills, Dad became more and more serious and tougher on me. I was often told off by him. In all honesty, until I was about 15, I wasn’t that grateful to Dad, and there were periods when I didn’t even like him. Teenage angst … that’s what it was.
My dad and mum were both very strict and pressed me to also keep up with my schoolwork. In case motor sports didn’t work out for me, I needed to have a backup. So I had to do well at school and there was no special treatment at school. After races, I had to go back home that day, prepare for class and hit the books for the next day. I wasn’t allowed to skip classes. I had to study hard for all the exams. It was pretty tough and I didn’t like it but I kept going.
At the time I didn’t have any gratitude to my parents, but now I feel very differently. I’m only here today because my parents were hard on me. They told me off and taught me so much. I’m so grateful to them.
I was surprised myself how fast I was able to reach F1. Not only as a Japanese driver, but also compared even to other international drivers, I’ve had the fastest route.
When I was seven, I went to my first F1 race, at Fuji Speedway, and saw Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Instead of being in awe of them, I remember thinking, One day I want to race against guys like them. I still feel the same way now. Of course, Hamilton is a legendary driver and I’m honored to race next to someone like that. But once we’re all on the circuit, Hamilton and Alonso are drivers like I am. They’re my competitors.
The same goes for the fastest guys in F1 right now, Max Verstappen, and Pierre Gasly, my teammate at AlphaTauri. I want to know where I stand next to guys like Verstappen. Gasly was a Super Formula driver in the top category in Japan when I was competing in F4. I want to learn so much from him but at the same time we’re both driving the same exact car. So someday I think he will be the biggest rival that I will have to try to defeat.
In the F1 world, speed is everything. No matter what people say, if you’re fast, you’ll make an impact. If you’re fast, even if you don’t do well at the start, you may still catch up in the second half.
It is no easy feat to show your speed when it matters the most and when things are tough. And to be the fastest, it’s so much more than just speed, I want to learn everything that I’m still lacking.
Speaking of which, at an online press conference last year, I said my aim was to break the record of seven F1 world championships, but I didn’t mean that.
I hadn’t even raced in my first F1 Grand Prix yet…. LOL
At the press conference, after I talked about those goals, I was asked what my ambition in F1 was. I answered, “Same as Lewis Hamilton … maybe win seven championships?” That became the big headline … oops. If I’m honest, I want to just focus on all the things that are in front of me. If I can achieve my “ambition” by achieving those things in front of me, I’d be happy.
In the F1 world, speed is everything. No matter what people say, if you’re fast, you’ll make an impact.- Yuki Tsunoda
I wonder what my future will be. I want to improve my skills and become a world-leading F1 driver. I’ll probably feel a different type of pressure from what I’m used to and that will become my motivation. The fans might expect more of me.
I don't think I will ever cry as I did four years ago when I failed at the final trials. I’ll never forget those tears. But in the future, if I were to cry, I wonder what sort of tears they’d be?
Maybe when I have my first win?
It’s been a hard enough road to get to F1, but it’ll get even tougher. Winning is such a difficult thing to do.
I certainly hope they will be tears of joy and not tears of devastation.