Did AlphaTauri retire Yuki Tsunoda to help Max Verstappen?

© LAT Images for Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd

By Adrian Mann

After Yuki Tsunoda’s strange retirement at the Dutch Grand Prix, at exactly the perfect time for Max Verstappen to get a ‘free pit stop’, a lot of questions are being asked.

At the Dutch Grand Prix Mercedes originally put Lewis Hamilton on a one-stop strategy, which gave him a good chance to try and win the race.

However, while the Briton was closing in on race leader Max Verstappen, who was yet to pit for the second time, a DNF from AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda brought out the Virtual Safety Car, and provided the Dutch driver with an opportunity to have a ‘free’ pit stop.

The circumstances surrounding Tsunoda’s DNF were a bit peculiar. He first stopped on the track for a little while, thinking that his wheel was not properly fitted.

His engineer then informed him that everything was fine, so he returned to the track. However, he was then told to make a pit stop to change his tyres, while the mechanics also had to tighten his seatbelts, as he already started to unbuckle himself.

After the pit stop, while he was exiting the pitlane, Tsunoda told the team he felt the problem again, and was subsequently told to stop his car once he got back onto the track.

Considering how all this happened just at the right time for Verstappen to make his stop, and considering that AlphaTauri is owned by Red Bull, some have found this whole situation to be quite suspicious.

Especially the fact that the problem was allegedly not detected in time to stop the team from releasing him from the pits. So, was there any foul play involved?

Well, it’s unlikely that we will ever get a definite answer. There are those pointing to the fact that Verstappen’s championship lead is so huge, that Red Bull would not want to risk a scandal by orchestrating this.

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On the other hand, the timing of these events, especially the fact that Tsunoda was not retired in the pitlane, is really strange.

Had he not been let out again, there would be no VSC and no other consequences. Had he stopped before exiting the pits, the pitlane would probably be closed while the car is being removed, and nobody would be able to pit. Even is a VSC was brought out, nobody would be able to pit, which means it would have no bearing on the results of the race.

Stopping the car on the track obviously heavily influenced the result, as it destroyed Mercedes’ one-stop strategy gambit, and allowed Verstappen to have a ‘free pit stop’ at exactly the right time.

But then again, what happened to Tsunoda didn’t have to be a calculated move, sometimes the chips just fall in a way which favours some, and penalizes others.

But, let’s examine the team radio from AlphaTauri to determine if something sounds off. After Tsunoda came in for his first pit stop, he noticed something strange, immediately upon exiting the pitlane.

Tsunoda: “Ohhh, tyre, tyre’s not fitted!”

Engineer: “Copy. Slow down. Russell 5.9. Stop on track in a safe place.”

Tsunoda then asked his engineer to confirm if the tyre is fitted properly.

“Stop on track. Stop on track, now. Stop on track,” the engineer replied.

Yuki then pulled over, yellow flags were shown, but there was no Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car deployed. The team then informed Tsunoda that everything was fine and he could start his car again.

“Go again. Go again. Start, start again. Tyres are OK. Start again, tyres are OK,” Tsunoda’s engineer said.

Yuki was then told to go into the pits for a tyre change: “Box box, we change tyre”. He then informed his engineer that he was having problems with his seatbelt.

When he entered the pits, his tyres were changed, and the mechanics were apparently doing something to his seatbelts.

He was then let back out again, but just as he was approaching the pit exit, he noticed the problem again.

Tsunoda: “Strange at the rear, something strange. Diff [differential] is broken, I think.”

Engineer: “Stop, stop. Stop in a safe place. Go out. Go out the pit exit and stop in a safe place. Vettel blue flag behind. Watch your mirrors. Blue flag behind. Watch your mirrors. Watch your mirrors again and stop in a safe place, Yuki.”

After he pulled over, the Virtual Safety Car was deployed. Post-race he was asked to describe what had happened.

“Well, I thought there was an issue,” Yuki told Sky F1.

“The engineers couldn’t really see in the data, so I came back again. We fitted a different set of tyres too and after that pit stop, the engineer saw the issue clearly in the data, that’s why we stopped.”

He then explained that “tyres were not the issue in the end”. Asked if he drove with unbuckled seatbelts, Yuki said: “The seatbelt was fine, it was just retightened again.”

AlphaTauri’s Chief Engineer Claudio Balestri then revealed the team is investigating the issue.

“After the pit stop, he reported something strange at the rear of the car, we called him in again to change the tyres and immediately after we had a car failure,” Balestri said.

“This is currently under investigation within the team,” he concluded.

After the race, the FIA investigated the incident and summoned the team for an alleged breach of the FIA Sporting Regulations, Article 34.14: “Cars must not be released from a garage or pit stop position in way that could endanger pit lane personnel or another driver”.

Tsunoda was then handed a reprimand for driving on track with loosened seatbelts. The team later revealed that Tsunoda’s issue was indeed a broken differential.

Now, it is certainly possible that everything happened exactly as Tsunoda and AlphaTauri described, but the way events transpired, and the timing of it, definitely leave room for doubt. Of course, there’s also the possibility that the issue was real, but they decided to deal with it in a way which was most convenient for Red Bull.

When asked about this, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said that if Mercedes was in a fight for the championship, “that would be something I would closely look at”.

As things stand right now, there will be no further official investigation, so it’s basically a case of everybody having to decide for themselves on what actually happened.

The team radio transcript was done by PlanetF1.com.

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