Yuki Tsunoda is to keep his AlphaTauri Formula 1 seat for 2023 after Red Bull announced the Japanese driver will stay for a third term with the junior squad. On the face of it, good news for Tsunoda as he keeps his Grand Prix racing career going for another season at least; good news for AlphaTauri as they keep a driver and also for Red Bull as they now don't have to potentially bed in two new drivers at the junior team if Pierre Gasly does jump the good ship Faenza for HMS Enstone. However, the move is nothing short of a holding pattern, with Tsunoda fortunate that circumstances have come together to hand him a reprieve. In years gone by, he'd have already been discarded and the next young driver would be in the seat.
Brilliant but inconsistent
First off, it is important to mention that Red Bull's links with Honda helped ease Tsunoda into the 2021 AlphaTauri seat - but an explosive 2020 Formula 2 campaign with two wins and third in the championship is not to be scoffed at. He lit up the early part of 2021, including memorably setting one of the quickest times in pre-season testing - although some DRS trickery was involved in that - and banked ninth place on debut in Bahrain. Red Bull had found its new superstar as even then, Gasly had more chance of finding Lord Lucan riding Shergar than a return to the senior team after being dumped in mid-2019. But Tsunoda's star rapidly dimmed, with continued crashes masking any progress he was making. It was the classic case of two steps forward - one step back as he adapted to Grand Prix machinery. Chuck in the way he was portrayed in Drive to Survive with his apparent aversion to physical training and seemingly not taking the thing seriously, it does not cultivate a good image, especially with Dr Helmut Marko, no matter what Tsunoda's social media stans seem to think. The nadir probably came in Mexico qualifying where he was put in an invidious position by hampering both Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen - although this was more a fault on Red Bull itself. Christian Horner's lazy comment of: 'We got Tsunoda'd' does not and did not seem like a potential future boss exulting your virtues. Quietly though, he put together an excellent weekend in Abu Dhabi with eighth in qualifying and a stunning last-lap overtake on Valtteri Bottas to secure fourth place. It's just a shame all the action was going on ahead of him on Lap 58, but nevertheless, as the old adage goes, you are only as good as your last race. It was a promising end to a rookie season that had so much potential but somewhat faded - but with a year's experience behind him, Tsunoda was well-placed to kick on.
Poor car no excuses
Granted, the 2022 AlphaTauri is not a good machine as the previous two, but Tsunoda has not pushed on this season. In the nine races both he and Gasly have finished - the Frenchman has been ahead seven times. In those races, Gasly has finished ahead by a total of 33 positions - about 4.7 per race. That's almost a quarter of the grid. Gasly has 22 points from 16 races with Tsunoda 11 so he is at 50% of what his teammate has extracted from the same package, as the team languish eighth in the standings. For all his faults, Red Bull and Marko know exactly what Gasly is capable of - he is a useful yardstick with which to measure Tsunoda. Tsunoda has also been racking up the reprimands, and was handed a 10-place penalty for getting five of them after undoing his belts at the Dutch Grand Prix and still continuing back to the pits. Seeing as the whole idea of Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri was a finishing school for potential F1 drivers to lead the senior team, it is extremely unlikely that Tsuonda will be promoted up the other end of the pit-lane. He is just unable to unlock the consistency demanded in F1 and marry it with his flashes of brilliance and speed. His goose is cooked. So why keep him on for a third season when others such as Sebastien Buemi or Jean-Eric Vergne have been discarded for less? Necessity.
If Marko thought Tsunoda has a long-term future in the Red Bull family, he would not be touting Colton Herta, Nyck De Vries or playing up current junior Dennis Hauger. Why would you when the next Red Bull driver is supposedly in the #22 AlphaTauri? Nor is Tsunoda a lead-driver in the mould of Gasly or even Daniel Ricciardo, Sebastian Vettel or Verstappen before him. He is a competent number two. Thanks to the on-going musical chairs in F1 at the moment, it is better for AlphaTauri to have some certainty over its driver line-up early as to not be scrambling around late in the market. Although De Vries has just one Grand Prix start to his name, he could slot in nicely to Gasly's position with Formula 2 and Formula E Championships behind him as well as a wealth of experience in being the Mercedes reserve. As for Herta, if he does secure those eight super licence points he requires, by whatever means necessary, he will be in the AlphaTauri, potentially for 2024. If he shows even a crumb of being on the pace in F1 machinery - he'll be a major contender to replace Perez alongside Verstappen. So while Tsunoda has earned a reprieve from Marko for 2023, unless he arrests the slide of recent times, it is more likely to be temporary rather one which leads to the promised land of the senior Red Bull team. That's not to say he doesn't deserve to be on the F1 grid at all - anyone who goes from Japanese F4 in 2018 to F1 in 2021 is a decent pedallar - but his Grand Prix dream would then rest on convincing someone else to take a punt when the best finishing school in motorsport deemed him not to be up to standard.