A Red Bull Racing reject who couldn’t live with the pace of Max Verstappen has proved to be one of the standout performers in Formula 1’s midfield – and occasionally at the front – over the past two years.
Williams couldn’t sign Pierre Gasly, but it has signed a driver who it hopes will repeat his success by drafting in Alex Albon for 2022.
Gasly and Albon are very different drivers and people, and their circumstances are not identical in every way. But Williams has been attracted by the same basic formula of ‘recycling’ a driver whose big chance with a frontrunning team at Red Bull turned sour.
What the pair do have in common is that neither made the most of their Red Bull chance. Yes, the circumstances were difficult, but they always are when you are in one the plum seats in F1, and both had the opportunity and for differing reasons couldn’t make the most of it. Elite sport is tough, the standards sky high and just because they failed at Red Bull Racing doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer – Gasly has proved that beyond any question with his performances since then.
While Gasly was immediately dropped into Toro Rosso with little time to stew at a decision he clearly still believes was wrong, Albon’s return has been more sedate. He also remained on Red Bull’s books, but as F1 reserve with a sideline racing in the reborn DTM driving a Ferrari 488 GT3.
Word is, Albon hasn’t exactly fallen in love with a car that is, compared to F1, heavy and sluggish but although it took a little time he has adapted well – taking his first victory at the Nurburgring in August. But it’s safe to say that Williams hasn’t signed him off the back of his GT car prowess.
First on the list of reasons is his experience. Albon has two seasons in F1 under his belt and has played an active role as Red Bull’s reserve, which has included getting behind the wheel of its 18-inch wheel mule car for Pirelli testing. That gives him big-team experience and the advantage of not being a rookie. That’s important for a team that’s rebuilding itself.
But second is something more intangible, namely Albon’s undoubted ability as a racing driver. This has never been in doubt despite the fact his car-racing career has fallen short of the expectations established by his karting days. In karting, Albon was the man at times and Lando Norris described him as one of his heroes. He’s also spoken of highly by Charles Leclerc and George Russell.
It seems likely Russell will have put in a good word for Albon’s qualities with Williams, which will have carried some weight. Russell was as puzzled as anyone by Albon’s struggles and shattered confidence at Red Bull in 2020 after a gently encouraging half-season in 2019, but knows better than most how good he can be.
Albon has proved that in F1 in flashes too as, like Gasly, he impressed in the colours of what was then called Toro Rosso. After being extricated from a Nissan e.dams Formula E contract for 2019, he got his big F1 break with the team and made the most of it.
That 11-race stint with Toro Rosso was genuinely impressive, which explains why he was chosen to take Gasly’s place at Red Bull after the summer break rather than more experienced team-mate Daniil Kvyat.
Despite a crash in his first free practice in Australia 2019, Albon hit the ground running. His first points came for ninth place in Bahrain, followed by an impressive recovery to ninth after a big shunt exiting the final corner in FP3 in China that kept him out of qualifying. In fact, bouncing back from crashes was a positive feature for Albon in that rookie season, pointing to a certain mental resilience.
His calling card performance, which remains his most impressive drive in F1, was at Hockenheim that season. While Kvyat’s third-place finish was ostensibly the star performance, this was thanks to a slick-tyre gamble. Albon ran in the top six throughout so wasn’t in a position to take such a gamble given what he had to lose and could well have been on the podium. Oh, and his first experience of driving an F1 car in the wet came on the first lap of the race.
That’s the Albon that Williams is hoping to see regularly in 2022. And although his Red Bull switch was a failure, that first half season in 2019 did suggest that he might crack it the following season as while there were no podium finishes there were plenty of decent performances.
He opened his account with a charge from 17th after grid penalties to fifth at Spa – and would have finished on the podium at Interlagos but for being hit late on by Lewis Hamilton. Yes, he was around four tenths slower than Verstappen in qualifying, but surely he would close that gap the following year?
Hamilton was again his nemesis in the belated 2020 season opener at the Red Bull Ring. There, Albon took fresh rubber under the safety car and was potentially in the position to win – provided he could use that grip advantage to pass Hamilton and Bottas in quick succession. But his attempt to go around the outside of Turn 4 resulted in contact, another penalty for Hamilton, and no points.
But that was one of the few flashes of success. Albon was, based on adjusted average, 0.493s slower than Verstappen in qualifying and only finished on the podium twice. Too often, he found himself scrapping with the leading midfielders and every time he appeared to be building some momentum, he’d have a setback.
Despite the team almost imploring him to make the seat his own, Albon failed and was replaced by Sergio Perez for 2021.
Ironically, with the writing of his departure writ large on the wall, finishing fourth in the Abu Dhabi season finale while having kept the leaders within sight was arguably his best performance of the year. Perhaps with the pressure off, he suddenly found the right mindset – but it was too little, too late.
Albon’s confidence had taken a beating. Even a change of race engineer to the experienced Simon Rennie didn’t change the trajectory of his season and his haul of 105 points was just under half that of Verstappen. Not good enough, even factoring in his relative inexperience and the difficulty of driving a tricky car that only Verstappen seems to be able to deal with.
With Red Bull and Honda keen to bring Yuki Tsunoda in, there was no room at the AlphaTauri inn so Albon was shunted to the sidelines. That’s where his story diverges with Gasly’s because there was no immediate chance to try and prove Red Bull wrong.
It’s important to note that the reasons for Albon’s struggles were very different. While Gasly’s attitude and approach didn’t sit well with the team (and this is the primary reason why his case for a return to Red Bull has been rejected), Albon’s did.
Where Albon seemed to lack was an area where he initially looked very strong in F1 – the mental strength and robustness just didn’t seem to be there and he fell into a spiral that, while not necessarily downward, certainly wasn’t going in the right direction. If Gasly’s apparent belligerence seemed counter-productive, Albon was almost too far the other way and he seemed lost.
What Williams has realised is that Albon will be in a very different situation there. Not only has he had a year to reflect on his experience and find ways to improve his approach, but he’s also facing a completely different proposition. Driving a car that will likely be midfield at best up against Nicholas Latifi, who is capable enough but no Verstappen, is a very different proposition.
Albon will go into his Williams adventure knowing that he can establish himself as the team’s leader, seize the opportunity of this unexpected second chance and show that the ability he showed in his karting days and, in unsustained flashes in 2019-20, is very real.
He has admitted in the past that he was a slightly slow learner early in his single-seater career, which explains a little of why a driver of his calibre has a solid, rather than stunning, CV. Third-place championship finishes in Formula Renault Eurocup and Formula 2 and a runner-up spot in GP3 is a fine record, but disappointing for a driver who many expected to win multiple titles on the way to F1.
Albon can live with the best. In his GP3 season, he ran team-mate Charles Leclerc close for the title and he was also the third man behind Russell and Norris in F2. So he’s in great company.
He perhaps lacks that capacity to live with an on-the-edge car that Verstappen and Leclerc have, but he’s a seriously quick driver. And while his confidence was shot at Red Bull and made him visibly tentative behind the wheel, he wasn’t at all overawed early in his F1 career. In fact, he looked completely at him at Toro Rosso.
On his debut in Melbourne in 2019 I was watching FP1 at the Turn ½ right-left flick and could see he was happy with the rear moving around and correcting it. Eventually, it caught him out and he spun into the barrier. Later on, I asked him about the crash and his matter-of-fact answer showed
“I was actually feeling good before that happened,” said Albon. “I was in some ways overdriving, but not realising it. I was having these moments but thinking ‘OK, but when it did go round I thought ‘Oh, that went quickly’. It took a bit of time to build up again.”
That’s the Albon that Williams will hope to see. One who can be confident pushing and, if he oversteps the mark, dial it back and rebuild. At times at Red Bull, Albon had the air of a lost soul in F1 but he is absolutely good enough to belong at this level.
The Gasly/AlphaTauri model is relevant here. Gasly clearly performs at his best knowing that the team is built around him and that has produced a car that chimes with his driving style. Williams must do the same, albeit without the prior knowledge of working with Gasly that the Italian team had to work from.
Ultimately, though, the Williams team can only do so much. Thanks to its position as a minor player in the driver market, it’s had to take a driver who is regarded in the F1 paddock as damaged goods and hope to rebuild him. If it works, then Williams will have its very own Gasly on its hands, which is a huge potential upside. This, combined with his experience, is why it has taken the gamble.
But whether that happens will largely depend on Albon himself. Has he learned? Does he really have that edge you need to thrive in F1? Can he gather up all the raw materials that he has in him and turn them into a driver who can perform consistently well in the cut and thrust of F1?
There’s no question that he can. But will he? It’s 50/50. But if Albon pays off, he has the ability to do so big-time.