How good was Alex Albon's 2023 Formula 1 season in the Williams FW45?
Good enough, certainly, to single-handedly earn Williams its best constructors' championship finish in six years. Good enough, too, for the 27-year-old to earn sixth place in The Race's end-of-year multi-contributor ranking of every 2023 F1 driver.
But were aspects of it at a much higher level than 'good'?
Albon's Williams team principal James Vowles is of that opinion. His assertion is that Albon's best performances - he cites the Canadian, British and Italian Grands Prix - were of the quality you'd expect from a world champion.
Vowles, who's held F1 roles under David Richards, Ross Brawn, and Toto Wolff before taking on his first team leadership assignment at Williams earlier this year, has also worked with F1 world champions Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg during title-winning campaigns, as well as Jacques Villeneuve at BAR and Michael Schumacher at Mercedes.
So while Vowles's comments have to be taken with a pinch of 'team boss praises lead driver' salt, such claims as the one he made on Sky Sports F1's 2023 season review have a degree of authoritative weight to them.
"What you've seen this year with Alex, and I think he'd mirror the same comment, is he's really transformed in himself," said Vowles.
"His confidence has grown enormously and a lot about driving the car on the limits is belief in yourself, belief in the infrastructure around you and the team, and that's what's changed. He really does believe in where we are and what he is capable of doing.
"I've had the pleasure of working with a number of world champions across my time and the drives that he did across three events this year, certainly Monza, Montreal and Silverstone, was just that [at a world champion's standard].
"He didn't put a foot wrong for 40 laps while we put him in a position where he had half the field really stacking up behind him [in Canada].
"And that is really when you start to see the true Alex coming out in that situation."
Were Albon's best 2023 drives world-champion calibre?
You can’t measure such things definitively, of course. But you can get a pretty shrewd idea over time of the level of a driver - and the tone, the sort of situations in which they excel, what their strengths are, how they mark themselves out.
I would say that over the past two seasons, but especially in 2023, Albon has delivered several drives of a calibre that, were they delivered in a competitive car, would have him considered among the elite drivers. Among the guys who could fight for a title in the right circumstances - so Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, George Russell etc - in addition to those like Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso who already have won them.
Albon also has assumed the mantle of team leadership very nicely.
The calibre of those performances with the spotlight off - no-one is expecting the Williams to do anything spectacular - is one thing. Delivering them on demand in a more pressured situation would be the next box to tick.
But I see no reason why he couldn’t do that now, given the opportunity.
Albon faced different in-race circumstances in each of the points-scoring drives Vowles cites, with the combined qualities required to pull them off lending credence to the idea that the performances were of an elite standard.
In Montreal, Albon completed a long, defensive final stint on hard tyres. Only it wasn't 40 laps as Vowles's comment seemed to refer to. It was 58 from his stop under an early safety-car period, with an ever-increasing queue of cars behind.
Albon drove a precise race - akin to the drive to 10th in Australia in 2022 that gained him his first point in Williams blue, and perhaps more so to the rearguard action that earned the same result at Spa the same year - thereafter to take seventh with a performance that he likened to defensive drives from the head of the pack in his junior days.
It came too after he'd already excelled in getting an upgraded FW45 into Q3 - he was fastest of all in Q2 - even if he made an error on his only shot at a meaningful lap in the final part of qualifying.
The car was again a competitive prospect at Silverstone - arguably more so than in Canada given it showed (somewhat deceptive) frontrunning pace in Friday practice - and once he'd negotiated a tricky wet/dry Q1 Albon was outstanding, making Q3 once more.
Albon was solid in the first part of the race - he did lose two positions in the opening laps, then a third as Sergio Perez's Red Bull came through - but on a day where the Williams looked a marginal points contender it all came good in the final stint. That's because Williams had left Albon out long enough to stop under a safety car, giving him softs for the run to the flag from ninth.
That set him up for a peach of a pass into Abbey on Carlos Sainz's Ferrari, left out on hards under the safety car and vulnerable - but only to a precise attack - after Perez had caught him off guard, to take eighth.
As Albon then ran out of laps to overtake Fernando Alonso's Aston Martin for seventh, so he instead put his efforts into rebuffing an attack from Charles Leclerc on the final lap to claim four points for eighth.
This was less of an against-all-odds miracle than the Montreal drive; Albon was on the defensive from the McLarens for much of the Italian GP and had a tyre-life deficit to his pursuers, but nothing like the offset in Canada - and he was without the immediate peril of one mistake being the difference between six points and none.
But dropping places was still never really an option for Albon; Williams was embroiled in a tight fight for seventh in the constructors' championship and needed to maximise its points scores at its happy hunting grounds.
Monza was as good a place as any to do so but it required another excellent qualifying performance to set up the chance (Albon was sixth), then a combination of the FW45's straighline speed, precision into and out of the Ascari chicane and Parabolica (Alboreto) in particular, and a stern defence, to convert it. It also included a nifty overtake into the della Roggia chicane on Oscar Piastri on lap two to repass the McLaren he'd lost out to at the start.
Given some variance in race circumstances there, let's return to Vowles's comment about "driving the car on the limits".
For each of Albon's four best race results of the season - his seventh-place finishes in Montreal and at Monza, plus eighth at Silverstone and Zandvoort - he made Q3 and, with the exception of Montreal, achieved the maximum result on offer (within reason) once there.
While that was only half the job done, it laid the foundation for the race drives Albon managed - and of course is a skill those at the elite level almost universally have in their arsenals.
Albon's points-scoring in 2023
Grid: 15th / Race: 10th
Grid: 9th / Race: 7th
Grid: 8th / Race: 8th
Grid: 4th / Race: 8th
Grid: 6th / Race: 7th
Grid: 17th / Race: 7th
Grid: 15th / Race: 9th (11th on the road)
Grid: 14th / Race: 9th
Add into that the other attribute mentioned - his leadership qualities, including on the development side - and it feels true that Albon is a driver "transformed".
Asked how well Albon's technical contribution and dependability paired, Williams head of vehicle performance Dave Robson says: "Within a weekend he’s very good at understanding how to trade one thing for another. He’s also very good and, particularly when he’s on track, very vocal about strategy and run plans.
"In terms of car development, again he is becoming increasingly good and confident at picking out where the genuine weaknesses are and having some sense of how we might go about fixing them or how realistic it is to fix them in the time period.
"The nice thing about that is then you take him into the simulator and we can do some FW46 work, which is not going to affect him for months - but he’s been involved with that for a long time now.
"And he understands that it [the issue being worked on] is not going to be something we can fix on the [FW]45 almost certainly, but he’s happy to pull his sleeves up and do that work [for next year's car].
"That’s an education for him as well as us, because he can do whatever he wants on the simulator and start to understand what it is he really wants and how we might achieve it.
"So I think he’s just going from strength to strength and still seeing his confidence improving. So he’s doing a cracking job."
It's important to acknowledge the caveat in Vowles's remark: that these were instances of what he deems to be world-champion-level performances.
Albon's 2023 campaign did not feature many mistakes, but there were some - his crash from sixth in the Australian GP was the most notable, while there was also a rare lapse with multiple track-limits violations in Austria. And even if there were few, and the majority of the remaining weekends were considered to be impressive, that's not to say all of those hit the threshold that separates the great from the good.
But there is a body of evidence that supports the claim. Another season like that will only strengthen Albon's case for having a place among those at the top table.