ANALYSIS: Why AlphaTauri retained Tsunoda for 2023
In terms of points, Yuki Tsunoda’s second season has so far been worse than his rookie campaign, but Red Bull and AlphaTauri have still handed him a third year in the sport. F1 Correspondent Lawrence Barretto explains why…
AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost knows a thing or two about mentoring drivers with potential, having overseen the likes of Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo as they've passed through his team in recent years.
He knows when to give them tough love and when to take a more delicate approach. With Tsunoda, he’s consistently used a mix of both in a bid to get the best out of a 22-year-old driver he is convinced has the potential to deliver the goods in Formula 1 over a sustained period.
It's true that the Japanese driver hasn’t produced the results the team had hoped for by now, but they haven’t got short memories. They know he arrived in F1 with just two years of single-seater experience and therefore accept it will take time to refine his talent.
They also know that this year, the car isn’t good enough. Having started the year with ambitions of finally achieving a top-five finish in the constructors’ championship, the reality is they are fighting hard to defend P8 from Aston Martin.
So it’s not fair to compare Tsunoda’s tally of 11 points to his end-of-2021 haul of 32 (12 of which were gained at the final race of the campaign). Fairer would be to compare him to team mate Pierre Gasly, a one-time race winner, with the Frenchman having only scored 11 more.
Tsunoda’s results do not reflect his progress
AlphaTauri have looked closer at Tsunoda the driver, and how he has improved his skillset. Tost’s decision to move him from Milton Keynes closer to the factory in Faenza has paid dividends.
He still hates training and doesn’t enjoy the simulator – but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do it. Rather he applies himself in both areas in a regimented way and then unwinds with things he enjoys more, such as eating and gaming.
His relationship with the team has strengthened, his understanding of how the team operates and what each of the different departments do has been enhanced. The move has helped make clearer to Tsunoda that the Japanese rising star is part of a big group of people who rely on him to get the most out of their hard work – and his decisions both on and off track impact them.
Tsunoda has taken this in his stride, but remains very tough on himself. You can see the anguish in his face when he comes to face the media in the TV pen if he’s made a mistake or failed to bring the car home because of a mechanical issue. He suffers the hurt for himself – and for the team. That desire to always get the very best result remains, even if he has toned down that all-out attack approach in practice, realising that nailing every lap isn’t required and is far too risky.
While the 22-year-old still needs to control his emotions, his decision-making in the heat of battle has been significantly better. He is crashing less and sources say he is building his weekends in a smoother rhythm and starting to extract more out of the car consistently.
He is also quicker than he was last year, both in qualifying trim and race pace, relative to team mate Gasly. This is crucial because it shows that he is learning and making progress. His career is still only 38 Grand Prix weekends old.
New deal gives stability all round
Tost said in the announcement that he has always believed a driver needs “at least three years to fully get to grips with Formula 1”.
There’s no doubt Tsunoda’s case was helped by the fact that there aren’t any Red Bull junior drivers smashing down the door to F1 – but the decision to keep him leans more heavily on the side of rewarding improvement and work ethic.
And having consistency in drivers is always a benefit to a racing team, potentially even more so for AlphaTauri this winter if Red Bull permits Pierre Gasly to leave for Alpine. This will only happen if they secure the services of Nyck de Vries as his replacement, it is believed.
For now, though, the focus is on Tsunoda. Stability will take the pressure of his shoulders and he can attack the final six races – which will see him race F1 machinery on home soil for the first time – and reward the Red Bull family’s faith in him.