Yuki Tsunoda: The Potty-Mouthed Japanese F1 Racer Who Became a Cult Star

By John Mercury October 2, 2023

The pressure was on Yuki Tsunoda. Within days, he would compete in a Formula 1 race in his home country, Japan. Bad luck had forced him out of two previous races minutes before the start, and speculation was rife that he might be demoted after some disappointing performances.

Yet at a fan event in central Tokyo last week, Mr. Tsunoda appeared jovial as he shared the stage with several rivals. When a moderator asked him to teach his fellow drivers a few words of the local language, Mr. Tsunoda took the microphone and chirped, “We are all slower than Yuki” in Japanese, drawing a laugh from the hundreds of fans hoisting their cellphones for photos.

It was in keeping with an impish persona, and, atypically for a top-level Japanese athlete, a foul mouth and devil-may-care attitude that has inspired a cult following and an international appeal that outstrip his accomplishments so far in F1.

When he made his debut in 2021, he was the youngest driver on the F1 grid and, as it happens, the shortest (he still is, at a reported 5 feet 3 inches). With his baby face, Mr. Tsunoda, 23, quickly gained an incongruous reputation for cursing volubly on the radio that drivers use to give feedback to engineers and mechanics — audio traffic that is also broadcast to fans during races.

Clips of him shouting “Shut up!” and other less printable outbursts went viral on social media, and his colorful reference to a “traffic paradise” that angered him on the track became a meme among fans.

In the wildly popular Netflix series “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” Mr. Tsunoda was shown farting, being lackadaisical about strength training and announcing “I want to go first poo” before a massage.

In his first year, some fans questioned whether he had earned the right to act that way. “People would think, ‘Why is he shouting a lot in the radio even if he is not performing really well?’” Mr. Tsunoda said during an interview over Zoom a few weeks before the Japanese Grand Prix.

But just as Hideo Nomo, one of the earliest Japanese players in Major League Baseball, upended stereotypes about Asian masculinity, Mr. Tsunoda may help topple other racial clichés.

While Asians are often characterized as disciplined and obedient, Mr. Tsunoda’s behavior shows that they “are allowed to have this full range of emotions and dispositions, even if what you’re saying has to be bleeped out,” said Christina Chin, associate professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton.

Mr. Tsunoda’s global exposure has coincided with a resurgence of Formula 1 racing in Japan, which last boomed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the European-dominated sport, Mr. Tsunoda is the first Japanese driver to race in the elite circuit since Kamui Kobayashi left in 2014.

Last weekend, 220,000 fans attended the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka over three days of practice, qualifying and racing, the highest number since 2006. Fans in T-shirts bearing the logos of teams like Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari jockeyed with “Yuki Go Go” banners in the stands.

Even Mr. Tsunoda’s former English tutor, Junko Tasaki, 51, showed up wearing a T-shirt imprinted with a maple leaf design from Mr. Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri team helmet and carrying a large cardboard cutout of the driver’s face.

“I had no interest in F1 before I met him,” Ms. Tasaki said. For the record, she added, “I didn’t teach him to say ‘shut up’ or the F-word.”

Just before climbing into his car on race day, Mr. Tsunoda consulted with several engineers and paused for a last-minute selfie with Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese billionaire fashion retail entrepreneur. The day turned somber for Mr. Tsunoda when he finished 12th, outside the sacred top 10 where team points are scored. His best finish in any of the 16 races this season so far was 10th place.

One spot in front of him on Sunday was Liam Lawson, the younger backup driver rumored to be in contention to replace Mr. Tsunoda next year. But going into the race weekend, AlphaTauri and Honda, the Japanese carmaker that supplies engines and financial backing for the team, announced that Mr. Tsunoda would continue to drive for them next year.

Speaking to Japanese reporters after the race, Mr. Tsunoda rubbed his fist in his right eye socket and lamented not placing higher in front of local supporters.

Mr. Tsunoda’s rise to Formula 1 started in the pits of go-kart racing near his home in Sagamihara, a suburb outside Tokyo, when he was 4. At age 5, he won the Japanese series championship for his age group.

“I didn’t think of it as raising him to be a driver, as much as having fun together,” Nobuaki Tsunoda, 60, Mr. Tsunoda’s father, said during an interview in a garage office crammed with custom-built bicycles, a vintage Honda S2000 sports car and a row of his son’s helmets. “I always said if you want to stop, you can stop.”

Moving up to single-seater racing was more than his family could afford. His father, who had business connections with Honda, suggested he try out for the carmaker’s racing school, which accepted him.

By 2018 — the year Honda started building engines for Red Bull, the parent team of AlphaTauri — Mr. Tsunoda had won the championship of a lower circuit, Formula 4.

Honda’s backing has been crucial for Mr. Tsunoda. “F1 takes a lot of money,” said Masahiro Owari, a Japanese sportswriter. “I think a lot of the reason he is on the team is because of Honda’s support.”

When Mr. Tsunoda was promoted to F1, he first moved to Milton Keynes, England, racing for AlphaTauri. Before his second F1 race in 2021, he crashed during a qualifying session, and his driving deteriorated over subsequent races. Since then, the team hired him a psychologist, he toned down the swearing and his driving improved.

He said he didn’t consider therapy a punishment. “I take it like they wanted to support me as much as possible to be a better driver,” he said.

AlphaTauri did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Beyond racing, Mr. Tsunoda said he wants to open a restaurant after winning a world championship. He didn’t enjoy the food in Milton Keynes, he said, but since traveling more and moving to Italy, where AlphaTauri is based, he has eaten more palate-pleasing meals. He envisions a fusion menu with items like Wagyu beef tacos.

The first time his parents visited him at his home in Faenza, his mother, Minako Tsunoda, hoped to eat a meal in an Italian restaurant. Instead, she said, Mr. Tsunoda asked her to fix him ozoni, soup with sticky rice cakes, and sekihan, rice with red beans.

“I was not really a foodie guy” in Japan, he said. “Probably because I didn’t recognize how good Japanese food is compared to other cuisine.”

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