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Formula 1

Is Red Bull trapping the F1 driver it refuses to promote?

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

Carlos Sainz was not the only Formula 1 driver Red Bull snubbed in giving Sergio Perez a contract extension. One of its own was also overlooked.

There seems little Yuki Tsunoda can do to force his way into the Red Bull Racing reckoning, based on an increasingly impressive portfolio of work at the sister RB team going unnoticed.

Perez’s new deal was merely confirmation of that fact, with Tsunoda - like RB team-mate Daniel Ricciardo - resigned to accepting that the promised land remains out of reach. Even though Tsunoda is comprehensively outperforming Ricciardo, who also started 2024 with grand designs on pressuring Perez for that seat alongside Max Verstappen.

Red Bull’s disinterest in considering Tsunoda for its main team amounts to a refusal to promote him. Which is, in a way, completely fine. Red Bull’s under no obligation to make Tsunoda Verstappen’s team-mate. Much as this is not in keeping with the second team’s DNA of training drivers for the senior team, it’s been argued for a while that Red Bull wants RB to become a stronger entity in its own right.

The problem is that it leaves Tsunoda trapped. He has no realistic future at the Red Bull team he ultimately wants to race for. And he is of interest to multiple rival teams, with Haas, Alpine and even Sauber/Audi believed to have considered the Japanese driver among its 2025 options - but Red Bull is understood to have an option it can exercise to keep Tsunoda for next season.

So, even if Tsunoda’s the top target for someone else, and wants to leave, he can’t without Red Bull’s permission. A Helmut Marko claim to Kleine Zeitung that Tsunoda is “set” for 2025 would suggest that, as it stands, Red Bull has no intention of letting him go.

On Thursday at the Canadian Grand Prix, Tsunoda didn’t sound like someone aware of that plan - only stating that “hopefully we can have a formal discussion” and stressing he hadn’t signed anything himself.

“Definitely it feels more supportive,” he said of Marko’s comments.

“Normally it [earning Red Bull’s faith] is at the end of the season - which aged me a lot, to be honest! That was a tough last three years.

“It’s a bit different this season, so it's good, and it means I can commit more. Hopefully these things will come out soon, clearly, in any way.”

It may be that Tsunoda finds himself in the same situation as his former team-mate and friend Pierre Gasly, who had a Red Bull contractual option activated when he was at AlphaTauri - only for Red Bull to later accept a buyout from Alpine to sign him. Maybe the Marko/Red Bull play is to keep Tsunoda under contract to release him if one of his suitors is willing to pay for the privilege.

But short-term, being kept where he is would not be the end of the world for Tsunoda. Right now, RB’s clearly better than any of the teams he could move to. He has an affection for Red Bull, which has backed him for a long time, and displays a clear sense of loyalty. Several times now, Tsunoda has stressed that Red Bull is his first priority in securing his future “as soon as possible”.

“This year has been a lot different,” he said. “I got a couple of options from others which is a good thing that I’m able to grow my value as well.

“Especially in this interesting driver market, I wanted to make myself secure to focus on the rest of the races.

“The priority is Red Bull, to make sure we are on the same page, because Red Bull is part of my life and without them I wouldn’t [even] achieve this much.”

But life at RB comes with a performance ceiling, much as it would like to believe otherwise, and it will lose its Honda engines in 2026 - with Honda being a key Tsunoda backer.

This is a team that is not particularly desirable for a driver with ambition to be locked into indefinitely, nor one that seems to be a pragmatic fit long-term either.

The hardest part for Tsunoda is that he clearly does not want to give up all hope of a Red Bull seat one day. He knows, or at least believes, it is the only realistic chance he has of a top F1 drive - at least for a good while.

Even if Tsunoda is not quite at the level required to command a seat at F1’s very top table, he surely deserves more recognition for his performances and his clear advantage over Ricciardo - whose intended career revival has stalled alongside Tsunoda - than year-to-year uncertainty, waiting for options to be taken up or not.

He even hinted at this in Montreal when he suggested that the interest in other teams might be something that triggers a new kind of Red Bull deal with a greater commitment.

“Hopefully Red Bull will understand more or see more my proper potential and performance, and maybe it can change in the future," he said.

“I would like to see in the contract more commitment from them. I'm committing already with Red Bull a lot and hopefully I can add even more commitment from them.

“I’m happy with the Red Bull family. And maybe this year is an interesting year, a bit of value from others will hopefully make room to negotiate something with them.”

Whatever is possible, Tsunoda is performing too well to be stuck in the kind of career limbo he seems to be at risk of, just as his stock in the driver market is reaching an all-time high.

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