Has Yuki Tsunoda's momentum finally stalled in F1?


He captured headlines during testing and at round one in Bahrain, but since then Yuki Tsunoda has struggled to get to grips with life in Formula 1

Yuki Tsunoda, 2021 Spanish GP

Tsunoda hasn't lived up to his own expectations so far in F1

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

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!”

Yuki Tsunoda, 2021 Spanish GP

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.

Yuki Tsunoda, 2021 Spanish GP

Helmut Marko makes for the hardest of taskmasters at Red Bull

Peter Fox/Getty Images

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.

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AlphaTauri is very much there to help him. The team provides him with as many tools as possible to learn and develop, it’s what it was created for. It knows that he needs time to get comfortable and find the best way of getting the most out of the car for himself, but it appears that Tsunoda himself hasn’t quite grasped that point yet. In Spain, some impatience seemed to creep in.

He’s a rookie, he will learn and learn quickly, but he’s also in an environment where he needs to. The Red Bull system can be very rewarding if approached in the right way, but it can be a very lonely place when things start to go wrong. Just ask Alex Albon, Brendon Hartley or the man on the other side of the garage.

Perhaps the strong start in Bahrain was a bad thing because it rapidly raised expectations – both from the outside and within Tsunoda himself – and the hype that was surrounding him means the little bit of dissent at the weekend didn’t sit so well for some. The fans that he’s earned himself either didn’t like to see him criticised, or were shocked to hear him blame someone other than himself for the first time.

The signs are that he learned part of the lesson very quickly on his own on Saturday, with an unprompted apology being posted on social media and an admission on Sunday morning that he had been hot and frustrated immediately after his Q1 exit. Raw emotion is great – I said we want more of it in the aftermath of the George Russell and Valtteri Bottas clash – but it doesn’t excuse every comment, and in F1 every comment is highly scrutinised for all drivers. Whether that’s fair or unfair, that’s the world Tsunoda’s now got around him; a world he’s excited to be a part of and definitely has the talent to stay in. But the past few races will have taught him how quickly it can become a tough one, and he doesn’t want to make it any tougher for himself by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

If he can control that a little better, then all he needs to do is learn how to produce more performances like Bahrain. Simple…