Red Bull team principal Christian Horner made it abundantly clear who he felt was to blame after both his drivers had to abandon their final flying laps in qualifying.Yuki Tsunoda, the rookie Red Bull brought into Formula 1 this year with its junior team AlphaTauri. But were Red Bull too hasty to point the finger at Tsunoda for spoiling Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez’s laps?
Perez, the first of the two Red Bull drivers to catch Tsunoda, claimed he shouldn’t even have been in Q3. After all, Tsunoda had been given a grid penalty for a power unit change which forced him to start at the back. Why, then, had AlphaTauri planned for him to reach Q3, given that it would make little difference to his starting position, when dropping out in Q2 would have allowed him to start on fresh tyres instead of used ones?
The principal reason was that having Tsunoda in Q3 meant he could be used to give a slipstream to Pierre Gasly, and improve his chances of a good qualifying position. In this Tsunoda performed his job perfectly: Gasly took fifth on the grid, which is realistically the best he can hope for. “We are the first team behind Red Bull and Mercedes and the fifth position is for us like a pole position,” said AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost.
AlphaTauri weren’t the only team to do this. Lando Norris, who has the same penalty as Tsunoda, also got into Q3 to give his team mate a tow.
Perez’s complaint therefore doesn’t stack up. But it’s also true that Norris managed to give Daniel Ricciardo a tow without getting into anyone’s way. Why didn’t Tsunoda do the same, and who was to blame for the fact he didn’t?
As the final Q3 runs began the Red Bull drivers were advised that two of the other cars on track were only there to give slipstreams to their team mates. They would therefore back off and not push to set quick lap times on their way back to the pits.
“Norris is towing Ricciardo, so they will come as a two,” Verstappen’s race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase advised him. “Tsunoda and Gasly also now turn three, Tsunoda towing Gasly. So I’ll treat those as one car each.”
Norris reached turn one first and pulled off-line to let Ricciardo by. The AlphaTauris were now the next cars behind him, led by Gasly, who’d just passed Tsunoda.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
McLaren gave Norris three updates on Gasly’s location as the AlphaTauri driver caught him. Norris let him go into turn seven, the first of three fast bends in the middle of the lap where there is little space to let another car past. Norris then accelerated through the following bends and was not caught by the next car behind him, belonging to Carlos Sainz Jnr, before the end of the lap.
Further back, Tsunoda had let Sainz pass him at virtually the same spot Norris allowed Gasly by. The AlphaTauri driver had been advised “Sainz seven [seconds] behind, pushing” and duly backed off.
But his race engineer Mattia Spini hadn’t told Tsunoda there were two more cars within seven seconds of Sainz: Perez and Verstappen. By the time Tsunoda was told Perez was closing on him, he had already accelerated into the turn seven to 11 sequence.
“Perez four behind, pushing,” said Spini. “Pushing,” he added as Perez drew close. “Perez behind you,” he continued. Then, “Verstappen three behind.”
But it was too late: Tsunoda had taken to the run-off at turn 10 to let the first Red Bull past. Perez swung into turn 10, had a snap of oversteer, and headed for the run-off area where Tsunoda’s car was kicking up a plume of dust – a potentially unhelpful distraction. For a moment it looked like the Red Bull was going to plough into the AlphaTauri.
Verstappen, distracted by the cars in the run-off ahead of him, eased off, and lost his last chance to claim a place on the front row. “Ah, for fuck’s sake,” he exclaimed, “what the fuck happened there in front of me?”
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
“Not quite sure,” Lambiase replied. “Tsunoda just, I don’t know, parked it, so Checo had to back out.” “Unbelievable,” Verstappen fumed. “Such a dumb idiot.”
But while Verstappen’s indignation at the AlphaTauri driver would shortly be echoed by his team principal, Tsunoda’s response to his engineer’s messages couldn’t be faulted. By the time he was warned about Perez’s Red Bull, he was at a point on the track where letting a car past without distracting them or interfering with their aerodynamics – as Perez alleged – is very difficult.
Verstappen, who lost pole position for the last race at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez for failing to slow down for a yellow flag, later admitted that on this occasion he backed off unnecessarily.
“You arrive so quick it’s difficult to pinpoint what’s happening,” he said. “I just saw a lot of dust, so I thought a car crashed and now with the yellow flag rules, I’ve been caught with that already here in Mexico, I backed out of it a bit.
“Then no yellow flag came so I continued pushing but of course that’s already like two-and-a-half tenths gone. So, my lap was basically finished.”
For Tsunoda’s part, he insisted he had no alternative under the circumstances. “If I had another chance I’d do the same thing,” he said. “I don’t know what else I should do.”
Should AlphaTauri have given Tsunoda earlier warning? Arguably, yes. But the stewards have raised no concerns over how the team handled the situation. There was no investigation into whether Tsunoda had impeded either of the Red Bull drivers.
Afterwards Tsunoda was initially unaware the incident had affected Verstappen as well as Perez. He was clearly shocked to learn he had potentially spoiled a qualifying lap for a driver who Tsunoda openly favours in the championship fight.
Given that, had it been one of the Mercedes drivers Tsunoda had delayed, accusations of collusion would no doubt be flying around. Instead there is obvious frustration that the one team they might have expected to stay out of their way hadn’t done so.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
2021 Mexico City Grand Prix
- Hamilton’s win under threat as he faces new investigation over seat belts
- F1 expects Brazil GP freight delay will not affect race
- Red Bull pin hopes on high altitude tracks after “Hamilton stronghold” COTA
- Domenicali wants more F1 sprint events in 2022 after “overwhelmingly positive feedback”
- More F1 venues following Silverstone’s lead in aim for full crowds