Feature F1 Unlocked
BARRETTO: Yuki Tsunoda has clearly stepped up this season – but what has he changed to improve his performance?
Yuki Tsunoda entered the 2023 F1 campaign as one of the drivers with the most to prove. The Japanese driver was too inconsistent and ended up comfortably beaten by his more experienced team mate Pierre Gasly over two campaigns filled with spins, crashes, expletive laden radio calls and some stand-out race performances.
Red Bull and his AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost retained faith in him though, and handed him a third year at the team. But this would likely be his final chance to prove he had the talent to succeed in F1, having made it to the top of the motorsport ladder with just two seasons of international single-seater racing under his belt.
It is therefore unrealistic for Tost to still expect Tsunoda to achieve those qualifying and race targets, unless the Italian team deliver a dramatic upturn in performance.
The long-time Team Principal, who has been in charge at AlphaTauri (formerly known as Toro Rosso) for 18 years, knows the sport better than most – so it’s no shock he has revised his expectations and I understand him to be very happy with Tsunoda’s start to the 2023 campaign.
Tsunoda hits ground running against De Vries
The minimum expected of Tsunoda for 2023 was to beat new team mate Nyck De Vries and confidently assume the role of team leader given his two years of experience with the Italian outfit.
That was no easy feat given De Vries was highly-rated, despite this being his rookie year. The Dutchman had three teams chasing his signature after a stellar stand-in performance on debut for Williams in last year’s Italian Grand Prix where he scored points.
He also has superb racing pedigree, counting championship trophies in Formula 2 and Formula E among his bulging silverware cupboard.
So, it’s impressive that Tsunoda has stepped up to the mark this year – and consistently delivered across all three opening races.
- Qualifying: Tsunoda (14th) finished 0.721s clear of De Vries (19th) in Q1 (only Tsunoda progressed to Q2)
- Race: Tsunoda finished one place outside of the points in 11th, three spots clear of De Vries
- Qualifying: Tsunoda (16th) was 0.305s quicker than De Vries (18th) in Q1 (both were knocked out in Q1)
- Race: Tsunoda once again finished three places clear of De Vries in 13th
- Qualifying: Tsunoda (12th) was 0.236s ahead of De Vries (15th) in Q1 (both were knocked out in Q2)
- Race: Tsunoda finished 10th (and was fifth after the final restart before the field was reset), as De Vries retired
There are always caveats when analysing data like this – track conditions, fuel loads, position on the track when an incident happens etc – but what it does show is that Tsunoda has ticked a lot of boxes in terms of what is expected of him.
He has found some consistency, not just across a weekend from Friday practice through the Sunday’s Grand Prix, but across three races, on three very different tracks, and with a car that is not capable on pure performance of fighting for points. And yet, he’s put himself in a position to score in all three rounds so far.
Yes, De Vries is closing the gap consistently from one race to another, but that was to be expected given his racing pedigree. It’s now up to Tsunoda to use that to push on again.
Tsunoda gaining across the board
Talk to those close to Tsunoda and they will tell you that the Japanese driver is a different person to that of last year. He’s able to articulate himself better with engineers and approach the race weekend in a calmer, more efficient way. And he’s finding more ways to harness his talent to translate that into better results on track.
One change that has helped is that Gasly, with whom Tsunoda built a very close relationship, has left the team. He learned loads from Gasly, with regards to set-up and race weekend approach, while the close bond helped elevate the pressure both on and off the track. However, Tsunoda perhaps got too comfortable with the Frenchman and wasn’t able to switch into ‘work mode’ as efficiently as his more experienced team mate. After two seasons, the time was right to split and for Tsunoda to take his own path moving forward.
“It's definitely different,” said Tsunoda of his relationship with De Vries. “Pierre was more like a brother, just really fully open. Maybe sometimes it was too open. I just feel really, really comfortable with Pierre. With Nyck, we still have a good relationship. We joke with each other. I wouldn’t say like a brother but he’s a really, really good friend. I went with him for lunch, and we explored Melbourne.”
Another tweak has been a switch in trainer to Michael Italiano, who previously worked with Daniel Ricciardo up until the end of last year. They’ve only each other since January, and already they’ve formed a bond that suggests they’ve been friends and confidants for years.
“We get along well from the first day,” said Tsunoda. “In the two weeks, I didn't have much muscle soreness, which is a good thing. I'm in good shape. Even though I did lots of work and strength sessions, I was feeling fresh the day after.
“The one particular place I did have muscle soreness was my abs because we were laughing so much. Every day of the training camp, I had muscle soreness in my abs. It was really funny, and it tells me that I’m feeling comfortable straight away with him, which is really good and I'm really, really happy working with him.
“I want to concentrate on my physical fitness, but I want to be friends with my trainer, rather than just having a business relationship. For me it helps with my mentality in race week. I want to be able to have a conversation straight away with my trainer about what I’m feeling. I just really want to be open with my trainer.”
Tsunoda has changed on track, too. He no longer pushes the limit every time he heads out. Instead, he pulls it back in practice and when doing testing when pushing the limit is unnecessary, and that has naturally reduced the number of mistakes he’s made. Instead, he’s been able to build a rhythm through the weekend and have more confidence to push in moments when it counts, like in qualifying or during phases of the race.
His efforts in defence have been notable this year, particularly against Kevin Magnussen when they fought for the final point. It was a battle he ultimately lost, but he held on for far longer than anyone expected given the speed of the car relative to Magnussen’s Haas, and he drew significant praise from his Danish rival thereafter.
The Japanese driver spent time in the simulator straight after that race working on how he could “defend better next time” – a strategy that he’s been applying for several months. Back in Hungary 2021, he drew praise from the way he defended from Lewis Hamilton in the much faster Mercedes.
When he eventually lost the place, Tsunoda revealed how he watched Alonso ahead defend from Hamilton. He picked up pointers on car position and his approach to different types of corners to give him good exits and a better chance of holding Hamilton off – something the double world champion successfully did in that race.
These are just a handful of the many details Tsunoda is constantly working on, under the mentorship of Tost, as he looks to convince Red Bull that their faith has been well-placed and that he’s on the path towards morphing himself into the kind of driver Red Bull will want to promote into the works team when an opportunity presents itself, rather than one they will look to release onto the market.