Yuki Tsunoda has a chance to join Red Bull…but can he take it?

Jamie Woodhouse
Yuki Tsunoda in the pit lane. Bahrain March 2023.

AlphaTauri driver Yuki Tsunoda unclips his helmet strap walking in the pit lane. Bahrain March 2023.

If Yuki Tsunoda is to graduate from AlphaTauri to Red Bull as Franz Tost thinks he can, then he needs more from himself and the team.

F1 2023 really does feel like a make-or-break season for Tsunoda, the Honda and Red Bull prospect now into his third campaign of Formula 1 action with Red Bull’s junior team AlphaTauri.

Tsunoda was not exactly spectacular in either of his first two seasons, though the second campaign did yield a more disciplined and consistent side to the Japanese racer, enough to earn him a third campaign at AlphaTauri.

But with signs of struggles for the team already in 2022, Tsunoda now has the task of trying to lead AlphaTauri back up the midfield with Pierre Gasly having departed for pastures new at Alpine, leaving Tsunoda as the team’s experienced racer alongside F1 rookie Nyck de Vries.

Gasly could not force his way back into the Red Bull line-up, even after the best season of his career in 2021 with AlphaTauri, so Tsunoda is next in line to try and repair what has become a rather broken bridge in recent years between AlphaTauri and Red Bull.

And AlphaTauri principal Tost has made it clear that he thinks Tsunoda can make that jump in the next couple of years.

“As far as I know, Sergio Perez still has a contract for next year,” Tost told Sport1 ahead of the Australian Grand Prix as he discussed Tsunoda’s future.

“All I can say is that Yuki is on the right track. He has improved in every respect. But I think he should drive at AlphaTauri again in 2024. In 2025, I think he will finally be ready for Red Bull.”

Tost added that Tsunoda had drove “two extremely strong races” in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and while a pair of P11 finishes had meant zero points, Tost stressed “it’s not his fault that we aren’t competitive yet”.

Tsunoda did go on to score a point in Australia, getting AlphaTauri off the mark for the campaign, and while AlphaTauri are indeed far adrift of where they and Red Bull want them to be, it still feels like something is missing for Tsunoda.

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There is no doubt that Tsunoda is now a far more complete and reliable Formula 1 driver, but we are still waiting for that statement run of form to make us say ‘he is the real deal’.

Of course, the AlphaTauri AT04 is not the best of machinery for a driver to prove themselves in, but any driver who is seemingly doing decent in Formula , rather than great, just has no chance against Max Verstappen at Red Bull.

Gasly and Alex Albon both demonstrated the huge step from Red Bull’s sister team to becoming Verstappen’s team-mate, their strong form with the team then known as Toro Rosso leading to stints at Red Bull where struggles to get anywhere near Verstappen’s level spelt the end.

Even Perez now is fighting to offer some competition to Verstappen in their third season together, and considering that Perez was known for maximising his results with midfield outfits, taking care of the tyres like he was paying for them himself, it shows the scale of the challenge which Tsunoda would face.

A 2021 campaign for Gasly which yielded 110 points, featuring a podium finish and a pair of P4s, was still not enough to convince Red Bull that he was now ready, while he still largely had the beating of Tsunoda in the following campaign driving an underwhelming AT03 comparable to the current season’s AlphaTauri challenger.

Again, Red Bull were not interested in a Gasly recall, so with the bar set high, with good reason of course, it feels like there is still a lot to come from Tsunoda. And a lot of it relates to accepting the lines in Formula 1, both those marking the track definitions and the hard worked needed behind the scenes.

Previously criticised by Helmut Marko for his sweary rants – “the engineer can’t do anything with feedback like ‘bloody f*cking car’” – Tsunoda has taken steps in the past year to work on keeping his cool, even working with a new sports psychologist. He’s also embracing the gym more than ever even though he admits he hates it.

There is, however, a lot of growth that’s still needed.

The remaining 20 rounds of F1 2023 and next season is of course a huge amount of time for Tsunoda to improve further if he is earmarked for a 2025 Red Bull seat, but normally, the drivers who can perform at a front-running team start to demonstrate that ‘X Factor’ pretty quickly.

Red Bull are dropping strong hints that they will revamp the AlphaTauri team in pursuit of stronger on-track and financial performance, so the current feel is that Tsunoda is still fighting to save his future, rather than starting to apply pressure on Perez’s Red Bull seat.

Tsunoda also needs the team to come in and provide him with a better car, then no excuses would remain on the table.