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AlphaTauri driver Yuki Tsunoda

F1 Season Review: Is Yuki Tsunoda the most improved driver of 2023?

Tsunoda was put to the ultimate test: how does he stack up against three different teammates?

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Ups, downs, and more teammates than average — the 2023 F1 season was a year of development for Yuki Tsunoda. 

Tsunoda climbs into the AlphaTauri ahead of the Las Vegas GP
Tsunoda embarked on his third year with Scuderia AlphaTauri. (Image credit: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool)

AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost once went on record as saying that rookie drivers need “three years minimum” in F1. Three years, argues Tost, gives a driver time to “understand what’s going on” at the pinnacle of motorsport. 

The 2023 season marked Yuki Tsunoda’s third year in the terrific yet trying world of F1… so how did it shape up?

The Highs

Tsunoda established himself as something of a nearly-man in the early stages of the season. The first five races saw Yuki score points twice. Of those initial five rounds, when Yuki did not score points, he came tantalisingly close to it in P11. It was a mark of consistency from the 23-year-old, and saw him extract more from the AlphaTauri than might have been expected. It was a promising start to the season for Tsunoda, and one which earned him praise from critics. 

Australia saw Tsunoda score his first point of the season — though it was a bittersweet occasion. Prior to the chaotic race restart, which saw the running order reshuffled, he had been fighting as high as P5. 

The Australian GP was followed by a return to Baku, where the AlphaTauri driver made his first Q3 appearance of the year. His P8 grid position was a triumph, particularly in comparison to teammate Nyck De Vries’ 20th place. Tsunoda went on to score his second point of the season.

Tsunoda often shined brightly on qualifying days. His highest grid position of the season was the final race at Abu Dhabi, where he placed the AT04 an impressive sixth. 

AlphaTauri on track at the Abu Dhabi GP
Tsunoda cruises towards Driver of the Day… (Image: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool)

AlphaTauri brought major upgrades towards the end of the season, and it was from this point on that he seemed able to show his true potential. The final handful of races saw Tsunoda achieve his best finishes of the season, peaking with P8 – and Driver of the Day – at Abu Dhabi. 

The Lows

The back-to-back points at Australia and Azerbaijan was succeeded by a frustrating seven race drought. It wasn’t until the Belgian Grand Prix that Tsunoda would score his next point finish. The period between Baku and Spa saw the AlphaTauri driver plummet to some of his lowest finishes of the season. 

Indisputably, the lowest point of Tsunoda’s season was the Italy-Singapore double-whammy. The Italian Grand Prix saw the AlphaTauri give up before the race even began. The 23-year-old’s race in Singapore was just as short lived; contact from Sergio Perez brought Tsunoda’s race to an end on only lap 1. 

On-track mistakes were the greatest thorn in Tsunoda’s side this season. The Spanish GP saw the Japanese driver receive a penalty for forcing Zhou Guanyu off-track — a penalty Tsunoda disputed and labelled as “ridiculous”

Other notable mistakes from Tsunoda included damage sustained after making contact with Esteban Ocon at the Austrian GP. Tsunoda, by his own admission, stated it was a race he could “definitely learn from… in the future”. 

An incident with Oscar Piastri at the Mexican GP could be deemed one of Tsunoda’s most costly. It certainly appeared to be the incident that affected the 23-year-old the greatest. The incident undoubtedly cost Tsunoda and the team some valuable points, with the Japanese driver finishing P12 after starting in P8.

AlphaTauri’s failings and Tsunoda’s own shortcomings worked hand in hand this season. The AT04 lacked race pace, but equally, Tsunoda made on-track errors that sometimes cost him results. There’s plenty of room for both team and driver to improve. 

The Many Teammates of Yuki Tsunoda

If any accolade is to be awarded to Tsunoda without dispute, it’s that he has undoubtedly had the most teammates of any driver this year. 

With Pierre Gasly departing for Alpine at the end of 2022, the 23-year-old was joined at the start of the season by F1 newcomer Nyck De Vries. 

Tsunoda v De Vries

Though Nyck De Vries’ stint in Formula 1 was short lived, it’s a venture that reflects well on Tsunoda. The Japanese driver categorically outperformed newcomer De Vries, putting to rest preseason suggestions that it might be De Vries who would take the lead in the team.

Out of the 10 races De Vries participated in, Tsunoda secured two points-finishes. De Vries, conversely, never once finished inside the points. 

Tsunoda v Ricciardo

Daniel Ricciardo replaced Nyck De Vries at the X Grand Prix. The Australian drove alongside Tsunoda in two separate stints, his time at AlphaTauri interrupted by an injury sustained at the Dutch GP. 

How Tsunoda’s year stacks up against Ricciardo’s is a little harder to determine. Right off the bat, Ricciardo outperformed his new teammate, finishing two places higher than the Japanese driver in their first race together. 

The tables turned at the following race. Ricciardo was outqualified by Tsunoda, thanks in part to a track limit violation. The weekend was a mixed bag for the pair, with Ricciardo significantly outperforming Tsunoda in the sprint race. Sunday saw a twist of fates, as Ricciardo finished the race only as high as P16. Tsunoda, however, went on to score his first point since Baku, finishing P10. 

Ricciardo was forced to withdraw from the following round, and didn’t return until the United States GP. Upon Ricciardo’s return, the Aussie was outscored by Tsunoda. Whilst Ricciardo finished in the points only once – at Mexico – Yuki Tsunoda scored points thrice in the same period of time.

Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda
Ricciardo-Tsunoda was a popular driver line up. (Image: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool)

However, it is also the case that Ricciardo’s sole point finish was higher than any of Tsunoda’s. Equally, the Japanese driver had had far longer to grow accustomed to the AT04, and had enjoyed (though, was there much pleasure to take from driving the AT04?) uninterrupted time in AlphaTauri’s 2023 challenger.

How Tsunoda shapes up in comparison to Ricciardo will likely be better – and more fairly – determined next year. 

Tsunoda v Lawson

Of Tsunoda’s three teammates this year, Liam Lawson is the driver he should be most wary of. 

The 21-year-old New Zealander hit the ground running when he filled in for Ricciardo for a five-race stint. Lawson outperformed Tsunoda in his first outing in the AlphaTauri, finishing P13 whilst the Japanese driver finished P15.

As Tsunoda entered his frustrating DNS-DNF era, Lawson seemed to come into his own in the AT04. While Singapore was a race to forget for Tsunoda, the Kiwi scored his first points in Formula 1, enjoying an impressive P9 finish. 

The only time Tsunoda finished higher than Lawson was at the Qatar GP. It’s certainly something for the Japanese driver to bear in mind next year… 

How does 2023 rank?

On the basis of championship points alone, 2023 was Tsunoda’s second-strongest year. Of his three seasons in F1, numerically, his rookie year remains his strongest — although 2023 saw the AlphaTauri driver match his rookie year championship position of 14th. 

This season was the first year that Tsunoda outperformed his teammate(s). He had previously been significantly outperformed by Pierre Gasly in both 2021 and 2022. 

This is, however, a difficult metric to judge. De Vries, Ricciardo, and Lawson each had exceptionally short stints as Tsunoda’s teammate. Arguably, no driver had a chance to fully flourish and to truly stake their claim as better and/or worse than Tsunoda. 

The case for most improved driver

Though the failings of AlphaTauri’s 2023 challenger made marked success a distant dream, this season was Tsunoda’s strongest and most consistent yet. 

There’s a veritable case to be made that, of all the 20 drivers on the grid, Yuki Tsunoda enjoyed the greatest improvement in performance this year. Whilst mistakes were still made, it felt at times as if we were watching an entirely new man on track. 

It wasn’t just Tsunoda’s race craft that developed, but his mentality, too. Tsunoda, who had often made known his distaste for working out, shared in an interview that he had changed his approach to training.

“Last year I realised that it is very important to improve as an athlete in order to perform well in F1,” the AlphaTauri driver shared with Sportiva JP.  “Compared to my first year, the amount of training has increased dramatically, and now I want to train at least six days a week. 

“Sometimes I even ask my trainer to let me train more. That has never happened before in all my years of racing. I think that was a big change in my mentality.”

Mindset was a decisive focus for Tsunoda in 2023. The Japanese driver hired Michael Italiano (who previously worked with Daniel Ricciardo) as his personal trainer, and the pair focused on developing Tsunoda’s approach to on-track adversity.

Certainly, there are still improvements for Tsunoda to make. But, as it stands, 2023 saw Tsunoda come on leaps and bounds in terms of his performance and approach to racing. It’ll be exciting to see what Tsunoda does with this increased maturity and dedication to the sport…

2024 vision

Looking ahead to next season, AlphaTauri is set to retain its Tsunoda-Ricciardo pairing. The team will no longer have the long-serving Franz Tost at the helm, with Laurent Mekies replacing the Austrian.

Tost had often been one of Tsunoda’s most vocal supporters, and appeared to believe in the young Japanese driver when critics seemed not to. “Without him, I wouldn’t be racing here,” Tsunoda once said of Tost. “Without his advice, I wouldn’t have made as much progress as I have.”

Although Tsunoda remains with AlphaTauri for 2024, he has signed just a one-year contract extension with the team — meaning his future beyond 2024 remains uncertain. With Liam Lawson having proven his abilities, Tsunoda will need to put in a strong performance in 2024 if he is to make his case to remain in F1 for the foreseeable future. 

Regardless of what the future may bring, 2023 certainly feels as if it was Yuki Tsunoda’s strongest year. The stage has been set; we look forward to seeing what Tsunoda can do next year.

Season Rating: 6/10

 

Featured Image Credit: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

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