Yuki Tsunoda produced another assured and underrated drive in the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, exhibiting that he has the credentials to warrant being taken seriously as a contender for a potential Red Bull seat as much as Daniel Ricciardo.
Since Ricciardo returned to the Red Bull fray earlier this year after being axed by McLaren, the Australian has persistently been linked with a return to the position within the senior team that he vacated at the end of 2018.
That speculation only heightened when Nyck de Vries was axed midway through his rookie F1 campaign with AlphaTauri in July and Ricciardo was granted a reprieve. And further still after he delivered the team’s best result of the year with seventh in Mexico City.
However, in between Ricciardo’s exploits at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez came a string of exceptional displays from team-mate Tsunoda to also vitally boost AlphaTauri’s bid to overcome Williams for seventh position in the championship.
Ahead of the United States Grand Prix, unsurprisingly the entire spotlight down at AlphaTauri was fixated on Ricciardo, who had been sidelined for the previous five rounds by a broken bone in his left hand that had occurred from a crash during Friday practice for the Dutch Grand Prix in August.
But while the 34-year-old was hamstrung by race rust upon his comeback in Austin, Tsunoda utilised the ever-evolving AlphaTauri AT04 car to bag an eighth-place finish and the bonus point for the fastest lap.
Unfortunately, exceeding the allocation yearly on power unit components relegated Tsunoda to the back of the grid in Mexico, during a weekend which transpired to be AlphaTauri’s most competitive of the season.
Even still, Tsunoda was piecing together an admirable showing that looked destined to yield another points finish before he clumsily collided with Oscar Piastri’s McLaren.
With Ricciardo demonstrating the calm tranquillity expected of a multiple-time grand prix winner and Tsunoda the impatience associated with an inexperienced and overeager youngster, it appeared no wonder the elder statesmen in the AlphaTauri ranks had been the one touted for a move.
But while the Tsunoda of previous years would have unquestionably let that misjudgement and the subsequent media pressure spiral into a prolonged rut, the 23-year-old has utilised his harsh experiences in the top flight to be in a position to come out the other side stronger from any mishap.
Having remarked that he “cancelled everything” following his costly mistake in Mexico, there could be no greater evidence of Tsunoda’s enhanced mental resilience than the way he rebounded in Sao Paulo. The Red Bull academy graduate emerged on top in the AlphaTauri intra-team rivalry – but more pertinently, he disbanded Ricciardo’s momentum before it could gather steam.
Of course, Ricciardo’s race prospects were immediately hampered from the outset when ensuing debris from a first-corner incident damaged his car, and the resultant repairs left him a lap down. But Tsunoda had already narrowly maintained the upper hand throughout the weekend prior to that.
Despite a compromised qualifying that eliminated both AlphaTauri drivers in Q1, Tsunoda avoided the early chaos to gain five places by the time the race settled down.
Whereas in Mexico he had professed to becoming too uptight about how his race would unravel later on if he failed to make an early move on Piastri stick, Tsunoda bided his time behind Esteban Ocon at Interlagos before mounting an attack on the Alpine that translated into a solid ninth-place finish.
Prior to that, Tsunoda had also upstaged Ricciardo in Saturday’s Sprint race encounter. Starting inside the top eight in a position more reflective of AlphaTauri’s pace, Tsunoda showcased cutting-edge racecraft that culminated with a pass on Lewis Hamilton for seventh place, accumulating AlphaTauri’s first-ever points in a Sprint event. Meanwhile, Ricciardo, usually the benchmark in overtaking, rued being caught out by the successive DRS zones that foiled his attempt to dispatch Carlos Sainz.
Throughout the three days in Brazil, Tsunoda assembled a weekend that comprised everything Red Bull expect from a potential option for its senior squad. Although Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner issued recently that Tsunoda remained on the team’s radar, the AlphaTauri driver has only vaguely been mentioned in relation to a promotion when his name has been raised.
Tsunoda, however, conceded ahead of the grand prix in Brazil that he could appreciate why Ricciardo’s outgoing personality aligns him more with the Red Bull brand.
That unique asset plays favourably towards his chances and is a factor that Tsunoda will be unable to equal. However, if Red Bull were to replace Sergio Perez, it would surely be on a performance basis, and that is an aspect that Tsunoda can certainly control to propel himself into genuine deliberation.
Asked if there was an element of annoyance that he hadn’t been more regularly included in the discussion, Tsunoda expressed: “Yeah obviously. It’s better than nothing but Daniel has experience, more fans, he’s more trusted and more valued so it makes sense.
“I just have to show my performance consistently to kind of show everyone that I can be that contender. Anyway, Checo [Perez] has next year’s contract and nothing we can do to change anything.
“I just need to keep showing my results now. He’s [Ricciardo] doing a good job, especially after coming back from McLaren. He seems really comfortable in the car especially compared to at previous teams. I think he’s got Red Bull energy, the Red Bull style.”
More importantly, though, Tsunoda retains the self-belief that he can overcome his more established team-mate. “But still, I’m not worried that I won’t beat him or whatever. I still have good confidence that I can beat him and still learn from him,” he added.
With Tsunoda and Ricciardo confirmed at AlphaTauri for 2024, the former will enter his fourth year with Red Bull’s second-string outfit. That means he will become only the fourth competitor to be allocated that amount of time with the Italian-based camp, which has notoriously scythed through drivers at a rapid rate under the discretion of Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko.
While Tsunoda counted himself fortunate to survive an inconsistent rookie year, he has warranted an additional season based on the progress he has shown across 2023.
Having comprehensively had the measure of de Vries, Tsunoda hasn’t been overawed by Ricciardo’s arrival and the fanfare that accompanies him. Nor was he perturbed in the slightest by Ricciardo’s stellar showing in Mexico, revealing that he intends to press on with his aggressive driving style despite his team-mate’s recent set-up breakthrough.
“So far I’m happy with my form and how I drive at AlphaTauri. I don’t think it’s not working, so I’m happy and won’t change anything,” he declared.
“At some point even next year it might be a completely different car for AlphaTauri. Right now, my driving style is working but you never know that it won’t work at some point. I don’t really worry that my driving style won’t work because I haven’t changed since karting, any car it’s been working.”
However, that stubborn approach shouldn’t be mistaken for a flat-out refusal to amend his ways, with Tsunoda already wary of things he could adopt from Ricciardo.
Expanding on his braking tendencies compared to other drivers, Tsunoda explained: “More like stronger [braking], I would say. Stronger and fast. The initial part is stronger. I’ve never seen a driver where the initial part is stronger than me. The releasing part, the later part he’s good at probably. I can learn something probably from that actually [Ricciardo’s style] as a driver.
Ricciardo still appears the heavy favourite for the Red Bull gig if Perez is dropped, and Tsunoda could end up in the exact same predicament as Carlos Sainz. Ironically, the Spaniard, now at Ferrari, had his Red Bull dream also dashed by Ricciardo’s presence.
In the circumstance where the door on a Red Bull move is also slammed shut for Tsunoda, he could potentially be in line to secure a switch to Aston Martin, courtesy of the Silverstone marque’s technical agreement to run Honda powertrains from 2026.
However, Tsunoda insists that he is entirely focused on Red Bull for the time being.
“Obviously, the main thing is I don’t want Red Bull to misunderstand something, like for example that I’m just focusing now on Aston Martin or anything. I’m at AlphaTauri, and I’ve been with Red Bull since I was 18 years old.
“If I perform well as a driver, hopefully they [Red Bull] consider me more and obviously, if I didn’t, I understand. But if I’m able to show my performance, I would like to have a bit more kind of rotation.”
On current form at least, Tsunoda should evidently be in the discussion along with Perez and Ricciardo for the vacant Red Bull seat alongside Max Verstappen in 2025.
Tsunoda will certainly face a much bigger threat from Ricciardo next year – and it will be one that he has to overcome to ensure he ushers his name to the front of the queue.
However, with the Faenza team set to enjoy an increased technical collaboration with Red Bull next year, Tsunoda could be equipped with the machinery to challenge for the sort of headline-grabbing results that ensure his efforts receive the acclaim that greet his veteran team-mate’s accolades.