Ayumu Iwasa has had, by all accounts, a fantastic start to 2023. The second-year DAMS Formula 2 driver has taken three wins and one pole position already, giving him the most victories of anybody and a placing of third in the standings after five rounds.
The Japanese youngster won two titles in as many years in 2019 and 2020 and was subsequently snapped up by Honda as part of its Formula Dream project, following in the footsteps of AlphaTauri F1 driver Yuki Tsunoda – with whom the 21-year-old's career has many similarities.
Like Tsunoda, Iwasa has had a rapid rise through the junior ranks. His first full season in cars came in 2019 at the Suzuka Racing School's Single Seater Series, with Iwasa winning the overall title. The following year he progressed to French F4, claiming the crown with nine wins, 15 podiums and six pole positions to finish 80 points clear of closest rival Ren Sato - the previous year's Japanese F4 champion.
Moving into F3 in 2021 was a big step up for Iwasa, who admits he struggled for speed in his Hitech-run entry on his way to a respectable 12th in the standings with one win and two podiums. But it has been since his promotion to F2 in 2022 that Iwasa has really gained attention.
He finished fifth in his rookie season as the second-best newcomer, behind Williams F1 driver Logan Sargeant. Impressively, Iwasa's two wins came in the feature races at Paul Ricard and at the Abu Dhabi season finale, lining him up for a strong start to 2023.
And Iwasa has certainly delivered on that. Wins in Jeddah, Melbourne and Monaco have earned him a hefty 69-point haul, scoring in 70% of the races so far. Although he sits third in the standings behind Prema's Mercedes junior Frederik Vesti and 2022 runner-up Theo Pourchaire (ART), Iwasa is still critical of his performances so far.
"Honestly, I didn't have a good performance in Bahrain and Jeddah," he tells Motorsport.com in the makeshift Monaco paddock prior to what would be his third win of the season in the sprint race.
"I won the race in Jeddah but I couldn't manage the race well, the speed was not there. And then in Melbourne, I got a very good performance with the car. In Baku, again, we lost a bit of performance.
"So my season so far is bit up and down, just I'm able to keep good performance as a team. So that is a reason why I'm third in the championship, but I think still, the main target is to improve our performance as a team because we are not thinking that we are the top.
"Still we need to improve the car and the driving. Especially the car side, we are looking for a bit more step. It's overall performance [which needs improving] because in quali, we're missing a bit everywhere to be honest. In the race, it's better than quali in terms of the performance. But still, sometimes we are missing.
"For example, in Baku, we were missing for sure. Melbourne was much better, but Jeddah, Bahrain was completely not stop. So yeah, I think we are missing something but for sure we are not very far because still we are P2, and we are leading the teams' championship before Baku so yeah, I think we need to do the small steps."
"In Melbourne, we got a double podium in the feature race, that's really big points. Then we were struggling together in Baku and Barcelona, so it means that we have to work together as a team" Ayumu Iwasa
DAMS's campaign this season is boosted by newcomer Arthur Leclerc, who graduated from F3 after finishing sixth with Prema last year. The Ferrari Driver Academy member currently sits 10th in the standings with 34 points – 14 more than Iwasa's 2022 team-mate Roy Nissany scored all year.
Iwasa insists the difference between last year and this year is "not so big," adding: "We are doing the same direction for the working, we are improving step by step, and already we had a good speed last year so we are keeping it and just trying to put all together this season because I'm a second year, I'm not a rookie anymore.
But, he adds: "I need to put it all together to get a good result, so this is a target. Also, I have a good team-mate in Arthur, he's quick and also he has experience from two years in F3 and in Formula Regional as well. So we are trying to improve as a team."
Iwasa believes Leclerc is "improving quite a lot through the season" and credits him for adapting to the "complex" F2 car quickly. He also believes the pair have been thriving and struggling in the same places, which both helps and hinders the team's progress.
He said: "As we saw in Melbourne, we got a double podium in the feature race, that's really big points. Then we were struggling together in Baku and Barcelona, so it means that we have to work together as a team, not only the driver side.
"We are working together and we are doing quite good steps. That's why we were both good yesterday in practice, so yeah, I think we're showing good steps."
Iwasa is right that his 2023 season has been up and down so far. He finished fourth in the Bahrain season opener, then had a tricky run to eighth in the feature race. But he bounced back in Saudi Arabia with a first win of the season in the sprint after a chaotic fight to the line which saw him fend off several challenges.
Another fourth-place finish came in that weekend's feature race, before he returned to the top step of the podium in Australia, converting pole into the win in Sunday's main race after a fierce battle with Sauber junior Pourchaire. Then came the difficult Baku weekend which the Japanese would rather forget, retiring from the sprint race after his DRS got stuck open and suffering an anonymous feature race outside the points in 12th.
He was once again back on top last Saturday in Monaco, surviving multiple safety car interruptions to cross the line 6.6s clear of F2 stalwart Jehan Daruvala.
Despite his sometimes overly-critical approach, Iwasa does accept he has raised his level greatly since this time last year when he was 11th in the standings with almost half the points tally he has currently.
"I improved a lot of my performance from last year, because around this time last year, I had the speed, but I was 11th. I was performing really bad," he says. "Even if I had good speed, I was missing the results. Because of my mistakes or sometimes the pitstops, but now we are putting it all together.
"Okay, it's not perfect, but it's much better than last year. So that's got much bigger confidence in the team. So yeah, I think that is the reason."
He adds: "In F2, the car is the same for everyone but the set-up is different, so there's no perfect car in the world. That's why we are looking for improvement all the time and that's why I think we are always improving through the season, through the weekend every time and even my driving sometimes.
"Even if the car is the same, the conditions are different, so I need to adjust my driving quickly on the track. So yeah, it's always improvement like this."
It is this critical approach and dogged determination to improve which makes him one of Red Bull's top F1 future prospects, alongside current Super Formula standings leader Liam Lawson, who finished third in F2 last year and has completed F1 practice sessions for both AlphaTauri and Red Bull.
Iwasa's storming success over the past few years has put him firmly in the sights of Dr Helmut Marko, who recently suggested that Lawson and Iwasa would be in line for an AlphaTauri seat ahead of third driver Daniel Ricciardo were one to become available amid Nyck de Vries' rookie season struggles.
"If the driver is doing well in F2, I will be able to have an opportunity to drive in F1. This is a normal story. I'm not thinking about F1 too much" Ayumu Iwasa
For now, though, Iwasa is determined to focus on F2, and remains tightlipped about when or where he might make his F1 practice debut.
"I'm currently the top of the Red Bull juniors in F2, but it's quite tight, for sure," he says. "For example, Dennis [Hauger] and Jak [Crawford], everyone is doing good steps through the season. I can't say who will drive in F1 first, I don't have any news. My current target is to focus on F2 completely.
"If the driver is doing well in F2, I will be able to have an opportunity to drive in F1. This is a normal story. I'm not thinking about F1 too much, I'd like to focus on F2 to win every race. I think that's really important to go to F1."
Another influencing factor on Iwasa's future could be Honda's recently announced partnership with Aston Martin from 2026. Though the manufacturer's switch from Red Bull doesn't make a difference to Iwasa currently, it could prove to be an option as he heads up the single-seater pyramid.
Asked whether it affects his career, Iwasa replies: "Honestly, not at all, because as a racing driver, I'm focusing only to be world champion of F1, not only go to F1. So first of all, I need to do a good job in F2 which is okay, maybe win the championship.
"And then after, that is not 100% my decision as well, that's between Honda and Red Bull. I need to do my best job and I still am not a perfect driver, so I need to improve and I need to get stronger and faster to be a world champion. So yeah, obviously, I'm not thinking about it too much."
He does concede, however, that he was "so happy" to hear Honda would remain in F1, adding: "For me, Honda equals F1, so I think them staying in F1 is so big news for me, and then it was really happiness."
For now, Iwasa's thoughts remain firmly on the task at hand: winning the F2 title. Though he'll have a fight on his hands, with the likes of Pourchaire facing a make-or-break season, Iwasa looks to be one of the favourites heading into the second half of the year.
But with AlphaTauri's driver line-up uncertain beyond 2023 and with Honda re-committing to F1 from 2026, Iwasa's F1 prospects look better than ever.