Yuki the Rookie

Yuki Tsunoda. For those who don’t know him, Yuki is a Formula 1 driver from the Red Bull junior program, who drives for Scuderia AlphaTauri F1 TeamRed Bull Racing & Red Bull Technology‘s sister team. Yuki is a rookie, and has had quite a season. He came out strong at the beginning of the season, but that amazing start was followed by a number of high profile (and sometimes unnecessary) crashes.

So many crashes in fact, that even Yuki himself was surprised when his contract was renewed for 2022. When asked during a press conference why he was so surprised, his answer was ‘Because I keep crashing’. Yuki’s confidence clearly took a hit.

Knowing that he’s struggling with the mental side of racing made it even more painful to hear Christian Horner say they got ‘Tsunoda’d’ during qualifying for Sunday’s #MexicoCityGP. Horner made these comments after Tsunoda went off track to let his Red Bull colleagues pass, which backfired when it spooked Sergio Perez and slowed Max Verstappen down. Red Bull Racing has a culture to be admired. They have been exemplary in building a team around trust and psychological safety. However, when it comes to driver management, there is something to be said for a bit more empathy if you want to get the best out of your talent.

Hearing Christian Horner’s comments will likely only reinforce Yuki’s insecurities, which, in turn, will impact his performance. To be clear: I admire Horner’s leadership and often use him as an example of what great leadership looks like. I think in this case he likely (hopefully!) simply didn’t anticipate an offhand comment having this much of an impact. And although we all know that Red Bull Racing has a fair, but rather tough culture in which mental strength is valued and expected, not all drivers are Max Verstappen. This is not a dig at Verstappen. He is a once-in-a-generation talent, so mentally tough and single-mindedly focused on winning that he simply doesn’t care what anyone says about him. I believe it’s why he handles the pressure of leading the championship with such apparent ease, and why I think he will be the 2021 world champion (assuming he will continue to have a competitive car for these last few races).

But when it comes to leadership, there are certain elements that bring out the best in all of your team members: autonomy, trust, psychological safety, vulnerability, and consistency, congruency, and transparency in decision making. Red Bull Racing have all of those down to a tee, and I’m sure their aim is not to bring down one of their own (as an AlphaTauri driver, Yuki is part of the Red Bull Racing family). To get the most out of him as a driver, and to get him to repeat what he did in Turkey (fending off Lewis Hamilton for eight laps to help Max), it may be beneficial to give Yuki a bit more trust. Who knows, maybe ‘being Tsunoda’d’ can then be reframed as winning the championship because your sister team colleague fought tooth and nail to keep your biggest rival at bay.