A make-or-break year awaits AlphaTauri’s two talents · RaceFans

Red Bull have never embraced convention. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many masterful marketing minds have toiled for hours in boardrooms to ensure that ‘conventional’ is the last thing you associate with the soft drink brand.

So naturally, their approach to running a Formula 1 team has been no different. Why own one F1 team when you can have a two-team operation instead?

Their junior squad – currently branded as AlphaTauri – is a unique team among its peers on the grid. All others aim for wins and championships. But AlphaTauri’s raison d’etre is simply to act as a finishing school, producing an endless supply of prospects to become Red Bull’s next grand prix winning driver. And having produced its second multiple world champion since its inception, the team formerly known as Toro Rosso has more than proved its worth.

Any other midfield team would have been demoralised to have suffered the drop in performance AlphaTauri endured in 2022. From a record points haul in 2021, knocking on the door of a top-five championship position, ground effect aerodynamics arrived and realigned the competition in the midfield – and not in their favour.

De Vries arrives well prepared for his first season

But the drivers are always the focus at AlphaTauri, not the team itself. And 2023 will truly be a critical year for both occupants of the AT04.

With the ever-present Pierre Gasly finally breaking free from Red Bull purgatory, Nyck de Vries takes his place as the oldest driver to enter into their debut season since Brendon Hartley raced for the same team in 2018. De Vries is older than more than half the grid, but his single-seater pedigree is formidable. He becomes the fifth of six Formula 2 champions to reach the world championship as well as the first Formula E world champion to get into Formula 1 after winning the all-electric series crown.

One key advantage De Vries has over his fellow 2023 rookies is a grand prix already under his belt. Unexpectedly stepping into Alexander Albon’s Williams at Monza, De Vries looked anything but a debutant as he delivered two points in ninth place in his first grand prix. A result that will have injected immense confidence into him as he prepares for his first year as a full-time F1 driver.

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He’ll hope to last longer than Hartley, who was out after little more than one season. Thankfully, he’s already fluent in the ways of a modern Formula 1 car. He embarked on an extensive internship with Mercedes as their reserve driver, logging countless simulator hours and also driving every Mercedes-powered car except the McLaren last season thanks to the Friday practice rules.

It’s a crucial third year for Tsunoda

That hands-on experience in a variety of 2022 cars will be crucial. Unlike last year, these radically different F1 cars are no longer new to the current field, while the likes of fellow rookie Oscar Piastri will head into testing with minimal seat time. It would seem that De Vries has the best possible opportunity to make a go of his first F1 campaign. But that also means there will be fewer excuses if he struggles along the way.

Excuses are also a luxury that De Vries’ new team mate, Yuki Tsunoda, no longer enjoys either. The much younger, much more experienced AlphaTauri driver prepares for his third season in F1 with the team well aware that this is the most important year he’s ever had in is racing career.

History shows that year three is the critical one for Red Bull juniors. For Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastian Buemi, Jean-Eric Vergne and even Carlos Sainz Jnr, Red Bull had little interest in offering their drivers more than three strikes to prove their worth.

Of course, it’s not always as cut-and-dried as that. Daniil Kvyat and even Gasly himself are evidence that Red Bull will keep a driver around for as much as 100 grands prix if they have no better options. But options are one thing Red Bull is rarely lacking in, especially as their stable of younger talent waiting in the wings looks as stacked as ever – especially its longer-term prospects. Half-a-dozen drivers on the Formula 2 grid are Red Bull Junior Team members, and reserve driver Liam Lawson in Japanese Super Formula could repeat Gasly’s route to F1.

Tsunoda has shown he has speed over his first two seasons in Formula 1 – especially over his second year alongside Gasly. His tally of 12 points in 2022 was perhaps not a fair reflection of his performance. He deserved a healthy bundle of points in Baku, but was robbed cruelly by a DRS failure while on track for one of his best performances of the season. It was not his fault he was hit by Esteban Ocon at the start of the French Grand Prix and he was also rudely hip-checked out of more points in Mexico by Daniel Ricciardo to deny him another opportunity to add to his total.

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But there were too many errors along the way too. No driver suffered a retirement as embarrassing as when Tsunoda crashed out of the pitlane in Canada. Then, the very next race at Silverstone, he clumsily clattered into his team mate in the early laps – not only costing his team points, but ruining Max Verstappen’s afternoon after Red Bull’s championship contender suffered damage running over small pieces of AlphaTauri littering the racing line.

Tsunoda needs to show more progress in year three. He must demonstrate that he is maturing in the way Red Bull want him too – especially against an experienced elder team mate like De Vries. If not, then he may soon start to grow very aware of the likes of Lawson looming in the background, just waiting for an opportunity to show what he can do.

It’s rare for AlphaTauri to head into a season with a genuine chance that both of its drivers could be replaced for the following year if they do not perform. While the chances that both will wilt under the pressure is slim, it’s a stark reminder of the unique dynamic of this most unconventional of teams.

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