Undeniably, it all came too soon. At 23 years of age and after racing with the world’s elite for a mere 12 races, Alex Albon’s thrusting into Red Bull’s well-oiled machine midway through 2019 was a promotion which felt beyond the realms of reality. While fellow rookies George Russell and Lando Norris grinded away on debut, the Milton Keynes resident was Formula 1’s newest star. He was named rookie of the year by the FIA. But with the stardom comes the spotlight.
Fast-forward a year where mistakes and misfortune characterized a Covid-ravaged season, the lights went out on the British-Thai’s Red Bull dream arguably before it even started. Without a seat one week before Christmas, with lockdowns implemented across the UK, Albon reached rock bottom.
“I had a lot of time to think about it and reflect,” he says now. “I put it down to experience more than anything and it’s something you can’t teach and takes time. Of course there are things I could have done differently.
“2020 was not the easiest of years and it sounds silly but you can sometimes feel like you forget why you did it in the first place… I was in the main team at Red Bull within six months of being in Formula 1. That was really tough.
“There is an element of being fast-tracked but on the other side to that, it’s being given the time to build a team around me that is my own little circle. At that time, I didn’t have a manager or anyone to do that – I was a lone wolf.”
While Sergio Perez thrived as Max Verstappen’s team-mate – ultimately playing a role in the most dramatic of title triumphs – Albon was confined to test driver. Within weeks of Christian Horner’s call to reveal he would not be a Formula 1 driver in 2021, Albon was back in the simulator and played a key role in the fine-tuning of the RB16 which was a grid-setter from winter testing in Bahrain. Aiding and assisting when he should have been the star of the show, was it an odd feeling seeing Verstappen and Perez flourish?
“Not an odd feeling – a predictable feeling! When you’re working at something for so long and then you’re sitting on the sidelines… you’re a born racer so it was tricky to watch.
“But I still had an important role in my eyes which was to make it a better car than what I had to drive in 2020. So to see it improve and see the positive comments from Max and Checo, it was actually equally frustrating because there were issues with the 2020 car and I’d have loved to have driven that one instead.”
On reflection, Albon felt some resonance of satisfaction come Abu Dhabi in December, insisting he played a “very small” role in the Dutchman’s World Championship. Of course by this point his future in Formula 1 – after flirtations with IndyCar and Formula E – was secure. No stone was left unturned too as he handed Williams team principal Jost Capito a CV last July at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. The German CEO was suitably impressed with Albon’s forwardness from him.
While it isn’t a championship-contending team, it is still one seat amongst 20 prized positions. While Albon scored points in 20 out of 26 races at Red Bull, a top-10 finish with Williams is the equivalent of a podium for the Oxford-based Formula 1 staple. More than that though, now 26, Albon seems a man reborn this year both in the cockpit and on the grid with memories of moaning and irritation a world away from the red-haired cheerful chap whose mild-manner radiates those around him.
“I feel much more experienced and much more mature – both in racing and in general life experience,” he self-evaluates. “In 2019 and 2020, it was more of a situation where I was just there in the team and I was just trying to do my best whereas now it’s more like… what do we need as a team to improve? How can my experience help that with the work that I’ve done at Red Bull?
“Also just in terms of communication, how can I extract the performance out of myself but also from my colleagues? That’s something that only comes with age.”
A memorable drive in Melbourne – where he completed 57 of 58 laps on one set of tires – secured a point, while two were picked up a month later in Miami. In contrast to 2020, the aim of the game has changed now. Perez, meanwhile, is second in the Championship, fighting for the ultimate crown yet Albon feels no resentment for the popular Mexican.
“Looking around doesn’t improve what I’m doing and it doesn’t make my performance any better,” he firmly states. “It’s great that they’re doing well. But right now it’s about showing people what I can do – to Williams and to everyone.”
Now de facto No 1 driver, Albon is thriving in his new role. A man grateful for what he has – now he knows what it’s like for the floor to give way beneath his feet. Despite his dual nationality, he races under a Thai flag and is proud of his central Asian heritage, as illustrated by visiting in April to the Way Sakaeo Orphanage outside Bangkok. His hair dyed red by the kids, he has kept it ever since.
“I do feel we [F1 drivers] have a responsibility with our social media presence and the platform we have to try and raise awareness to these situations,” Albon explains.
“Sebastian and Lewis do a great job of that. I have a responsibility to help the country where I’m from.” What about a Thailand Grand Prix sometime down the line? “A race would be amazing. It’d be something I’d love to have – obviously the Vietnamese Grand Prix was looking like it was on course to be a kind of a home race but obviously that fell through so there’s still hope.”
Silverstone – where Albon first drove a go-kart 30 minutes from his family home at the age of seven – will have to do for now. A role model on and off track, Albon has already come full circle and his target now is to simply keep improving race-on-race, year-on-year. The lone wolf is now the leader of the pack.
“Every year you’re under pressure in F1 but particularly this year there was that feeling that I’ve got to make it work,” he sums up. “There was anxiety. A year away is not easy but at least for now I’m really happy with the direction that it’s going. I want to redeem myself.”