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Formula 1

Red Bull’s overlooked F1 driver has lost the benchmark he needs

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
6 min read

It is telling that after Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez had their moment of confrontation in the closing stages of the 2022 season, it has been outside re-hire Daniel Ricciardo who has been mooted as a potential solution – even if Red Bull has of course strenuously denied that it has given or would be giving any thought to pushing Perez aside.

In any case, were such a situation to occur virtually any other year since Red Bull established a two-pronged F1 presence, you’d expect a driver from its junior team Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri to be the focal point of any rumours.

But in late 2022 Pierre Gasly was already on his way out and not someone Red Bull has sounded at all keen to plug back into the senior team at any point following his initial mid-2019 departure, and Yuki Tsunoda just hadn’t asserted himself relative to Gasly.

But as long as Tsunoda remains a Red Bull-contracted F1 driver and hasn’t been publicly ruled out as a senior team option, we have to consider him as such at least in a purely theoretical capacity down the line. And it feels like, in letting Gasly fly the coop, Red Bull may have indirectly hurt its chances of knowing what exactly it has in its 22-year-old Japanese protege.

Let’s backtrack a little. After finishing a standout third in his sole F2 season in 2020, in which he equalled sophomore champion Mick Schumacher for points from round four onwards and was almost certainly the most impressive driver on the feeder series’ grid, Tsunoda got destroyed by Gasly in his rookie F1 season.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Race Day Silverstone, England

But he clearly course-corrected last year, taking his average normalised deficit in representative sessions from over half a second (brutal) to around a tenth (respectable).

Though he scored just over a third of his 2021 points tally, the AlphaTauri AT03 was obviously not very good and Tsunoda’s improvements both in terms of pace and in terms of a lower error rate seemed fairly evident. There was also a positive in-season trend relative to his team-mate – taking my colleague Edd Straw’s weekend driver ratings, Tsunoda averaged a 4.6 score versus Gasly’s 6.4 over the first 11 races, and a 5.7 versus Gasly’s 6.0 over the remaining 11.

Intuitively, this makes sense. Tsunoda was an obviously raw prospect coming into F1, with just two seasons of European single-seater racing under his belt (and two Japanese F4 seasons before that). There have been questions about his work approach during his time in F1, but talent has never been regarded as a big limitation.

And while pointing to a driver’s lack of consistency is such a common refrain to describe overall underperformance that it approaches being completely meaningless, there should be a longer leash for Tsunoda than most in terms of using that as a valid excuse because of his youth and relatively limited pre-F1 experience.

Last season certainly made it look like he’s channelling his talent more often and more effectively. But there is, of course, an elephant in the room.

Was Gasly checked out in the latter half of 2022? Was his head fully turned by the sudden vacancy arising at Alpine? Did that combined with the frustration of the AT03’s shortcomings mean he was giving it less than his all?

Only Gasly and AlphaTauri will have a real idea of the answers to those, and maybe not even them. After all, it’s hard to imagine a driver as good and accomplished as Gasly actively downing tools – but what isn’t hard to imagine is there being a subconscious impact of the circumstances that tipped the scales more towards Tsunoda.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Day One Sakhir, Bahrain

But in normal circumstances, Gasly is the definition of a known quantity for Red Bull. And were he staying as part of the family for 2023 – had the Alpine gig never materialised, through the Enstone team simply securing either Fernando Alonso or Oscar Piastri instead of what actually happened – it would not have just removed the questions about the representativeness of Gasly’s late-2022 form but also provided an extra season to evaluate Tsunoda’s progress trend against the Frenchman.

Now, Tsunoda will be measured against Nyck de Vries instead. De Vries is not a total wildcard – but the sum total of F1 competitive session knowledge about him is that excellent debut weekend at Monza. And you know who else had an excellent debut weekend in F1? Yuki Tsunoda.

If De Vries handles Tsunoda in 2023, it will be useful learning – Red Bull will know for sure that Tsunoda is not a driver to pin big hopes on in the future. But what if Tsunoda narrowly defeats De Vries, or even comprehensively batters his new team-mate? Would that say anything at all about his suitability for bigger and better things than AlphaTauri?

Maybe Red Bull has discounted that suitability already – that’s probably the popular perception, and it wasn’t helped by the time he got publicly admonished by Christian Horner for what seemed like a fairly innocuous and minor case of interference with the lead team’s drivers in qualifying in Mexico in 2021.

You probably don’t speak quite so harshly if you really see the youngster as a potential future option – though, at the same time, it is worth noting that across various interviews in 2022 Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko has continued to emphasise Tsunoda’s raw potential. Marko is not the kind of person to pay lip service.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Monaco Grand Prix Saturday Monte Carlo, Monaco

When it comes to Red Bull’s talent development within F1, AlphaTauri team boss Franz Tost has long stressed that he believes a rookie needs three years with his team before they’re ready for Red Bull. It is clearly not a belief the structure as a whole shares – Max Verstappen made the move after just over one season, replacing Daniil Kvyat, who had himself graduated after one campaign against an experienced benchmark in Jean-Eric Vergne.

Though any talk of a short-term Red Bull promotion for Tsunoda is incredibly fanciful, not even just because Sergio Perez has a contract through 2024, Gasly could’ve been a Vergne-like benchmark for the Japanese.

Would it have been worth keeping Gasly just for that reason? Probably not. Definitely not against his will, with his heart set on Alpine. But in different circumstances, it would have been a major bonus.

As it stands, Tsunoda remains a question mark. If he can’t take care of business in 2023 versus De Vries, there’s no real reason for Red Bull to persevere with the project no matter how much potential there is. It’s a sink-or-swim philosophy there when it comes to drivers, and Tsunoda will have definitively sunk, with compatriot Ayumu Iwasa – now himself a very raw Formula 2 standout in Red Bull colours – surely a better use of that AlphaTauri seat.

But if Tsunoda’s progress continues, should he not be considered, aged just 22 as of this writing, as a viable option for the role of Verstappen’s’ rear gunner? Would it be worth Red Bull’s time in that case to start properly grooming him as a potential Perez successor?

You may think those questions have clear-cut answers. I don’t think so. And I think the best litmus test, one that will have for sure made those answers clear cut, will be suiting up for Alpine instead this year.

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