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Formula 1

The risk and reward with F1 ‘super talent’ Tsunoda

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
6 min read

A Formula 1 rookie like Yuki Tsunoda can thrill or frighten their team almost in equal measure, at least in the early stages.

“I like drivers who are pushing, I like drivers who are risking something,” says AlphaTauri team boss Franz Tost.

“But of course, sooner or later you must get it under control. And this is what we must teach Yuki.

“I like this way more than to try to make someone faster. To slow down a fast driver is easier than to speed up a slow driver.”

Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri Baku 2021

Tost is well-versed on the subject of F1 rookies. Tsunoda must be one of the most curious he’s come across: prodigiously fast one moment, putting the car into the wall the next, and possibly finding time to let rip over the radio in between.

He is an incredibly exciting talent, one The Race was left deeply convinced by during his meteoric rise up the F1 ladder, but also one who seems as capable of delighting those around him as he is to frustrate them at times.

Ironically, Tsunoda’s rookie season couldn’t have started more impressively and undramatically across testing and the opening weekend, where he scored points on his debut with a measured recovery from a disappointing qualifying.

Then the championship left Bahrain.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Qualifying Day Imola, Italy

The qualifying crash and race spin at Imola, underwhelming first trip to Portugal’s Algarve circuit, radio rant and misplaced team frustration in Spain and practice crash in Monaco meant Tsunoda’s goodwill from a great debut quickly faded.

His team and his backer had no interest in giving up on him, but it was clear there were frustrations creeping in on both sides. The decision to relocate Tsunoda from Milton Keynes in England to Faenza, near AlphaTauri’s factory in Italy, showed both the need for a big change but also the faith Red Bull had that this guy is worth investing in.

Tost has had a good amount of patience for Tsunoda. He is never one to mince his words and his appraisal of Tsunoda’s mistakes has been typically blunt at times. But he also points to various mitigating circumstances complicating those early races, during which Tsunoda was unable to build any momentum.

“We must not forget that there are a couple of racetracks that he didn’t know,” Tost said at the last race in Azerbaijan. “It was his first time in Portimao for instance. We simply didn’t get the most out of our car on the set-up side.

“Then in Barcelona he had a technical failure [in the race]. He could have scored points there. It was not his fault. In Monaco he did a fantastic FP1 and then FP2, OK, he crashed, but many other drivers crashed in this corner already.

F1 Grand Prix Of Azerbaijan Practice

“In Baku, we all know it’s a difficult racetrack, it’s not so easy. Until the third qualifying he was really on a good level and showed good pace.

“You should never crash, but to crash in Q3 is one story. What I didn’t like was the crash in qualifying one on the first run at Imola, because with such a competitive car you don’t do this.

“But that’s the cleverness, to learn, and this cleverness runs in parallel with experience. You can’t expect that a young driver knows everything.

“And you must also not forget that Formula 1 currently has a really high level from the drivers’ side. There are many, many very, very fast drivers in there and also Formula 1 has become very complicated to understand technically everything.”

Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri Monaco Grand Prix 2021

That answer wraps up Tsunoda’s first few months in F1 rather neatly. He’s been very quick at times, he’s facing a steep learning curve, and his biggest weakness has been not knowing where the limit is.

His crash in Q3 in Baku was, to be frank, a ridiculous shunt. There is always time to be found under braking and Turn 3 is one that tempts even the most experienced drivers in a little too far – Daniel Ricciardo crashed in Q2 at the same corner.

But Ricciardo hit the wall because he’d braked slightly too late and just locked a wheel, which sent him into the wall. Tsunoda braked obscenely late and never even looked like making the corner, hence his crunching impact.

Jun 06 : Azerbaijan Grand Prix review

Tsunoda admitted after that error: “Q2 was good, and that makes me a little bit excited. My personality is I tend to push hard, aim too high. Sometimes it’s positive and this time was negative.”

Tost said: “He has to recognise when he’s on the limit. If you are in the same tenth as other top drivers, then there is not so much space to be faster anymore.

“You must recognise as a driver ‘I can’t brake later, I can’t push harder’. He thought he could do it, but then you simply end in the tyre wall. This is a kind of learning process and I must say that during the weekend he already made big steps forward in understanding the car and also from the technical feedback side.

“I’m quite positive that we will get him in the right way. He has unbelievable natural speed.”

F1 Grand Prix Of Azerbaijan Previews

It hints at the same lack of emotional control that causes his outbursts over the radio. Some of his remarks are amusing and an easy source of internet laughs. But the return of “shut up!” to his race engineer in Baku was a disappointing relapse.

This is surely something that will improve with age and maturity, in addition to being something he knows is a problem and is trying to work on. The good thing is that, as Tost hinted at, performances like the Baku weekend overall will make those moments nothing more than a small detail.

Poor radio etiquette will never matter as much when a driver is doing his job properly on-track, and in Azerbaijan Tost’s fear was not Tsunoda being potty-mouthed, it was him being so quick at times in the race that Tost thought he might shunt.

“Yuki did a fantastic job,” said Tost. “His race pace sometimes was unbelievable. I was really worried that something would happen because he was really fast.

“He is going in a really good way and I think that he will come up with some good results also in the second half of the season when he gets a little bit more experience, especially on racetracks that he knows.”

Tost was thrilled in Baku with what he thought was Tsunoda’s most complete performance in F1: a maiden Q3 appearance and then a strong drive in the grand prix. It should be noted Tsunoda was lucky to escape punishment for not slowing enough under yellow flags twice during the race, and it would be wise for the team to recognise that and make him aware that he needs to react to those cautions better in the future.

But otherwise he did a good job in a very fast car, ending a four-race pointless streak with his best result so far.

“In Bahrain he scored two points when he finished ninth, but he knew the track quite well from Formula 2,” said Tost. “Then we tested there and we found a good set-up.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Race Day Sakhir, Bahrain

“But we came to Baku and he didn’t know the track and he immediately got quite familiar with it.

“He started seventh and finished seventh. For me it’s a really fantastic job from his side, a fantastic performance.

“We have to work on some things, we know this, but I’m confident that we will get everything together because he is a super talent.”

Tsunoda will probably exceed the limit a few more times before that happens. It is, as he puts it, in his nature to aim high and perhaps get a little carried away.

That’s the risk of backing a talent like Yuki. But Tost knows better than most the reward can be well worth it, and there’s already plenty of evidence Tsunoda will be exactly that.

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