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Officially, Red Bull's Scuderia AlphaTauri team no longer exists solely to develop talent for Red Bull Racing. This is probably a good thing, as last year Red Bull finally chose to hire a successful veteran racer from outside of their system to pair with their vaunted prospect Max Verstappen and were immediately rewarded with a Verstappen driver's championship. It theoretically means the company will be mindful of their constant turnover in the team's second car in an effort to find a talent to pair with him, freeing AlphaTauri from dedicating its seasons to effectively giving two candidates long interviews to move up the grid when someone else is fired next season. It is less of a good thing for Yuki Tsunoda, an F1 prospect who suddenly finds himself as a second driver on a team with unclear ambitions and no real path to move to a better affiliated team in the near future.
This is the ninth installment of our driver-by-driver preview of the 2022 Formula 1 season. This weekend, we will be covering Alpine. You can find the rest of our previews here.
Tsunoda's first season in F1 made his path no less clear. Honda, his major benefactor before F1, hired him as a development driver with hopes that he could race a Honda-powered F1 car for decades. Honda announced their plans to leave the sport a few months before he joined the grid. Red Bull, his current employer, has prospects behind him in their pipeline and complete contentment with what Sergio Perez has provided in the Red Bull seat previous generations of AlphaTauri prospects would have been fighting to race. Tsunoda is stuck somewhere in between, but he is still guaranteed one more season in F1 and at least one more chance to prove himself.
HOW HE GOT HERE
Tsunoda started racing cars in 2016, in Japan's domestic Formula 4 series. He finished third in his first full-time season in the series the year after, then won his first championship with a seven-win Japanese Formula 4 season in 2018. That put him on the fast track to F1.
Honda's strong F1 ties with Red Bull led Tsunoda to their farm system in 2019, a year he spent finishing a respectable-but-uninspiring ninth in FIA Formula 3. In 2020, he was promoted to Formula 2, where he finished a stellar third as a rookie in a series that traditionally skews more toward rewarding experience than young talent. He scored four poles in twelve opportunities and was alive in the championship hunt until the last weekend of the season, ultimately losing the title to fellow 2021 rookie Mick Schumacher.
Honda and Red Bull split shortly afterward, leaving little time for patience in developing their shared prospect. Red Bull moved Tsunoda to AlphaTauri last year, as a 20 year-old rookie with just one year each in Formula 3 and Formula 2.
HOW 2021 WENT
As with most young rookies moved to Formula 1 too soon, Tsunoda spent 2021 struggling to keep up with a veteran teammate. He finished 14th in the series standings, five positions behind AlphaTauri lead driver Pierre Gasly. Worse, he scored fewer than a third of Gasly's 110 points over the course of the season. Gasly scored a podium and four more top five finishes; Tsunoda did not find the top five in any race until the season finale in Abu Dhabi.
Qualifying went worse. Tsunoda lost his head-to-head qualifying battles to Gasly 19-1, falling an average of half a second behind his race-winning teammate. Worse yet, an issue with Red Bull corporate ally Sergio Perez in qualifying for the Mexican Grand Prix derailed the one thing Red Bull cares about most, the individual performance of lead driver Max Verstappen.
GOALS FOR 2022
Tsunoda might not catch Gasly in 2022, but a year of F1 experience will help him close the gap significantly. He is still just 21, again the youngest driver on an F1 grid that has added just one rookie. Given how little time he had in the development categories, that extra seat time at the top level is going to be the most significant advantage in his favor.
Tsunoda is also, in some ways, a victim of a better situation than other rookies. Development drivers like George Russell, Charles Leclerc, and Mick Schumacher debuted on struggling teams with paying teammates, low-pressure situations where the teams with an eye on them had no real barometer to measure them against that they could not beat. Tsunoda debuted on a mid-pack team with a race-winning teammate that had already spent half a season in Red Bull's lead car. It gave him more opportunities to succeed, but it also offered far more chances to fail. Next year, Tsunoda will have spent a year in the situation and will approach a season in F1 with firmer footing.
A SUCCESSFUL SEASON LOOKS LIKE...
Unless Scuderia AlphaTauri struggles with the shift to lower-downforce cars and takes a nosedive from its 2021 form, Tsunoda will again be in position to consistently score points. He will need to increase his rate of scoring points (seven top ten finishes in 21 starts last year) if he hopes to be seen as successful, but to really stand out he needs one or two exceptional races. Tsunoda has plenty of time to prove he is still an F1 driver with steadier, more consistent performance, but a podium in the first half of the season could put those questions to rest quickly.
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