INSIGHT: The rapid rise of Alex Albon

Image by Hone/LAT

INSIGHT: The rapid rise of Alex Albon

Formula 1

INSIGHT: The rapid rise of Alex Albon

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I would love to be able to go back to July of last year and tell Alex Albon what the following 12 months or so had in store for him.

Last summer, I spoke with Albon who, then in the midst of the Formula 2 title fight, admitted he was going to need a team to step in soon if his dream of racing in Formula 1 was ever going to become reality.

“If I get the opportunity even to do a rookie test or something like that, I’d jump at it straight away,” he said at the time. “I’d say at the minute this, hopefully, will be my last year in F2, just because I don’t have the budget to do another year. So in that sense, whatever I do next year, it most probably will have to be professional. If the opportunity doesn’t come, it doesn’t come; but as long as I can prove myself and just do my results and focus on myself, hopefully things will happen.”

Well, things did happen.

Albon took the 2018 F2 title fight all the way to the series finale. Image by Portlock/LAT

Albon kept on picking up the results that allowed him to take the title fight against George Russell down to the final round in Abu Dhabi, and although he was pipped for second in the drivers’ standings by Lando Norris, he got the surprise news that he’d be joining his two rivals — and friends — in F1.

A Nissan Formula E seat had been secured, but then Red Bull came calling for the second time. That in itself seemed massively unlikely, Albon having been dropped from the young driver program after his first year in Formula Renault 2.0.

“It was really, really tough. Things didn’t work out,” Albon explained. “It was a bit strange because I had some tough family issues and I was with a team that was really running out of money. There were some races where they couldn’t repair anything or they wouldn’t fix a car just because they wanted to get some pay.

“And it was a really hard year because I was by myself in a team, which is really not what you want in your first year of single seaters. It’s all about experience, and at the time when you go from karting to cars, it’s almost starting from zero again and working your way up.

“So I really struggled and obviously Red Bull weren’t happy with me — and there’s no reason that they would be — so I was swiftly kicked from the program.”

Today’s announcement confirming that Albon will remain Max Verstappen’s teammate next season tells you Red Bull is much happier now.

In Albon, the team has unearthed a rough diamond. He had a super license, was young, and fought in F2 last year with two drivers backed by Mercedes and McLaren in Russell and Norris respectively. But even by Red Bull’s ambitious standards, having him alongside Verstappen in 2020 would have been a stretch when it signed the Thai prospect.

And yet here we are, with Albon already seven races into his Red Bull career and having yet to finish outside of the top six. The consistency is one thing, but it is his rate of improvement and ability to learn quickly that is really making him stand out.

The first time he drove a Formula 1 car was in pre-season testing, and Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost immediately saw something he liked. Tost was more than happy to go on record in predicting Albon would be the standout rookie of 2019, and while they have all performed impressively, it’s hard to argue against him …

Crashes such as his heavy one in China qualifying or final-corner mistake in Hungary remind you that Albon is still a rookie; but he still picked up points after that latter error. And that came just a week after he finished sixth in Germany, the race at Hockenheim incredibly being the first time he had driven an F1 car in the wet.

It’s that sort of adaptability that has led to Albon’s success so far, and it bodes well for his future. I’ll admit I did not think Red Bull would be so quick to drop Gasly, as I felt the Frenchman would find his feet eventually. But the RB15 is a tricky beast to drive and Gasly was struggling to get it into a working window.

Albon, by contrast, proved himself able to adapt rapidly and has done so again after his mid-season switch. The Toro Rosso might be a bit more forgiving — highlighted by the impressive ease in which Gasly regained confidence and form when returning to his old team — but Albon has found ways of getting more consistent performance out of the Red Bull than the Frenchman did.

Let’s not get completely carried away, because in terms of raw performance, Max Verstappen still holds a clear advantage, and Albon has only matched him in qualifying once (in Suzuka). He is also yet to pick up a podium in a car that clearly has the potential to do so.

That’s not a slight on Albon’s performances, just a reminder that there is still more to come, and he’ll need to deliver it.

An ability to adapt quickly has made all the difference in Albon’s points-gathering streak with the Honda-powered RB15. Image by Mauger/LAT

Red Bull is clearly not patient with its drivers, but it is patience that has helped Albon secure that seat for next season. By taking his time to build up his weekends, usually at tracks at which he has no experience, he has ensured he is well placed to get the minimum result of sixth place that the car deserves. And the one time he failed to follow that blueprint — in Russia where he crashed in Q1 — he still delivered the recovery drive to continue his run.

As team principal Christian Horner admitted when Albon’s 2020 seat was announced on Tuesday, it’s a level of consistency that is hard to ignore.

Given the speed in which Albon has adapted to a new car during his rookie year, and the way he has learned from each situation to improve his performance, you would not bet against him being much closer to Verstappen next season.

Those earlier words of “as long as I can prove myself and just do my results and focus on myself, hopefully things will happen” sum up the approach he has taken to the whirlwind past 12 months.

You get the sense things will continue to happen over the next 12.

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