But despite a rollercoaster of a rookie F1 campaign in 2021, from the highs of a headline-grabbing first race in Bahrain to the lows of a run of crashes that risked his future, the Japanese star never shied away from owning up to the errors of his ways.
Instead, Tsunoda admitted that a combination of over-confidence and a lack of application helped trigger a sequence of incidents that left his confidence on the floor.
But, as he reflects on the way he turned things around and eyes even better form in 2022, the AlphaTauri ace is clear that some big lessons have been learned, and the change of approach was essential.
One of his biggest mistakes, he reckons, was lacking the focus in preparing himself as well as he could for each race. It proved to be one of the triggers for an enforced mid-season move to be near his team’s Faenza-factory.
“Until I moved to Italy, I was just a lazy bastard,” he laughs. “After training, straight into my house, turn on the PS5 and do gaming for the day and try to enjoy myself.
“Then actually in race week, I was always rushing. I would only start to prepare then and I think it was too late.”
F1 had all started so well for Tsunoda though. Fast in the Bahrain season opener, he grabbed two points on his debut and even managed to overtake two-time world champion Fernando Alonso in the process. F1 managing director of motorsports Ross Brawn hailed him as the most promising rookie for years.
Yuki Tsunoda, AAlpha Tauri AT01 mule
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
The Japanese faced a reality check at Imola, though, when he crashed in Q1 in qualifying and then had a spin in the wet in the race. He didn’t think much of it at the time.
But things then took a turn for the worse: in Portimao he lacked pace, in Spain he controversially blamed his team for a Q1 exit and was out early in the race with a car problem. Then in Monaco he crashed in FP2.
It proved to be the trigger for Red Bull to move him to Italy, and led to a period where he found himself trapped in a cycle of being worried about further crashes, so started taking things easy. Then, by being cautious, his pace and results fell away.
Looking back at that early stage of the season, he confesses that Bahrain had left him feeling that F1 was going to be a walk in the park.
“I will say I had too much confidence,” he said. “I was feeling it was too easy I would say for F1, because I didn’t have a massive shunt or any of these strange things. It all was under control, so that’s why I expected it to be easy.
“I had that crash in Imola, but after Imola I was okay still, my confidence was okay. I was just feeling the incident I had in qualifying was unlucky and I was also expecting it’s going to happen before the braking zone.
“But as soon as I had some crashes consistently, I started to feel a question mark about my confidence and feel it was quite difficult. Much more difficult than I was thinking.
“It was especially hard for how I built up for the race week. The approach was completely gone. I was taking the same approach as F2, which is a completely different format where you have free practice and straight to qualifying.
“I would always try to nail it, try to push from the first free practice and in F1 it is difficult to do that. There is a lot of risk you go into the wall and lose a lot of track time, and have to rebuild the confidence for FP2.
“At one point my confidence was completely zero. I never had it in the past that my confidence was completely almost nothing. So, I had a really hard time to rebuild this confidence, like I had in Bahrain, and it was a struggle.”
Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
It took some time to turn things around but, in the end, a couple of factors came together to help Tsunoda get things back on track.
First, as his more cautious approach led to a slump in results, team boss Franz Tost urged him to get back the approach he had in Bahrain: of pushing more and risking a little bit without fear of consequences.
Then, a change of chassis in Turkey delivered a step forward in what he was feeling from the cockpit, and he knew he needed to revise his mindset too.
“Turkey was a turning point in terms of confidence and the approach I took,” explains Tsunoda.
“Until Turkey I just tried to not do a big mistake and not try to go into the wall, so that’s why my pace was really slow. I guess I was focused to just kind of not [crash] and that’s why the pace was not good.
“As soon as I realised I had consistently slow pace in a couple of races, I had to push more hard because, in the end, results and the pace are the most important things in F1.
“So I changed my mind, especially from the first session, and I started to think the opposite way from ‘I won’t crash’. I had about eight races in a row where I didn’t have a crash and that’s why I’m here.
“And also one of the things that helped was changing the chassis from Turkey. I felt much better with this car in terms of controlling it. For me, for example, the amount of snap I was having in Saudi Arabia I was controlling it, whereas with the chassis before I was never catching it.”
Tsunoda is not sure whether his team ever found anything wrong with his first chassis, but it didn’t matter. The year ended with him feeling much more comfortable with things: and a season-best result of fourth in the Abu Dhabi finale.
It is fair to say that 2021 was very much a growing up year for him.
“It was a big year,” he said. “I never had such an up-and-down season. I have never had such a situation in my racing career, so definitely a big year for me.
Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri in the Press Conference
Photo by: FIA Pool
“I am quite happy that even in bad situations, I started a little bit to improve myself and I am happy with the performance and progress I did.
“It was a super big learning year. I think I gained a lot of experience and I don’t think there’s much left I could do. I don’t think I can do more things for the race, and now I’ve experienced the worst and bad things, I can move forward.”
It has left him feeling much more confident too about what he can do in 2022, whether it be maximising performance from a good car to beat teammate Pierre Gasly , or knuckle down and improve things if his team finds itself on the back foot.
“It is going to be a really important year for me,” he explains. “I don’t know how the pace is going to be for the car and the team. On my side I must perform well of course.
“You need to beat your teammate and have a more consistent pace. So now I know the details of what I have to improve and, if I improve this one, I can beat my teammate in a consistent way.
“I have all the ingredients I sought to go forward, and in terms of that, it was very good preparation year I would say.
“And also there will be a new car. If it’s a good car I have to perform well and get points. And even if it’s bad car or bad pace, you can develop the car and I know how to develop the car for myself to be faster.”
No more being a lazy bastard for Tsunoda. It’s flat out and full focus ahead.
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