Alex Albon enjoyed a rapid rise in F1, but came back down to earth swiftly after he was cut by Red Bull halfway through his second season with the senior team in 2020.
Following a third place finish in Formula 2, Albon was promoted to F1 and enjoyed a strong start to life in the premier class of open-wheel racing with Toro Rosso from 2019
Albon had accumulated 17 points just after the midway point against Daniil Kvyat, particularly impressing at the 2019 Chinese Grand Prix when he finished tenth after a pit-lane start.
For his performances, he received a promotion to Red Bull.
Albon has now opened up about the unique struggle of being Max Verstappen‘s teammate and how this affected his 2020 F1 campaign.
Racing alongside Verstappen
While not on the pace of his new teammate, Max Verstappen, the rookie did not seem out of his depth as he stepped up to one of the most compettive teams on the grid.
Albon says this made sense as Verstappen was the lead driver, and is also incredibly talented.
He said that the Dutchman has a “distinct style of driving” and that the set-up preferences the reigning champion has are difficult for many drivers to get to grips with.
Albon wrote that the RB15 and RB16 were so front-wing loaded that if you blew on the steering wheel, the car would turn, likening the nose to running the highest sensitivity settings on Call Of Duty.
He goes on to say about Verstappen in a column for the Players’ Tribune: “When all is said and done, he might be the greatest driver of all time.”
Albon said that it took him just a few sessions with the car to relate to Pierre Gasly, his predecessor as Verstappen’s teammate.
The British-Thai driver was well aware of Gasly’s talent.
“Like I knew how good Pierre was. I’ve seen it for years. He’s mega talented. He had more experience under his belt than me, too,” Albon said.
“And for whatever reason it wasn’t working for him at Red Bull Racing, so they made the switch with me.”
But after driving the RB15, Albon thought about Gasly and sympathised: “I get it. I get it, mate.”
Albon would end the season strongly, but not without heartbreak, as his maiden podium was lost following a collision with Lewis Hamilton at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
In the remaining nine races of the 2019 campaign, Albon would score eight sixth place (or better) finishes and scored 75 points – forecasting him for over 150 points in a full season.
It appeared that Red Bull had found their Daniel Ricciardo replacement after a difficult start to that task in 2019.
But the trouble was just beginning to brew for Albon.
Losing the Red Bull seat
Handling of the car would worsen in 2020, an issue which Albon said was partly due to the disruption of the pandemic breaking up the time he needed to understand how to drive the RB16.
But he adds that the car was primarily catered to the unique style of the now-two-time World Champion teammate Verstappen.
Now, this might raise the question about whether the Thai-Brit can actually drive front-loaded cars, but he reflected on his junior days, back to when he was teammates with George Russell and Charles Leclerc.
Both are highly talented and capable of managing difficult cars like the FW43 and the SF-1000.
The now, 26-year-old noted that he had always preferred more front nose to the pair, but that the extent that Verstappen could handle it is something else.
Back to the reserves
Following a disappointing 2020 season that saw him finish seventh in the standings whilst his teammate almost finished second, he would be swapped with Sergio Perez, ending the year without a seat as he became a reserve and test driver for Red Bull.
Desperate to return to the grid, Albon devoted himself to becoming “the best test driver you’ve ever seen in your life”, in part motivated by anger towards the situation that he was in. So, he threw himself into the role.
“That winter, it didn’t matter what the task was, really, I was all in. Like I said, late nights working on data viz or thousands of laps on the sim. I was game,” Albon commented.
While admitting he does not know if he was the best reserve ever for Red Bull, he said: “But I did really try to give it my all. It helped that I knew the team well from my time at Toro Rosso and Red Bull the two years before.”
Return to the grid
Albon began handing out CVs, and during the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix, reached out to Williams team principal Jost Capito.
Capito was looking for a new driver at the time, as Russell had been promoted to Mercedes for 2022.
Speaking about Capito, the Williams driver said: “He and I hit it off pretty quickly. He had a lot of belief in me, and we had a lot of positive conversations.
“I was really excited about the opportunity at Williams and, even though there was interest from other teams, Jost made me feel at home.”
Albon added that Williams is like a family, with a big sense of community. He says that ultimately, he is happy there, and he’s enjoying the little victories in F1 such as last year’s opening race.
Reflecting on the Bahrain Grand Prix, Albon said: “We weren’t where we wanted to be in preseason testing, and most people expected us to be out easily in Q3. Hopes weren’t high at all in the paddock, and it was a frustrating week up to that point.
“But I put together a pretty good lap, and we made it into Q2 and I don’t really know why, but I just felt so emotional in the car on my in-lap.
“I felt like it was a sign almost, like, Keep going. Don’t worry about everything else. Just keep going. To be out of the sport for a year, to question so much about myself — and to come out and perform? It meant a lot to me.”