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Formula 1

How to rebuild an F1 career – Alex Albon interview

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
11 min read

Alex Albon is in unfamiliar territory. By the summer of 2022, his Formula 1 future was secure – nothing about it was uncertain or out of his control. He had ticked off the “very top thing” on his to-do list for his comeback season and secured his Williams seat longer-term.

The year, therefore, ended with an air of personal serenity that is at odds with almost his entire car racing career. From junior single-seaters to F1, Albon – so often cited by his contemporaries as the most underrated driver they’ve faced – would often doubt what awaited him the following season.

Now he finally has the foundations of something much sturdier. And this is a recurring theme as he sits down with The Race to reflect on a vital year in which he has exorcised the demons of being dropped by Red Bull, turned the lessons of a year on the sidelines into progress on-track, and combined all of that with an added maturity to rebuild his F1 reputation.

“I’ve always had to fight for it,” he says. “I’ve always been feeling like every year has just been getting into the next year, getting into next year. That’s been the case since I was 14, 15 years old. So, I’m used to it.

“I’ve had it twice in my career where I didn’t think there was a future in sight for me in motorsport. Even as late as 2018.

“When you go through this feeling of being right on the edge of, I guess, survival, you actually get to a point where you start caring less – it’s almost like, you’re in it, and you’re worrying, but then you’ve got nothing to lose. And you can use that mentality as a good thing.

“During my career, I maybe never stood out solely in the junior levels. But I’ve always been racing against George [Russell] and Charles [Leclerc] and everyone my whole life. And having the year away, it is tricky.

“At the end of 2020, you’re in a tricky position and your stock’s low. But you still want to get back into F1.

“You have to have a lot of trust. And Williams did. Of course, I’m forever grateful for that. Because it’s not an easy thing for a team to commit in some respects.

“I imagine they looked at what I’ve done before. I think people forget that I had actually a very strong start to F1! That’s why I was in Red Bull.

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“It felt like coming into this year, I had to kind of prove myself, show what I can do.”

That is nothing Albon isn’t used to but given his F1 reputation was on the line the stakes were higher than normal.

After a bruising full season as Max Verstappen’s team-mate in 2020, Albon looked and sounded like a man increasingly bereft of confidence towards the end of that year.

It was no surprise when he lost his Red Bull Racing drive although the silver lining was the team kept him around in a significant development role.

This allowed him to work through a lot of his own limitations, from his own technique as a driver to what kind of car characteristics he really needs, and how best to communicate with the team on feedback and development.

“It’s a hard one, because you can never really get full closure,” says Albon of whether his year out helped him draw a line under that Red Bull season.

“I felt like my last few weekends in 2020 started to really improve. I started to understand a couple of things, but obviously, it was too late. And you then end up not driving a Formula 1 car and looking for answers and looking for stuff to build on without driving the car.

“It’s not a normal sport, like that. I had a lot of time to reflect, to understand and process what to do differently. I basically gained experience without driving the car.

“Everything happens so quickly in racing, you jump from race to race in 2020, it was even more condensed than a normal year just with the way that COVID was happening. It’s really good to have that step back and a full picture of everything, and then go back into it.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Qualifying Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

“But I felt like I really understood what clicks for me, I really felt like I also got a much better understanding of what I need in the car during that year away. But the driving side still becomes unanswered because I wasn’t driving, I wasn’t getting it out of my system, so to speak.

“I enabled myself to do that, though. Because I felt like by building this structure, by building all these things that I knew I needed to be better at, I knew the racing bit is actually the most natural thing.

“You get the building blocks in place and the driving will sort itself out.”

Lacking the seat time was a real disadvantage, especially as Albon believes part of his Red Bull struggles came down to experience.

It is easy to forget that Albon is among the least experienced drivers on the grid – he’s started two fewer grands prix than Nicholas Latifi, and only Mick Schumacher, Yuki Tsunoda and Zhou Gunayu had fewer starts than Albon at the beginning of the 2022 season.

It was therefore very important for Albon to translate his off-track lessons into something tangible this season. And he believes everything he went through made him capable of doing so.

“I’ve been able to really gain a lot of experience even without driving the car, and in that year away I’ve really matured as a person too,” he says.

“I’m able to handle things much better. People talk about getting more experience in the car, but you also gain experience with life. There’s a life lesson to everything.

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“This year it’s stuff you wouldn’t think about, media stuff and designating time for myself, free time where I can just focus on being time away. And all this kind of thing plays a massive part.

“It’s something which I’ve learned over these three years that I’ve been in the sport, the two years I’ve been driving.

“I feel having a year away is not ideal. I wouldn’t have taken it if I didn’t have to! But it has let me see things on a bigger scale, I think. It’s part of life, part of maturing as a person.”

So, when Red Bull green-lit his return to the grid with Williams, Albon had a chance to bring all this together and rebuild his career.

He started the year “extremely hungry”, seeing it as a second chance in F1. When he felt comfortable driving the Williams, even with all its limitations, “straight away” in testing, his confidence quickly grew.

Albon was back to the driver who was proactive inside the car, happy to lean on the rear and have a car that moved around a lot – something that was so prominent in his first months in F1 with Toro Rosso but seeped away through his year and a half at Red Bull.

He says this isn’t simply a case of the Williams not being as lively as the Red Bull. In some ways, he says, the Williams was actually even more on the nose. The difference is that the car was predictable.

“What I think is very tricky for people to see on the outside is when a car is more edgy, you’ll actually almost never see it be edgy because a driver will then bring it back,” he says.

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“When you start losing confidence in the car it starts to drive you. You start to react to the car. You should never be reactive to the car, you should be the one controlling it.

“You go into a corner and you already know what you want to do before you get to the corner. On the flip side, which is the slow way, you turn into the corner and you wait for the car to do what it does. And then you react to it.

“That’s where you start to see the tentative driving because you’re reacting rather than being proactive, basically. And that’s confidence.

“I feel more controlled [in the Williams], and feel like I know exactly what it’s going to do all the time. The car’s moving more but it’s more predictable, it’s more in tune with what you like in the car, what you do.”

Two years ago Albon could not articulate that as well whenever he debriefed a difficult qualifying session or race. That’s one of the many benefits of his year out, and his increased experience.

There’s an element of fortune involved – the car characteristics are largely out of his control, after all – but he clearly grasps the situation better. He has better understood the root of a major weakness from before.

“The Williams car right now, it needs to be on the edge, it needs to be nervous, but I feel in control of it,” Albon summarises.

“And that’s slightly different to how I left off in 2020 with the Red Bull.

“That’s all it is. It’s so simple, but that’s what it is.”

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Confidence restored, and with the knowledge that he would be a central figure at Williams, Albon was empowered to lead the team.

He reckons that was also partly a natural evolution given his own growth and the fact he arrived at Williams after two-and-a-half years in one of F1’s best teams and, it turns out, having played a key role in developing the car that would sweep to both titles in 2022.

Albon reckons it was therefore “inevitable” he would start life at Williams on the front foot, in a more engaged ‘leadership’ role, than how it was at Red Bull.

“There’s two sides to it,” he says. “There’s first the maturity side, which is I’m generally just maturing as a person.

“I feel like even in terms of communication, I’m more engaged. But also, if you think about how I got into Formula 1, I spent six months in the junior team at the time and then I got put into the main team, I was getting so fast tracked.

“At the beginning, especially when I was in Red Bull, there’s a bit of a discovery phase, which I think everyone takes a bit of time to feel that feeling about it.

“That’s just time. That’s experience. And once you get that under your belt, you can really start to push things in the way you want and say ‘OK, well, this is how I want it, This is where I need to go with it’.

“So yes, of course I’m definitely much more of a leader now than I was back then.”

Albon and Williams always seemed a combination that would gel quite nicely and although the team misjudged the start of the 2022 technical rules and had a car that fell short of its and Albon’s hopes or expectations, it has been a good first year together.

That was very clear early on when Albon was overreaching in a difficult car and even grabbing a couple of points finishes.

Although it’s tempting to conclude that Albon is simply better off outside of Red Bull, he says that’s hard to say because of how much more rounded a driver and person he feels compared to his first two years in F1.

At Williams, Albon has a more natural fit for his personality and his career situation. “We have the same goals, we have the same determination,” he says. The founders have long since left the team but Albon describes it as still very much having a “family” feel, and he has the trust of both the senior figures at Grove and also the board as well.

It was therefore no surprise when the team announced him on a multi-year contract right at the start of the summer break. What was perhaps unexpected, at least to those of us on the outside, was Albon’s subsequent admission that this meant the end of his lingering Red Bull affiliation. He is no longer a Red Bull driver effectively on loan. He is a full-on Williams driver.

Though some of us may have thought Red Bull and Albon would retain a connection (and unofficially they still might, as they will always remain on good terms) it is logical to ‘split’ formally.

Albon had to dedicate himself fully to the Williams cause, a return to Red Bull Racing was never looking likely, and even going to the sister AlphaTauri team wouldn’t seem like an upgrade on the Williams opportunity. And it was, Albon says, “part of the plan”.

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“The first thing I thought of when I got into the seat this year was, ‘I want to stay in Formula 1’,” he says.

“I want to prove myself, I want to show what I can do. The very top thing you want to tick off is ‘I want to say’.

“Internally, there’s a lot of complicated things that went on in terms of contracts and everything. But I am happy where I am.

“There’s definitely a feeling of, in some ways, letting go. Because I have spent a long time at Red Bull, since I was 12 years old. When an opportunity like this comes, it is kind of like you’re letting go and you’re starting something fresh.

“It does excite me to be able to be independent, free in that way. It is exciting, I do enjoy this feeling that I will have an important role within the team. There is a lot of emphasis on that.

“I had an attachment with me, which I think in some ways, it makes it complicated for teams – George had it last year with Williams and Mercedes. I think that’s just part of the trust and the communication between Williams and myself, we’re fully in this.

“Of course, we were in it at the start of the year. But it’s a bit more of an impact when you’re letting go of that Red Bull affiliation. And you’re going into it with almost a clean contract.”

The deal marks Albon taking control of his F1 destiny for the first time, which is a just reward for the work done behind the scenes, and how he has performed on-track.

While Albon still has more to do, if given the opportunity, to make himself a candidate for a top team driver again, he has at least re-established himself in F1. The damage done to his stock, his reputation, or whatever you want to call it, has been repaired.

F1 careers can be fleeting and fickle. Reviving them is no easy task. Albon has given a textbook example of how to do just that.

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