“There’s a couple of regrets”, Yuki Tsunoda admitted after the Formula 1 season finale. One of them is “my biggest mistake all season”.
Tsunoda’s ultimately futile heroics in the final race of the year came so close to grabbing AlphaTauri seventh in the championship. The team that scored five points in the first 17 events then scored 20 in the final five but fell just short of Williams despite a wonderful Tsunoda qualifying effort to start sixth and strong race drive to finish eighth in Abu Dhabi.
It is so easy to point to a single error that lost AlphaTauri the points it needed to beat Williams, and that’s Tsunoda spinning away a nailed-on healthy points finish after carelessly turning across Oscar Piastri in Mexico. That is the moment he “especially” regrets.
But, Tsunoda suggests, he will not dwell on it. For one thing he was at least trying to make something happen in that race. He feels he has learned from it. And it’s important to stress how misleading it would be to declare that as the moment that definitively cost the team.
As stated in a previous piece by The Race, Tsunoda’s error in Mexico - and a half-spin in Brazil at the next race - did have an exaggerated impact because AlphaTauri was running out of opportunities to gain ground on Williams.
Yes, AlphaTauri can arguably count the cost of it now. But the final standings are a reflection of all 22 races. AlphaTauri had plenty of chances to score points before then, if it had produced a better car. And while Daniel Ricciardo starred in Mexico, that was his only points contribution in the final five weekends after returning from a broken wrist.
Tsunoda outscored Ricciardo 15-6 in the seven events they contested as team-mates. If Ricciardo had matched his less experienced team-mate’s points return, AlphaTauri would have had another route to beating Williams.
You can also pick out, for every single driver, instances through the season that can be isolated as the most costly moment.
Imagine Tsunoda had a perfect run-in, and AlphaTauri finished seventh. Would that mean scrutiny on Alex Albon’s single, major error all the way back in Australia, which threw away a chunk of points for Williams? It seems unlikely. But lost points counted as much then as they did when Tsunoda erred in Mexico...
The point is that while Tsunoda could have done a better job with maximising the opportunities he had in AlphaTauri’s strong end to the season, he still did a very good one. Scoring points and outperforming Ricciardo more often than not was a very appropriate way to end a season in which he clearly upped his game.
It was important that Tsunoda did not merely excel as the underdog in a shed of a car in the early races, when he racked up two 10th- and three 11th-place finishes. Once the car became more competitive, Tsunoda went with it, even though there was a little dip around the time of Liam Lawson’s arrival - but that was circumstance as much as anything (he failed to complete a single racing lap across back-to-back grands prix in Italy and Singapore).
Ultimately, his consistency and effectiveness was very strong when the AlphaTauri was at its best - stronger than Ricciardo, with the exception of Mexico, where Tsunoda would almost certainly have been in the mix from the start without a grid penalty for an engine change.
Abu Dhabi brought all of that together nicely. It was a great drive. He qualified well, drove well, and did his best with a questionable and slightly roll-of-the-dice one-stop strategy in pursuit of the sixth place the team needed to jump Williams in the championship. In doing so, Tsunoda led a grand prix for the first time - although he didn’t exactly notice!
“I gave it everything,” said Tsunoda. “To be honest I didn't know I was leading the pack, so I'm very surprised about it.
“Looking back [on] the first half of the season, we never thought we [might be] leading the pack.
“So massive improvements and without the team effort we couldn't achieve this much. The amount that they pushed this year, almost every race we had upgrades, it was crazy.
“They deserved it. I wasn't able to give the biggest gift to Franz [Tost, departing team principal], but I gave it my all and I at least gave a performance as my appreciation to him."
With all the attention around Ricciardo, especially after he delivered AlphaTauri’s obvious 2023 peak with his qualifying and race result in Mexico, Tsunoda has been overlooked. It's potentially easier to notice his errors than his underlying contribution.
This is a driver who could have been ousted for 2024 had Red Bull decided not to appease Honda - and maybe accept a little extra cash - and dumped Tsunoda so that star stand-in Lawson could be given a full-time drive alongside Ricciardo.
With all respect to Lawson, that would have been a mistake. Tsunoda deserves his seat in F1; his performance through 2023 already supported that argument, and his end-of-season run vindicated it further.
If he had done a perfect job, AlphaTauri could have finished seventh in the championship. But Tsunoda is also largely responsible for the team getting as close as it did in the first place.