Yuki Tsunoda has made a positive impression during his short Formula 1 career so far, but errors both in qualifying and the race at Imola are valuable lessons he must learn from if he’s to fulfil his promise.
He crashed at Variante Alta on his first Q1 lap, condemning him to a back-of-the-grid start.
Then, while running ninth in the race, he passed Lewis Hamilton into the Tamburello chicane on the restart lap after the red flag, but spun and dropped to 15th – eventually finishing 13th.
His summary afterwards echoed what he said after failing to reach Q3 on his debut in Bahrain, which he described as “not acceptable”.
But while his determination to avoid such shortfalls is a positive trait, the Imola errors – particularly the fact there were two – are on a different level.
“Overall, I just made this weekend tough on myself,” said Tsunoda at the end of the race.
“Two huge mistakes, two days in a row, is for me unacceptable. [I must] just learn from it to improve next time.”
Tsunoda was only in his second grand prix weekend and mistakes are to be expected from rookies – and are therefore excusable.
After all, a certain Fernando Alonso crashed out of his fourth grand prix at the same corner as Tsunoda’s qualifying accident during his rookie season with Minardi – albeit at the earlier, faster configuration of Variante Alta.
But the timing of both of Tsunoda’s errors shows the need to better judge when to attack and when to consolidate.
His qualifying accident happened on his first flying lap during Q1. Given the pace of the AlphaTauri, making it through to Q2 was straightforward and even though Tsunoda was not as quick as team-mate Pierre Gasly, he didn’t need to be taking big risks at this stage.
“Pushing too much on entry,” said Tsunoda in explaining the crash. “To be honest, until then the lap felt great. Potentially, it was easy to go through Q1 with one tyre – just I was too excited.
“For me, that was a stupid mistake and I feel really sorry for the team.”
Gasly was able to make it through using only one set of softs, but while Tsunoda was on a decent lap at the time he crashed, judged on the first two sectors it would have been marginal to be enough to make Q2 anyway.
“He was not wayward earlier in the lap or doing anything that was ridiculous” :: Jody Egginton
He would have had the chance to improve on a second lap on that set of softs, but there’s every chance that a second run would have been required.
Expectations perhaps should have been better managed by the team, given how often even experienced drivers can struggle to make it out of Q1 in one hit. But while there have been suggestions of Tsunoda consistently overdriving, by and large he’s been controlled and sensible.
Yes, he looked a little more ragged than team-mate Gasly at times at Imola, but that’s a comparison with a more experienced driver operating at a high level at a circuit where it’s essential to be on top of the characteristics of the car.
Given experienced hands in new teams such as Fernando Alonso, Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo all struggled in that area in Italy, Tsunoda was bound to as well.
“I think it’s fair to say he’s been reasonably measured up to now,” said technical director Jody Egginton after qualifying.
“Today was a good performance and the lap started well. He was not wayward earlier in the lap or doing anything that was ridiculous.
“Sector 1 looked quite nice, sector 2 looked OK and he just got on the throttle a little bit early over a kerb and it’s all gone away from him.
“It’s just one of those things that happens with a young driver early in their career.
“Any of these guys have all had these incidents, so I don’t think it’s a trend of him pushing too hard or going over the top.
“In hindsight, he probably could have taken a bit more margin but that’s part of the rookie journey.”
The first half of Tsunoda’s race up the red flag is a case in point. He dealt well with the difficult conditions, climbing to 15th on the first lap without taking any risks and then running 10th when the race was stopped. That became ninth when Kimi Raikkonen spun into the gravel under the safety car then did not regain his position.
Tsunoda closed on Hamilton when the race restarted and passed him up the inside into Tamburello. Unfortunately, he carried in a little too much speed, was caught out by the tricky conditions and spun. His short, sharp summary of the situation over the radio summed up his feelings on the mistake well.
“After the red flag wasn’t very good, but I lost focus” :: Yuki Tsunoda
This error was particularly problematic because he was attempting to overtake a car he would never have been able to stay ahead of anyway and he would have been better off hanging back.
It was a move of all risk and no reward, which undid the good work of the first half of the grand prix that should have netted him a decent points finish – perhaps as high as seventh.
While it’s encouraging that he wasn’t overawed by battling with Hamilton, it was ultimately a futile gesture.
Tsunoda also picked up a five-second penalty for track limits violations applied post-race, which made no difference to his position. He was not particularly concerned about that, which is reasonable given his earlier error was what did the damage, but he did recognise that he struggled to regain focus after the red flag.
“For my position, I don’t care much to be honest because I was really frustrated,” said Tsunoda after the race. “I just tried to go as fast as possible.
“I think after the red flag wasn’t very good, but I lost focus and this is the key for the future.”
As in Bahrain, it’s impressive that Tsunoda is able to recognise and understand his mistakes immediately. This is something that will stand him in good stead, provided he is able to put them behind him once he’s digested the lessons.
But the key is improving his judgment in the pressure situations in qualifying and the race. As a 20-year-old rookie, it’s only natural there will be such mistakes and he’s on a steep learning curve, so there’s no cause for concern as it’s far from a pattern of repeated errors.
However, if Tsunoda is going to live up to his billing, these are the problems he must minimise as his experience builds to deliver the results AlphaTauri needs given how competitive its car is.
The positive side is that there’s plenty more to come and he has the attitude and capacity for self-reflection that should ensure he doesn’t repeat a weekend like Imola.