Everyone was impressed by Yuki Tsunoda after the opening race of the 2021 F1 season. The Red Bull-backed rookie drove his AlphaTauri to ninth place in Bahrain and in the process delivered some eye-catching overtakes on two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso, among others.
It was a dream come true for the Japanese youngster, who saw Alonso race at Suzuka as a child. Now he found himself mixing it with the big boys. However, after the rise came the fall, which was sudden and painful. Just three weeks later at Imola, after making several errors, Tsunoda was seen as the fool.
Tsunoda, a protégé of Honda and later Helmut Marko, who has compared his latest talent to Max Verstappen, soon realised that there was work to be done, and that not everything would come naturally. Speaking to the media, including RacingNews365.com, he reflected on the first 11 races of the year.
"The first eight races were really up and down. [It's been] a rollercoaster season," Tsunoda begins. "The first race went well, the second race was a disaster," he adds of Imola, referring to his qualifying crash and mistakes on race day. "It was really inconsistent. Also the lap times I did... one lap was very good, and one lap I went in the wall or [had] a really bad lap."
After this tricky period, which included further crashes in Monaco (in practice) and Azerbaijan (in qualifying), better times followed. Having been forced by Red Bull to move from Milton Keynes to Italy, near to the AlphaTauri factory in Faenza, things improved. Or at least, Tsunoda found some consistency.
"I didn't feel like I was controlling fully the situation and also the car," he admits. "I tried to have more consistent laps and results. I just tried to build my confidence and it's getting better. I think I showed in the last three races [before Hungary] that I never had a big shunt and, you know, quite a consistent position, so I'm quite happy for this."
But in Hungary, it went wrong again as he crashed out of practice. Speaking after the race, Tsunoda was well aware that things needed to improve.
"What I did in FP1 was unnecessary," he sighs. "It was completely my fault, so I just have to really improve myself." Asked to give himself a score out of 10 for the season so far, he added: "I would say like five or a six. Especially in the last four races, I showed a little bit more consistency compared to the first six or seven races. But I need more consistency in all the race week. FP1 to FP3, to qualifying… so the team also trusts me more."
Tsunoda has a good idea of how to achieve that. He wants to become at one with his car, as he is still struggling with the feel and balance. Meanwhile, teammate Pierre Gasly seemingly has it all under control.
"We have to make the car better, also for my side, especially my car. I have to change also the approach. I would say the approach I took from Azerbaijan has been better. [In Hungary] I didn't expect to start FP1 again and go in the wall. I just can't keep continuing like that for the future. I have to find out what's the best way to control myself."
During the summer break, Tsunoda can take time to reassess, although he is not allowed to enter the factory for two weeks. "Still, I can go to my engineer's house, so I won't let him rest," he jokes, adding: "No, plenty of rest, we're just gonna talk a lot. I just have to be stronger in the second half of the season. We can't continue like this."
All in all, Tsunoda knows that he needs to improve, but if we are to believe the sounds coming from the Red Bull and AlphaTauri camp, it seems that he is likely to remain with Franz Tost’s team in 2022. Marko certainly won't want to see one of his students end up at the side of the track after only one year in the top echelon.