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Formula 1

Forget the Albon cliche – he’s the leader Williams needs

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

The sporting cliché that ‘nice guys finish last’ – the idea that how agreeable a person is defines how successful they can be competitively – is easily adapted to Formula 1, although it has followed Alex Albon in a slightly unusual and unfair way.

It is sometimes said of drivers who are deemed to be too nice that they must toughen up or be outmatched by more forceful rivals. Usually this is meant to draw a comparison between their off-track demeanour and how they conduct themselves on-track, with the implication they lack the ruthlessness or cutting edge of a champion.

Where the affable Albon is concerned, though, there has occasionally been an emphasis on him needing to get more combative off-track, rather than on it.

Alex Albon Williams Jost Capito F1

“He’s completely different in the car and out of the car,” ex-Williams team boss Jost Capito said late last year.

“In the car he’s tough. [Some drivers] are too nice when you take the helmet off.”

Ex-Williams technical director FX Demaison made a similar point, more bluntly.

“He’s a nice person – sometimes too nice,” said Demaison in Brazil last year. “He needs to be a bit harder with the team and push us a bit more.

“It’s his nature – unless he has the helmet on, then he can be hard. But he should be a bit harder in the debrief.

“Every day I tell him, ‘You have to be a…’ a word I will not pronounce!

“If you want to be world champion, you have to be like this.”

It isn’t hard to guess the unspoken word. But the point is, there was a clear feeling with the previous Williams hierarchy that Albon’s genial nature can hold him back.

Heading into a season where Albon must step up and be the leader Williams, is there any merit in a slightly cliched criticism?

Alex Albon Williams F1

Trying to untangle whether a driver is ‘too nice’ or not off-track is complicated. Certainly, it pays to be demanding and forceful in terms of not being willing to settle for things. The best drivers, the real leaders, ensure their voice is heard.

But there are different ways to do that. Albon pointed out himself this week that while he wants to step up and be a team leader, that doesn’t mean – he joked – getting aggressive in his debriefs.

“It’s a tricky one,” he said. “I would say the way I go about my business is to get the best out of the people I work with.

“I don’t think that’s always necessarily just being hard on people. Everyone works differently, it’s about extracting performance in different ways. Everyone has different personalities.

“I’m definitely focussed on becoming more of a team leader, looking at ways to do that. That’s not necessarily throwing the laptop across the room!”

Alex Albon Williams F1

It’s worth pointing out that Capito, who brought Albon into Williams and signed him on a long-term deal but left himself in December (along with Demaison), added that “it’s better to be too nice than to be too pushy”.

That’s a sensible caveat because the last thing any driver needs is to start alienating people.

“I think he gets the balance about right,” says Williams engineering chief Dave Robson.

“If you listen to him on the radio, when he’s actually out on the track, he’s not shy about telling us what he thinks.

“I think the moment he steps out of the car he’s quite a different character. In terms of the way he speaks and sounds much calmer. But what he’s asking for is still just the same.

“So, there’s this sort of emotional switch there that’s on and off depending on whether he’s got his helmet on or not.

“I think he gets the balance about right. It did change and improve over the course of the year.

“But he’s demanding. Don’t worry about that. He knows what he wants, and he’s not shy to ask for it.”

Alex Albon Williams F1 number

It’s not surprising to hear that Albon’s processes changed through 2022. There will inevitably be a reluctance to speak out of turn that can easily be tied to experience and confidence. These qualities don’t just exist in isolation.

For a young driver like Albon, his move into Red Bull Racing alongside established race winner Max Verstappen must have been a daunting environment. After a year out, joining a new team entirely as he did with Williams also necessitated a period of learning the team and being comfortable enough to state his convictions.

Albon says he is “definitely more settled” going into his second year with Williams, as he is more familiar with the team, comfortable on a multi-year deal, and proved himself as the clear leader in terms of performance in 2022.

Now Albon is not just the incumbent driver, he is also the experienced head given he’s partnered with a rookie in Logan Sargeant. There will be a natural evolution of his role within Williams as a result of this.

Alex Albon Logan Sargeant Williams F1

He will be leaned on more as a lead driver and it could be the kind of role he relishes. It’s certainly something he has actively thought about, in the context of asking himself “how can I become more of a team leader and how can I get the team into a better position and fighting for points more regularly?”.

Albon says: “I’m confident in where I feel we need to go, that was even from the first race of the year last year.

“From my experience with other teams, I felt like I could bring a lot to the table. I spent an extra year [helping develop the Red Bull in 2021], so that’s even more experience under my belt.

“I’m focussing a lot on the [priority] areas, the balance of the car in certain places and whatnot.

“The main difference from this year to last year is just all that time, the team learning my driving style, me learning the culture and the way the team does things, that’s already been done.

“We’ll start Bahrain straight away on the front step, we’ll be able to fast-track our development and progress through winter testing.”

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