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Why Tsunoda's 2024 Formula 1 season could be make or break

Yuki Tsunoda

Yuki Tsunoda’s 2024 season will be his most pivotal thus far in the highest level of motorsport, which can be hard to believe considering how important and testing his 2023 campaign was. 

Alpine signing Pierre Gasly from Alpha Tauri for 2023 and with Red Bull having no plug and play superstars showing themselves in the Red Bull junior driver program, forced Yuki into a team leader role at Alpha Tauri alongside former Formula E and Formula 2 champion Nyck De Vries.

De Vries had sat on the sideline in the Mercedes stable for many years with his only F1 race outing with Williams last year most likely being the reason that pushed Red Bull to persue the Dutch driver for 2023. De Vries was quickly found out to not be the driver that warranted the Alpha Tauri seat and Tsunoda cemented that with two points and out qualifying De Vries 8-2 in the uncompetitive AT03.

Unsettlement in the Red Bull camp over De Vries underperformance meant that he would be replaced by Daniel Riccardo before the Hungarian Grand Prix in August. All in all, this was a very positive sequence of events as far as Tsunoda was concerned and added to his credibility as a Grand Prix driver.

Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck De Vries

Although Riccardo was coming back to a race seat after a couple of turbulent seasons at McLaren (which ended with him getting dropped for a rookie in Oscar Piastri), he had been said to be showing promise in the Red Bull simulator and quick lap times at a Silverstone Pirelli tire test after the British Grand Prix gave Red Bull the confidence that he was ready for a race seat.

Yuki and Daniel only had one race together before a crash at Zandvoort caused Riccardo a broken hand and put him out of commission until the United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Daniel Riccardo crash at Zandvoort

One of the drivers who was overlooked to replace De Vries ended up having to come in to take over for the injured Daniel Riccardo. Liam Lawson was racing in Japan’s Super Formula series when he was called to replace the Australian until his hand had recovered.

For Tsunoda this would be an even more pressurized test of his abilities over Riccardo. Although Daniel had some poor seasons in recent years, being an already proven entity within Formula 1 with multiple Grand Prix wins and with strong backing within the Red Bull organization means that until proven otherwise, at least in Red Bull’s eyes, Daniel is still the stronger driver option than Yuki. 

If Lawson were to out-class Tsunoda after only a handful of tests and FP1 sessions under his belt, rather than taking Riccardo’s seat for 2024, it would more likely be Yuki’s seat that would come under threat from the Kiwi.

Although Lawson had some brilliant performances in the AT03 including his tussle with world champion Max Verstappen at his debut in the Dutch Grand Prix, once the upgrade came to the car it was clear that Tsunoda was a step ahead.

The same can be said in relation to Riccardo when he made his return. Since the major upgrade in Singapore, which aimed to tackle rear-end stability, Yuki qualified within the top 10 three times and earned points on each occasion. This allowed Alpha Tauri to come within touching distance of 7th place in the constructors championship, finishing 3 points behind Williams.

The story of Tsunoda's 2023 season on the surface should mean that his career is finally on the upward trajectory that was promised in his early days in F1 but unfortunately with stagnant driver market that is not the case.

It's clear that if Perez has more lackluster races for Red Bull that he will be replaced. Last year Red Bull and Max Verstappen were bulletproof from the Miami Grand Prix onwards with a record breaking season that meant that Sergio's shortcomings were not detrimental to Red Bull's constructor or even Max's championship wins.

For 2024 this may not be the case again, although Red Bull should be the ones to beat next season its clear that the chasing pack is starting to get a better understanding to their packages and are looming ever closer to the Milton Keynes based outfit.

If Perez doesn't step up to the plate it could be the winning or losing factor for Red Bull. Daniel Riccardo would be first inline as it stands to take over this seat due to his promise of pace over his half season on the sideline and his prior experience and success with the team.

Where does all this leave Yuki in the Red Bull ladder? It doesn't seem that a Red Bull drive is in the future for the Japanese driver but another strong season would more than likely get him a 2025 drive with Alpha Tauri. Sergio Perez and Daniel Riccardo having strong seasons could be a nail in coffin for Yuki as Red Bull could sideline him to give Liam Lawson a full time drive as they may think that Tsunoda has had enough time to prove his level at the Faenza team.

Although Yuki himself said that he doesn't want "misunderstanding's" over links with Aston Martin, it would be foolish to not consider a move to the team the next clear move in his F1 career. The main reason for Tsunoda getting the Alpha Tauri seat was due to his backing from Honda, who were providing both Red Bull and Alpha Tauri with power units at the time.

Red Bull has now begun building there own power unit operation in house, albeit with technical support still coming from Honda. This will end when Honda joins Aston Martin as their works power unit provider at the end of the 2025 season. It's well known that Honda like to have a Japanese driver racing with them as history shows. It's a major marketing tool and also can help with communications. Lance Stroll continuing under performance over a whole season could issue a driver change, making Yuki the prime candidate.

Apart from Max Verstappen each driver within Red Bull's F1 program will have have something major to prove, with any short coming being critical to sinking or swimming in Formula One.

Tsunoda will not be fighting at the upper-end of the grid in 2024, but for sure will be one of the men to watch throughout the season with his performances possibly having some major impacts on the F1 driver market.

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Yuki > Daniel

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