Column | Is Yuki Tsunoda's seat under threat?

23-08-2021 07:00 | Updated: 23-08-2021 07:44
Column | Is Yuki Tsunoda's seat under threat?

Yuki Tsunoda made the jump to F1 in 2021, driving alongside Pierre Gasly for AlphaTauri. There was significant media hype surrounding the young Japanese driver following preseason testing and the first race. In this column, we will analyze if the 21-year-old has lived up to the expectations and consider the alternatives that Red Bull have.

An Overview of Tsunoda's Season

As of the Hungarian Grand Prix, Yuki Tsunoda sits in thirteenth in the driver’s standings, with eighteen points to his teammate’s fifty points. Gasly is comfortably winning the qualifying duel 11-0, with Tsunoda on average being 0.520% off his teammate’s pace in qualifying (the equivalent of roughly six places behind in a highly competitive midfield). For comparison, Daniil Kvyat was 0.276% slower than the Frenchman during their time as teammates. 

Although the raw statistics are helpful, they lack the necessary context to fully understand Tsunoda’s season. 

The Japanese driver received much praise for his efforts in preseason testing, setting the second-fastest time on Day 3 only 0.093s behind Max Verstappen. His first race lived up to the hype, as he memorably overtook former world champions such as Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso en route to a highly creditable ninth-place finish. On, Ross Brawn even hailed the 21-year-old as the “best rookie F1 has had for years”, a bold statement considering the recent breadth of talent in the form of Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, and George Russell

The rest of Tsunoda’s season has been more lacklustre. Points have been somewhat difficult to score consistently for the rookie, with five points finishes out of eleven races thus far (compared to Gasly’s eight). He narrowly scraped tenth place finishes in the Styrian Grand Prix and the British Grand Prix. His two biggest point hauls were seventh in Baku and sixth in Hungary, courtesy of disaster for the frontrunners. 

What’s more concerning is that the Japanese driver seems to be crash-prone, even for a rookie. Tsunoda crashed in qualifying in Imola, Baku, and France, compromising his races. This does not include his hefty free practice crashes, which all add up under a cost cap environment. 

It seems that Tsunoda is vastly underperforming at AlphaTauri, but there are several factors at play. First and foremost, his teammate (and most direct comparison) Pierre Gasly is in the form of his life, revitalizing his career after a disappointing stint at Red Bull. Many pundits and journalists would agree that Gasly is one of the best-performing drivers in F1 at the moment. It would be simply unreasonable to expect a rookie to match that level of performance. 

We must also remind ourselves that the Japanese driver is only in his third year racing outside of his home country. Understandably, he will require some time to acclimatize to a different culture and language. His recent move to Faenza, near AlphaTauri’s headquarters, is already paying dividends as he seeks to improve his performance. The 21-year-old told Autosport, “I think moving to Faenza or near the factory was definitely a good decision. And, that's why I found a couple of good approaches before Azerbaijan. Recently, I think the whole race week, how I build up the pace and progress through the sessions went better compared to the first three races or four races.”

Tsunoda has also demonstrated an exemplary ability to adapt quickly. He was arguably the standout performer in F2 last year, stringing together a number of impressive performances en route to finishing the championship in third in only his first year. Although Yuki was beaten in the standings by Mick Schumacher and Callum Ilott, the latter two had significantly more experience in both F2 and the European racing scene.

AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost remains optimistic about Tsunoda, as he states in conversation with, “Yuki is also doing well as a newcomer, although he still has to gain some experience and learn a lot. But that's nothing special. That's logical with young drivers.”

He later explains his visions for AlphaTauri’s 2022 lineup, concluding, “I don't see any other drivers and hope that next year we will drive with Pierre and Yuki.”

Helmut Marko discusses Yuki’s error-prone tendencies while acknowledging that he still has time to improve. Marko tells Speedweek, “He is young, with a lot of Japanese mentality, but he makes mistakes when they are not necessary at all, like in a first practice session. But he'll be fine. He still has time.”

One could argue that Tsunoda was given the promotion to AlphaTauri too quickly, and that he needed more time to hone his craft in F2. However, his impressive junior series performances and ability to adapt merit a second season in F1; as he gains experience and confidence in this sport, his performances should continue to get better. If he improves his qualifying and hones his consistency, he will become a decent prospect for the future.

Red Bull's Options

Red Bull have gained somewhat of a reputation for their sink-or-swim mentality when it comes to their junior drivers. For the reasons discussed above, Red Bull have no immediate reason to replace Yuki at AlphaTauri. However, should the senior management decide that Tsunoda isn’t good enough, they have a few options. 

The most obvious is Alex Albon, who was demoted to reserve driver at Red Bull after a woeful 2020 campaign. Some might argue that Albon deserves a chance of redemption at AlphaTauri, as Pierre Gasly received such a lifeline. However, Horner and Marko don’t seem keen on returning him anytime soon to the pinnacle of motorsport. Moreover, the latest rumors suggest that the former Red Bull driver is probing for opportunities in other racing series, such as INDYCAR. As such, Albon is not likely to be Yuki’s replacement. 

Red Bull currently have seven drivers in their junior team. However, the likes of Jonny Edgar, Jack Crawford, Ayumu Iwasa, and Isack Hadjar still require more experience in the lower categories to make the jump to F1.

Thus, Jehan Daruvala, Juri Vips, and Liam Lawson are the most likely replacements. Daruvula is not the strongest candidate, as he was comfortably outpaced by Tsunoda at Carlin last year; this year he is 9th in the standings, 33 points behind teammate Dan Ticktum. Vips on the other hand is currently 5th in the F2 standings in his first full season and has already secured his superlicense.

Liam Lawson is currently 8th in the standings in first F2 campaign. Helmut Marko weighed in on the young talent, telling Newstalk ZB, “He works well with the engineers. If he sees a weakness, he works on it and you don't see it again. He analyses very well, but that had nothing to do with his performance. He can handle [the pressure] and he's also very, very ambitious.” Thus, Lawson and Vips are two strongest talents in the Red Bull pool. 

Due to politics and contractual agreements, AlphaTauri won’t be able to take drivers from other driver academies, such as Alpine’s Oscar Piastri or Ferrari’s Robert Shwartzman. As of now, Yuki Tsunoda remains the best possible option for the second AlphaTauri seat.

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