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Yuki Tsunoda seen at the car launch at Visa Cash App RB, 2024 // Will Cornelius / Content Pool // SI202402080205 // Usage for editorial use only //

Does Tsunoda have what it takes to be a top F1 driver? 

Yuki Tsunoda seen at the car launch at Visa Cash App RB, 2024 // Will Cornelius / Content Pool // SI202402080205 // Usage for editorial use only //

Yuki Tsunoda enters his fourth season as a Formula 1 driver in 2024, with the rebranded VCARB F1 Team, with much to do to convince that he is not just in that seat because of Honda money but rather because he is a “top F1 driver”.

At the team’s livery launch in Las Vegas, VCARB F1 team principal Laurent Mekies, Tsunoda’s new boss and successor to Franz Tost, laid out the team’s ambitions, which target fighting closer to the front than the wrong side of the grid, where sixth is the best they have ever finished in the championship, in 18 years of trying.

Ambitions are loftier and with that pressure on both Daniel Ricciardo (still to find his legendary, ‘just-send-it’ form he once had) and Tsunoda to up the ante, with the Red Bull seat the big prize, should Sergio Perez continue to be demolished by Max Verstappen in the ‘Senior Team’ and require one of the two to step up.

Heading into 2024, although he can claim the ‘scalp’ of Nyck de Vries early last season. But with Liam Lawson outshining Tsunoda (when he subbed for injured Ricciardo) the Japanese 23-year-old has yet to fully convince F1 he is the real deal and he knows it: “Last year, I was able to take a step forward in terms of discovering my value as a driver.

“Furthermore, I think the car will be better this year, and I think we will have more opportunities to compete in the top 10. This will be the year I prove that I have what it takes to be a top F1 driver,” promised Tsunoda, with words that will be judged soon enough.

Mekies: I’m very impressed with Yuki

2024 Visa Cash App RB Car Launch in Las Vegas LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 08: Yuki Tsunoda of Japan and Visa Cash App RB poses for a photo with the Visa Cash App RB VCARB 01at the Visa Cash App RB Livery Launch Event Las Vegas on February 08, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Visa Cash App RB) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202402090084 // Usage for editorial use only //

As the team’s second-ever team principal since 2005, Mekies explained his philosophy: “Training young drivers for the Red Bull family is still a key aspect for the project though certainly, not the only one – as there are other parameters.

“But it’s one of the key ones for why we are here. It’s been in the DNA for a long time. Today, we have an incredible balance between youth and experience with Yuki and Daniel. It’s pretty much the ideal combination,” explained Mekies.

“I’m very impressed with Yuki,” said Mekies. “Ultimately he has proven, month after month, season after season that his speed is incredible. He’s had quite a few teammates now and all the time the speed kept building up.

“If you combine that with his integration with the team, his technical understanding that is growing, you have a very strong package. He’s a hard worker, he’s living in Faenza, he comes to the factory extremely often. He has an incredible natural speed, so the combination with Daniel in terms of pushing each other makes it a very strong lineup,” reckoned Mekies

Tsunoda versus Ricciardo will be an intriguing battle for the seat at Red Bull

2024 Visa Cash App RB Car Launch in Las Vegas LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 08: (L-R) Laurent Mekies, Team Principal of Visa Cash App RB, Yuki Tsunoda of Japan and Visa Cash App RB, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Visa Cash App RB and Peter Bayer, CEO of Visa Cash App RB pose for a photo at the Visa Cash App RB Livery Launch Event Las Vegas on February 08, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Visa Cash App RB) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202402090075 // Usage for editorial use only //

In the other car Ricciardo, VCARB has a driver who believes he is only treading water before Red Bull comes calling to replace Perez. For Dan, F1 career is still very much on the line.

In a sport in which beating your teammate is the first order of business, the eight-time Grand Prix winner should have ‘owned’ Tsunoda, from day one back in the seat. He still has to do that.

But Mekies believes in Ricciardo: “He’s an incredible asset for the team. There are not many drivers in the field with his sort of pedigree, that many race wins, with that sensibility for the car, with that spirit for our people.

“If you have a large group of people that is just motivated a bit more because of all the energy a driver can convey, it makes a difference. It’s hidden lap time, not one you can see on your tracker on the wall. It makes a difference.

“It’s great to have him on board in terms of speed, spirit and car development. He was on everyone’s top list until a couple of years ago. Then obviously he had a rough patch. We’re lucky to be the ones to rebuild with him from that.

“There is no reason why Daniel is not on the same trajectory as the one that was putting him on those top lists a few years ago. He has from that era gained experience and a lot of learning about how to manage his energy. I see him very hungry, extremely motivated, extremely focused,” added Mekies, ahead of his first season as an F1 team principal, with VCARB.

Big Question: Does Tsunoda have what it takes to be a top F1 driver?