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Yuki Tsunoda Has Another Year to Prove He Belongs in F1

Tsunoda's first two seasons in Formula 1 have been rocky, but Red Bull had few other options. The once-promising prospect's 2023 season will be about showing how much of that promise can still be found.

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In 2021, Yuki Tsunoda was a promising, if unprepared, Formula 1 prospect. After only two seasons in Formula 3 and Formula 2, Tsunoda was moved into an F1 ride with Red Bull's Scuderia AlphaTauri quickly and given a chance to sink or swim at a program that has been short on young talent over the past few years. He struggled, and although 2022 was less disastrous, he struggled the next year too. But F1 licensing rules kept AlphaTauri from signing Colton Herta, its top choice for the 2023 season, and the program had already allowed Pierre Gasly to walk from his existing contractual commitments when they chose to sign Williams reserve driver Nyck de Vries.

This is the third installment of our driver-by-driver preview of the 2023 Formula 1 season. This weekend, we will be covering Scuderia AlphaTauri. You can find the rest of our previews here.

That means Tsunoda will get a third year as a prospect. It is a rare moment of patience from Red Bull, who recently compressed Alex Albon's entire career with the team down to just two seasons despite promoting him from Formula 2 all the way to the second seat at their championship-level senior team after just half a season at the then-Toro Rosso program.

Given how inexperienced he is in Europe, that third chance may be just what Tsunoda needs to save his career and prove he belongs in the Red Bull system long-term. More cynically, it could be the reality of a marketplace where Red Bull had few other promising options and a contractual obligation to enter the car. No matter the reality, the opportunity is the same: Yuki Tsunoda still ernters the 2023 season as a Formula 1 driver.

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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 in 2021, as a 20 year-old rookie with just one year each in Formula 3 and Formula 2. 2023 will be his third season with the program.

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While Tsunoda was uncompetitive with teammate Pierre Gasly in 2021, his relative performance to Gasly improved significantly in 2022. Unfortunately, the AlphaTauri car was also far less competitive; as a result, Tsunoda's overall performance was far worse.

The overall numbers are pretty dire. Last season, Tsunoda finished in the points seven times. This year, he scored points on just four occasions. He gathered just 12 points, well behind the 32 he scored as a rookie. When you bring in the comparisons to Gasly, however, the season looks far better.

Last year, Gasly outqualified Tsunoda on 21 of 22 relevant occasions. This year, the number dropped to 13 out of 21. Gasly's 110 points in 2021 were more than three times what Tsunoda had scored. In 2022, his 23 were fewer than half. Those numbers still paint Gasly as the clear stronger driver of the pair, but they do indicate that Tsunoda both raced and qualified far closer to his only consistent measuring stick than he had as a rookie. That is a sign of progress, the thing worth salvaging from a season where a prospect is buried at an uncompetitive team.

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That progress is not enough, though. If Tsunoda wants to stay in F1, he needs to finish his third season as more than just an improving prospect. He needs to be a strong driver in his own right, like Gasly had become by the time he got the call from Alpine to replace Fernando Alonso for 2023. That means more consistent points, more consistent Q3 appearances, and, most importantly, clearly demonstrating that he as at least at the level of rookie teammate Nyck de Vries.

That is a big ask. Despite being an F1 rookie, de Vries has been racing at internationally-relevant levels as long as Tsunoda has been racing cars of any form. His lone Formula 1 start, a fill-in drive for Williams last season, ended in points. If Tsunoda can beat a strong teammate with little experience in F1 race weekends, he should be in a much better place after the 2023 season. If he cannot stay competitive, he may not be in Formula 1 at all.

f1 grand prix of abu dhabi final practice
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For Tsunoda, success will be measured in one simple way: whether or not he keeps a spot on the grid. A successful season is one in which he can either convince Red Bull that he is better than the prospect of bringing along another young driver or convince another team that he is ready for a role outside of Red Bull's development program.

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