Max Verstappen’s exceptional performance in the 2023 Formula 1 season, clinching 19 victories with an unprecedented win rate of approximately 86.36%, sparks an intriguing question: Who will step into the role if Sergio “Checo” Perez falters in 2024?
Throughout F1 history, drivers alongside a reigning dominant champion often find themselves in a de-facto number two position. Names Rubens Barrichello, Mark Webber, and Valtteri Bottas echo this, with Nico Rosberg as a notable exception.
Should Perez fall short in 2024, whether in challenging and defeating Verstappen or failing to provide adequate support, the question arises: Who will fill the coveted spot in the adjacent garage?
This column argues that Yuki Tsunoda could rise to the occasion, provided he weathers the brewing storm ahead.
Over the past three years, amidst crashes and occasional profanity, the 23-year-old from Sagamihara has transformed from a self-proclaimed “lazy bastard” into a visibly compact force since relocating from the UK to Italy last year. Evolving from frequent practice sessions mishaps to achieving a career-best sixth qualifying position in the 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Tsunoda’s journey in the last approximately thousand days is worth exploring.
In his debut 2021 season, despite Tsunoda making it to Q3 nine times, it was only half of teammate Pierre Gasly’s tally. In head-to-head qualifying duels at AlphaTauri, he suffered a landslide 1-21 defeat to Gasly, with his overall score amounting to a mere 29% of Gasly’s total.
Entering his 2022 sophomore season, the inaugural year of the ground-effect car era, AlphaTauri faced challenges with their chassis, slipping from sixth to ninth in the standings. Nevertheless, Tsunoda’s adaptability enabled him to go toe-to-toe with Gasly. Despite Tsunoda reaching Q3 on only five occasions, his head-to-head qualifying battle with the Frenchman tightened to 9-13. His overall score also rose to approximately 52% of the Rouen man’s total.
In 2023, Tsunoda entered Q3 merely four times, yet throughout the season, he outperformed his teammates 19-9 in the combined tally of Sprint Shootout and standard qualifying sessions. Against new teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Liam Lawson, he maintained a 9-7 record. Tsunoda also spearheaded the scoring for the AlphaTauri team, contributing to their eighth-place finish. Displaying maturity in his third season, Tsunoda’s performance was commendable.
His “thousand days of training” appear to have yielded significant results this season; particularly noteworthy as two of the three major elements in F1 – the car, driver and engine – underwent changes. Yet, Tsunoda adapted and delivered consistent performance.
In the initial 11 races, Tsunoda drove the second generation of ground-effect car AT04 inherited from the challenging 2022 season, with teammate Nyck de Vries. In the last 11 races, he piloted the continuously upgraded car, with teammates Ricciardo and Lawson.
In the first half of the season, Tsunoda scored twice and secured 11th place three times, while de Vries scored none. In the second half, he earned 15 points in four races (10th in Belgium, eighth in Austin with the fastest lap, ninth in Brazil, plus a sixth place in the Sprint, and again eighth in Abu Dhabi), while Ricciardo and Lawson gained eight points combined in three races.
If the respectable results in the latter part were solely due to a “better car”, the initial half had already proven otherwise. Similarly, if the outcomes in the initial half were attributed solely to a “weak teammate”, the latter half contradicted that perspective.
One may wonder: where did that consistency come from?
As Tsunoda revealed in an almost emotional media session earlier in Miami this year, the Japanese young man had an epiphany during the last off-season. After this revelation, he explained: “I didn’t even try to change, I just tried to be relaxed as much as possible.
“But at the same time enjoy every race and give a good performance and full effort.”
Before this epiphany, he watched documentaries that made him not want to be one of those regretful guys. He didn’t want to leave F1 without showing his best self. He realised why he was lost from Azerbaijan to Japan in 2022 (11 races, three Q3 appearances, three crashes, and zero points). It was due to the stress of securing a new contract, so he was “driving for contracts” and “forgot to enjoy Formula 1”.
Tsunoda’s epiphany might have come one day last winter. But this column estimates that his thought process started earlier. Actions followed at the 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where Tsunoda met with Ricciardo’s former performance coach, Michael Italiano, for coffee. Their second meeting was at a training camp in Dubai in January of this year.
Change begins with action. And action stems from reflection. Intriguingly, Italiano announced on Instagram after this race that he would seek new horizons, leaving the racing world and no longer serving as Tsunoda’s performance coach. Next year, the Tsunoda vs. Ricciardo battle will be extremely interesting. If Checo misses the mark next season and gets replaced, the winner of the battle will likely be promoted, or promoted again, to the senior team. Tsunoda’s “thousand days of training” will face the ultimate test called the Honey Badger in 2024.