Big things were expected of Yuki Tsunoda ahead of his rookie season in F1, but four rounds in, he’s failing to live up to the hype.
Three rookies joined the grid for the 2021 campaign, and while one of them was the Formula 2 champion and was called Schumacher, Tsunoda was arguably the one that there was the most excitement around, and understandably so.
In his first and only season in F2, he was immensely impressive, finishing P3 in the standings after scoring 200 points and winning three races. It wasn’t just his results that caught the eye either, but his aggressive, swashbuckling driving style too.
His performances earned him an AlphaTauri seat for 2021, and Helmut Marko quickly made it clear how highly he and Red Bull rated the Japanese driver ahead of the start of the season.
“Only due to technical defects and a few crashes did he not win the [F2] championship, and that in the rookie year,” Marko told Motorsport-total.com.
“He is characterised by an unbelievable basic speed and a very quick perception and learning phase.
“If you saw the last races, how he held back at the beginning of the races until the halfway stage, he saved his tyres and then attacked. That was a great mix between aggressiveness and driving with your head.”
While Marko may have been biased, he wasn’t the only one expecting a lot from the 20-year old, with Ross Brawn saying that he was “the best rookie F1 has had for years.”
Here at PlanetF1, we fully believed the hype, with three of our five-person panel backing him to win the intra-team battle with Pierre Gasly in our pre-season predictions.
Four rounds in though, he hasn’t come close to living up to expectations and is causing problems for his team inside and outside of the car.
"He's okay, but the car is not"
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 17, 2021
To be fair to him, his first race was excellent as, after a disappointing qualifying session, he fought his way up to P9 in Bahrain, overtaking multiple World Champions. Since then though, everything has gone very downhill.
At round two in Imola, he made a costly mistake in qualifying, crashing out in Q1 when his car was quick enough to make it to the top-10 shoot-out. On the Sunday meanwhile, he had a strong first half of the race, battling his way back into contention for points, but all of his hard work was undone when he spun under the Safety Car.
Things didn’t get much better in Portimao as he once again failed to make Q3 while Gasly did, and went backward rather than forward in the race, finishing down in P15, behind drivers in slower cars.
Yet another poor qualifying session followed in Barcelona, and to make matters worse, after that session, he made the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
First criticised his machinery on the team radio, saying “I can’t ***ing believe this car”, and then after returning to the paddock, suggested that his team was giving him an inferior car to Gasly.
Being angry in the heat of the moment is one thing, but suggesting such things to the press once out of the car is another, and won’t do his reputation any good whatsoever.
He can perhaps be forgiven for making some mistakes – after all, he is a rookie – but not for blaming his team, who have worked incredibly hard to give him what is ultimately a very strong car, for his own poor performances.
If he continues to make such immature and inflammatory comments, it could create some real problems within the AlphaTauri camp, which would in turn create some real problems for him. Nobody can achieve success if they don’t have a team that’s fully behind them, and he won’t have a team that’s fully behind if he unfairly criticises them.
I wanted to apologize for my comments today. I didn’t mean to criticize the team who have done a great job all weekend. I was just frustrated with my performance. Full send tomorrow🚀
— 角田裕毅/Yuki Tsunoda (@yukitsunoda07) May 8, 2021
To his credit, he did quickly apologise for his comments, and that’s exactly the sort of attitude he needs to display on a regular basis.
How a driver performs inside the car is the most important thing, but how they carry themselves outside of it matters too. In that regard, he could perhaps learn something from fellow rookie Mick Schumacher.
In a poor car, the worst on the grid, the German hasn’t been able to really make his mark on track but nevertheless hasn’t complained, instead keeping his head down, working hard and remaining positive, and has been widely praised by those both in and outside of his team for doing so.
Tsunoda would do well to take a leaf out of the Haas driver’s book on track too. Ahead of his first season in F1, he stated that he wouldn’t worry about making mistakes and would always push as hard as he could, and he has done so. Schumacher meanwhile has adopted a more conservative and patient approach. It’s clear to see which of them is fairing better.
Such an approach would be a wise one for the AlphaTauri man to take for the next round in particular. He desperately needs to start impressing, and if he wants to do so on the streets of Monaco, he can’t afford to make any mistakes.
Surviving and thriving on that circuit is the ultimate test for any F1 driver, and if he can do so, it will go a long way to maintaining his reputation as one of the sport’s most exciting prospects. If more errors do creep in meanwhile, he needs to show some maturity and take responsibility for his actions.
He almost definitely has the talent to go far in F1, but talent alone isn’t enough.
There’s no reason to think that he can’t iron out the issues though. After all, he’s only just turned 21, and no driver is perfect at that age.