How AlphaTauri is taming the Tsunoda ‘thunderstorm’

The talent and the speed are undeniable, but the first four races of the 2021 Formula 1 season also showed that Yuki Tsunoda still has a lot to learn.

How AlphaTauri is taming the Tsunoda ‘thunderstorm’ spoke with race engineer Mattia Spini about how AlphaTauri tries to turn the Japanese ‘fury’ into a driver that can ‘achieve what we all want him to achieve’.

Tsunoda impressed by scoring points on his F1 debut as he finished ninth in Bahrain. A qualifying crash at Imola, conditions that were especially tricky for a rookie in Portugal and a technical issue at Barcelona meant that Formula 1’s first 21st century-born driver hasn’t added to his points tally since.

Nevertheless, many agree that Tsunoda is a bright star of the future, with AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost even claiming that Tsunoda will be world champion if he continues to develop like he has been doing.

Asked what it’s like to work with a future world champion, AlphaTauri race engineer Mattia Spini responded with a smile: “So, of course, it is a good challenge to bring this young talent in the first year of Formula 1. His raw talent is clear to everybody. He is able to put fast laps together.

“He did a nice overtake race in Bahrain, so he showed he’s capable of very nice things on track. Obviously, he is young and has for sure not the experience of some of the other drivers that are in Formula 1. But it’s our job to bring him through the journey, through the learning of everything that he needs to excel in being in Formula 1.

“If Franz said that - Franz has a lot of experience with drivers - he means that he sees something in Yuki. And I think we see the same as an engineering group. Obviously, his career’s just started. It’s up to us to help him in this journey of achieving what we all want him to achieve.”

Tsunoda provides Spini, however, with a different ‘challenge’ than the drivers he’s previously worked with at the Faenza based squad.

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

“I’ve worked with rookie drivers in the past, Pierre [Gasly] is one. But I think with Yuki it’s different because firstly he’s very young, he’s 21 years old,” he added.

“Second, he had in the past a very fast-forward career. He did one year in Formula 3, one year in Formula 2 and then, bang, he’s in Formula 1. So, he didn’t have really the time to experience all these different scenarios that you can face in the other formulas. So, he’s still in this process off exploring, experiencing, getting to know what’s going to happen on track.

“Last year I worked with Daniil [Kvyat], who has a lot of experience in Formula 1, and in different teams. So, there are things that for an experienced driver are default. You then don’t need to say certain things. Because they know. It’s their life. They’ve done it so many times that it’s something hardcoded in their way of doing things.

“But with a young driver as Yuki, there are some things that you take for granted with an experienced driver that you can no longer take for granted.”

Over the winter months Tsunoda spent a decent amount of time in a 2019 spec Toro Rosso at Imola and Misano, to prepare for his F1 debut.

“It was useful both for him and for us”, Spini reflected. “Because we did one test last year, when we didn’t know yet if he was going to be our driver. But we did a few this year and [this time] we actually knew that it was the start of our relationship.

“So, we tried to build up all the automatisms that, again, in a race weekend are taken for granted. Things like communication style. How much we talk, when we talk, about what we talk. All these little things that need to be internalised, both for us, the engineering crew, and for him as a new driver that comes in this completely different world to what he was used to.”

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri, walks the track with his team

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri, walks the track with his team

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The fact that the Italian team has had a Japanese engine supplier for a couple of years has helped Spini get the relationship with Tsunoda off to a good start.

“Having to relate with them [the Japanese people who work on the engine] for years now, you get to know their culture a little bit, their way of relating to people, their way of working and how I need to relate to them as well. And this for sure helped me with Yuki because there are some things from the Japanese culture that are completely different to the European one. It doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, it’s just different and you just need to adapt. Because what we need is to pass the message.”

“And whatever is needed is good”, Spini continued. “For example: they are quite visual kind of people, so often times we used to draw things or write things down and in that way it’s much clearer for them how to approach the thing. And it was with Yuki as well. But it’s a continuous process. It never ends. But yeah, it was good to work with Honda Japanese people to get a bit to know the culture and then get better interaction with Yuki.”

Those who followed Tsunoda in junior formulae already knew he can be quite feisty over the team radio. During FP1 in Bahrain the F1 world got its first taste of Tsunoda, when the Sagamihara born driver encountered some traffic on one of his push laps. Tsunoda later on conceded his swearing was his ‘weakest point’, as it can take away some of his focus behind the wheel.

“Yeah, it’s something of course we are working on with him and I think it’s something natural for his kind of character, to come with his frustration on the radio”, Spini said. “But of course it’s something that doesn’t help his focus, and it doesn’t help our focus as an engineering group.

“So live, of course, we tend to ignore that part of the message, get only the important bit, the relevant bit, so we can pass it on and think about the next step.

“But then [out] of the car we are sitting down and we try to break it down and say: ‘Look, why were you so upset?’ ‘Because I had traffic.’ ‘OK, next time you have traffic we can do this, this and this.’ So, we try to work together with him to make him better in managing these kinds of situations that are always going to happen in Formula 1 and in motor racing. So yeah, again, it’s part of the journey.”

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Spini admits he was surprised when he was first confronted with a shouting Tsunoda. “You see this very nice young guy that is playing and making jokes, and that actually out of the car is very chilled and playful. And then he puts the helmet on and he’s just a fury, he’s a thunderstorm in the car. You get this surprise the first time.”

"But then you get to know him and you understand what’s going on. He’s eager of getting the result, getting things done properly and have a nice session every time and have a nice run every time.

"These radio communications are just the expression of what he’s feeling inside and the eagerness of doing well. And if something gets in the way between him and the end result, he gets frustrated and the radio communication is the result of this frustration.”

You’d imagine the shouting and swearing can be a frustrating thing to hear, but Spini says race engineers “are quite used to it” and that "it’s always going to come for the driver, some kind of frustration when things are not going well, or some kind of bad times. And it’s always part of my job to steer them back in the right path, in the right state of mind and mood. So, completely normal.”

After Tsunoda crossed the finish line in Bahrain, Spini came on the radio to say: “We’re going to have fun this year.” The Italian is hopeful that “sooner or later we’ll do very good results with him.”

“The most impressive things that I’ve seen from him so far have been the overtakes in the race in Bahrain. I was impressed because the way he was just lunging the car without thinking about it [while] fighting with the car in front and just trying to overtake. And most of the time he succeeded in doing the overtake. It was impressive, especially for a rookie driver. I think that’s why I did that comment at the end of the race.

“And [out] of car he’s for sure determined of getting the prize and he’s for sure determined of getting better and better and achieving good results. So, it is the right frame of mind that he is having at the moment. And I’m sure we’ll do better. Our hope would be soon.”


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