Alex Albon’s Formula 1 career so far has been as if someone’s leaned on the fast forward button – a meteoric rise to Red Bull followed by a fairly swift climbdown to a reserve driver role.
In announcing Albon’s demotion in favour of Sergio Perez for 2021, Red Bull made it clear the Anglo-Thai driver remains an important part of its future F1 plans – but a return is unlikely to be straightforward.
However, Albon has been busy beyond his reserve duties in the meantime, and the clear upward momentum of his campaign in an AlphaTauri-liveried Ferrari in the new-look DTM has just been rewarded with a maiden win at the Nurburgring.
With Albon back in the headlines, also because of a recent visit to the IndyCar paddock, our writers have pondered the question of whether he really does have a realistic route back to F1 and where his future should lie.
Albon got dealt a bad hand
I don’t think the winning of a DTM race changes whether Albon is suitable F1 material or not. In the right equipment, probably 90% or more of the F1 grid is fully capable of winning a DTM race, as well as many outside of both F1 and the DTM.
That said, I do think Albon showed enough promise in his Toro Rosso rookie part-season – as well as earlier in his career – to suggest there is a good F1-level driver in there.
To be directly measured against Max Verstappen in your rookie and sophomore season in a tricky car is being set up to fail.
Gasly and Perez indirectly make a good case
The fact that Pierre Gasly has re-emerged as a bankable F1 driver after his difficult experience in Red Bull’s A-team, and the fact as accomplished a driver as Perez has struggled, proves that taking a beating as Verstappen’s team-mate doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer as a grand prix driver.
Realistically, if Albon is to return it needs to be soon – while his experience of 18 months as a Red Bull driver is still of value and before he is disregarded as an option. Teams should keep him in mind because he’s still only 25 and the ability that was always there could yet be refined into a more robust competitor.
In the rarefied air of Red Bull alongside a great driver like Verstappen, he struggled and ultimately Red Bull became frustrated by the fact he never achieved a consistently good level of performance despite showing promise. But having had time out and reminded the world – and himself – he could win in the DTM he would surely return to F1 a more hardened competitor.
The question is not whether he deserves another shot in F1 because he had one, and a better one than most, but couldn’t make it work so F1 does not owe him anything. That’s how the brutal world of elite sport works.
But what does matter is that he still could have plenty to offer. He made a positive impression when he started out in F1 – remember his fine drive to sixth at the German Grand Prix on the first occasion he’d driven an F1 car in proper wet conditions? That fundamental quality is still in there to be refined – provided, of course, he is able to shed the baggage of the past if he does get a second chance.
If a team that’s only a minor player in the driver market needs someone, then Albon is certainly a name that should be on the list for consideration. And one that could pay off for any team taking the risk.
There’s a good alternate route, but Albon seems unconvinced
Albon recently scoped out a possible IndyCar drive for 2022 but he already has a firm offer on the table via an old flame he’s already jilted at the altar once.
In reality the decision to leave Nissan e.dams in Formula E to race for Toro Rosso in October 2018 was both a no-brainer and in essence one that was made for him by Dr Helmut Marko.
But now another possibility to race for Nissan is there and on paper it should be a more appealing prospect. That is because the team is regrouping and building for the future, one in which its talisman Sebastien Buemi may not stay beyond the 2022 season.
After all it is not often a driver will get offered a fully-fledged long-term deal with a major OEM, especially one that has recently committed far into the future in a world championship’s new regulations.
But word in and around the Formula E paddock is that Albon doesn’t really fancy it and that other more Formula E experienced drivers are more likely to get the gig.
Albon will be on the cusp of 26 when Formula E gets going next February, so he needs to make the most of his plainly copious talent.
A career just isn’t sustainable hanging around the fringes of F1 in a nether-world purgatory frequented by the Gutierrezes, Hulkenbergs and Kvyats of this world, clawing at windows and hoping for another chance on grand prix grids.
No huge injustice if Albon doesn’t make it back
When Albon got his chance in F1 with Toro Rosso, it was because Red Bull was desperate. It was looking to fill a space across its four cars that it wasn’t expecting to have. At the time, Albon’s reputation was one of a decent single-seater driver, but there hadn’t been huge clamour that he absolutely had to have an F1 drive.
That’s still the case today. Albon showed that he was worthy enough of a midfield F1 seat before his rushed promotion to Red Bull Racing that went so badly.
But that just means we can add him to the list of potentially upwards of 20 drivers at any given time who could do a good enough job in F1, without it being a huge injustice that they aren’t there.
Albon can use Buemi as template
Albon isn’t the first dumped Red Bull driver who could merit a place in a lower team in F1. With Red Bull’s support he could potentially engineer a route into a Williams or an Alfa Romeo.
But with no place in any of the four Red Bull-owned cars looking at all likely, I think his energy is best directed in a different manner.
Albon needn’t look too far for inspiration. Sebastien Buemi, the man Albon should have partnered in Formula E before being picked back up by Red Bull and put into F1 with Toro Rosso, is the template for this kind of driver.
Buemi turned F1 rejection into a colossally good motorsport career. He’s still employed as a Red Bull F1 simulator, test and reserve driver (the same role Albon’s been in this year alongside his DTM commitments). He’s become a Formula E champion. He’s become World Endurance champion. He’s won the Le Mans 24 Hours.
He’s basically been as successful as it’s possible to be outside of F1.
There are many spurned by Red Bull who sever ties with the brand and have to rebuild their career anew. Albon has a chance to use his strong Red Bull relationship in exactly the way Buemi did.
If there is a serious way to get back on the F1 grid and stay there long-term then obviously Albon should grasp it. But it doesn’t look like there is.
He is a good driver, a committed professional and a very likeable person – deserving of more than a shortlived and compromised return to F1 just for the sake of being there. Buemi’s proof of the path Albon’s better off taking.
He’s had a decent F1 career already
Albon would definitely be doing a better job at AlphaTauri than Yuki Tsunoda right now. And though Perez has had higher peaks at Red Bull than Albon probably would’ve done, over the balance of the season Perez hasn’t yet been a clear upgrade over Albon – especially a more experienced Albon with the boost of having the team’s clear faith for another year.
That doesn’t mean it would be an injustice if Albon’s F1 career was over.
He definitely overachieved relative to expectations when first thrown into Toro Rosso and then particularly in the early part of his shock Red Bull chance, and that does leave a slight question mark hanging about what his potential might be with some F1 career stability.
But a year and a half in the second best car on the F1 grid and a pair of grand prix podium finishes is more than Albon looked likely to get for much of his junior career.
Plus this wasn’t a case of an abrupt Red Bull sacking – it kept the faith right through 2020 when it might not have done with others, and kept him very firmly in the family even after bringing Perez in.
Red Bull’s got the right team leaders in the cockpits at both its F1 squads now, and needs to give their team-mates more time to figure things out. And though Albon is certainly worthy of attention from other F1 teams shopping for drivers, sticking in the Red Bull fold feels like the best bet for a long-term professional career in both motorsport and as a valuable part of the F1 periphery.
Red Bull’s facing a talent logjam
Like many of my colleagues, I’m of the opinion that what we’ve seen in 2021 from ex-midfield maestro Perez reflects quite well on Albon, and that it should give any midfield F1 team looking for a driver some food for thought.
But there’s no logical place for him in the Red Bull system if he wants to race full-time in F1. Not only does the 2022 line-up look unlikely to differ from the 2021 version, but there’s already something of a logjam forming on the cusp of AlphaTauri.
Juri Vips has been long waiting for his chance. Liam Lawson now looks firmly in the running, too. Vips and Lawson have both looked really credible in F2, while Lawson also looked to have the upper hand on Albon as his DTM team-mate initially – though Albon has since struck back. There’s also the Red Bull-affiliated Dennis Hauger running wild in F3.
The current Red Bull programme is a far cry from when it had to bring back Albon, or Daniil Kvyat, or Brendon Hartley. And if it does want an experienced driver for AlphaTauri, well, Gasly’s already there, is he not?
First name among those out of F1
I think Albon does deserve another chance. It would be a massive amount of pressure to go back to Red Bull right now, but not an insurmountable pressure as he would understand a lot more about the situation than he did last time round. But he might need to do an AlphaTauri course to prepare for that.
But remember, he could have come away from his two seasons in Formula 1 with a victory or two – Austria 2020 stands out as the big chance. But luck and experience weren’t on his side and that made it difficult to withstand the competition at the front. He’s a very competent driver but I think he just got overpowered by the pressure of driving for a top team alongside Verstappen.
If he comes back, he would have that valuable experience but also what you might call a rookie approach because he will want it to go differently.
Gasly went through the same kind of scenario when he moved back to Toro Rosso in the middle of 2019. Now he’s back to his competitive level and has been performing well for the past two years. So I don’t see Gasly and Albon as very different in that they both got their big opportunities too early.
If I was in a team needing a driver then Alex would very much be top of my list and certainly the first one of those outside of F1 that I’d look at.
Grosjean’s made IndyCar attractive, but Albon’s got a better option
First off, I share Mark Hughes’ view that one DTM race win – especially halfway through the season and after his yet-to-reach F1 Red Bull stablemate Lawson won the first race of the season – doesn’t change anything for Albon.
I think Albon feels he still has an F1 future and will put all of his efforts into that. The most sensible option for his long-term future is to drive for Nissan in Formula E. That’s the best path towards earning a living from motorsport, especially given many FE drivers also pick up GT/prototype drives too.
But IndyCar is an option and the series is in a ‘look at everybody possible from abroad’ honeymoon right now thanks to the trailblazing success Romain Grosjean has had.
The IndyCar move starts to untangle when you consider Albon would almost certainly have to bring budget initially, and there isn’t a host of top seats available so he’d have to follow Grosjean’s gamble of starting at a small team like Dale Coyne.
I think IndyCar would suit Albon’s driving style and attributes in the car, but the need to bring budget makes it the most unlikely option of the serious ones on the table and really he should choose Formula E.