It’s time for me to get hypocritical. I love Yuki Tsunoda’s honesty and raw emotion – not every driver can get away with being like that – but he’s got lessons to learn from where it can come back to bite him after Barcelona.
Let me start this week’s column with a few caveats. I’ve dealt with Yuki for a number of years now, speaking to him a lot last year as host of the FIA Formula 2 press conferences, but also previous to that for work I sometimes do for Honda’s Formula 1 output. So these first four races in F1 are not the first time I’ve come across him.
And the first thing to say is he’s damn cool. He hasn’t been in Europe all that long in the grand scheme of things – moving over from Japan to take on Formula 3 in 2019 – but he has such a positive outlook and is excited by the journey he’s on. You only have to look at his answer to a question from a young fan last week to get a feel for that.
Sitting alongside Max Verstappen, the pair were asked what the best thing about being an F1 driver is, to which Verstappen simply replied: “Driving the car,” before being prompted to add: “Just the speed, braking power, that’s the best thing about being a Formula 1 driver, because outside the car it’s not very nice. I would prefer to be driving the car 24/7 than doing all of these things.”
Tsunoda, however, had a slightly different take.
“The best thing is you can drive the fastest car in the world I think. Others? Also I get to eat good food in the hospitality every week! I really like that. For me especially I really like the food, I’m really enjoying that food – for example AlphaTauri and Honda is really different. There’s Japanese food for Honda and Italian food in Scuderia AlphaTauri, so I can enjoy those two different kinds of food in one day!”
Tsunoda had a torrid time in Spain, criticising his team and then retiring in the race
Grand Prix Photo
It’s probably not that hard to find joy in lots of little things as an F1 rookie, especially after such a meteoric rise. F4 in 2018, F3 a year later and F2 last season; Tsunoda has come a long way in a short space of time. And that excitement and positivity was pretty infectious early on.
He would make jokes out of the car – laughing with Belgian TV in Bahrain when he adjusted their microphone due to his height, saying it’s his routine in the TV pen – and then be surprisingly angry over team radio within it.
And that anger was almost seen as endearing when Yuki could laugh at himself afterwards and was enjoying a strong start to the year. His pace in Bahrain was extremely impressive, as was his overtaking, so when you mixed that with the positive atmosphere surrounding him outside of the car there was momentum building behind him quickly.
Looking back now, that momentum well and truly stopped the moment he hit the barrier at Imola.
For a rookie, it was an understandable mistake. Tsunoda knew Imola well after testing older F1 machinery at AlphaTauri’s local track a number of times over the winter, so he had high expectations and was almost impatient in trying to see how well he could do. The same could be said for the spin after he’d recovered into the points following the red flag, and it seemed to have a knock-on impact in Portimao.
A tricky track with low grip and gusty winds made for an unpredictable weekend for all the drivers, so it was no surprised the rookies might struggle more with that.
What was less understandable, was his outburst in Spain.
Helmut Marko makes for the hardest of taskmasters at Red Bull
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Tsunoda’s English is far from perfect. He turned 21 this week and has only been in Europe just over two years after all, so there is always the fact that it isn’t his native tongue to factor in, but he’s also a very honest and self-critical guy. When he wants to, he can hide behind the fact that he doesn’t understand a question (whether he does or not) in order to avoid answering something he’s going to struggle with. That wasn’t what he did on Saturday after qualifying.
His final Q1 run was certainly not ideal and there could have been a number of technical reasons for that, but notwithstanding the language barrier, to criticise the team publicly is not a good idea.
Tsunoda insisted he got his tyres into the perfect temperature window for his lap but had to go much quicker on his out-lap than his team-mate and the rest of the field to do so due to the way the team has set-up the car, adding that even though they have the same car he and Pierre Gasly are giving very different feedback.
At best, he was saying he’s struggling with the set-up the team gives him, at worst he was questioning whether the machinery actually is the same, before checking himself.
Giving him the benefit of the doubt – as is only fair if I take into account what my foreign language skills are like even after years of learning some – Tsunoda still needs to understand that the best-case scenario was not the way to go at this stage of his career.