Forces of nature do not yield to the will of mere mortals. At best, human beings find a way to co-exist with such powers: working with rather than against them, and keeping out of the way when things get dangerous. You cannot tame these forces, and those who attempt to do so are often destroyed in the process.
This is something Alex Albon will be all too aware of in taking on Max Verstappen at Red Bull in 2020. While he realistically is unlikely to win this battle given how formidable Verstappen is, he can do what his predecessor, Pierre Gasly, didn’t and make his place at Red Bull secure for the long-term.
So what does Albon have that Gasly lacked? Certainly not speed because Gasly has that in abundance, as he proved once he returned to Toro Rosso last year. It’s not that he’s more determined, for Gasly dug deep during his horrendous first half of 2019 and didn’t give up even though there were times when he ran out of ideas for how to improve. And Albon doesn’t even have a better CV to fall back on, given his junior single-seater career was patchier than Gasly’s. The ultimate potential of the pair on most measures is, at best, the same and you could make a strong case that Gasly’s is higher overall.
Yet Albon has something Gasly needed but couldn’t find in the first half of last year, and it’s all in the mind. Albon’s mental strength, the capacity to bounce back from mistakes, to dig in and focus on extracting the best from himself under the most intense of pressures is the piece of the jigsaw Gasly appeared to, if not have lost entirely, misplaced last year.
Up against a force of nature like Verstappen, that quality is paramount because you are going to spend a lot of time on the back foot. The key is to be close enough to back up Verstappen and bring home big points – something Gasly failed to do.
Mental strength is an essential quality of any elite sportsperson. The most successful ones all have it to some extent, or the most intense process of natural selection that exists in sport would have eliminated them before they ever got to the top table of their chosen discipline. But with every rung you climb up the ladder, the atmosphere becomes more rarified, ever-thinner. There is further to fall, the pressures rise and you are judged by rising standards. As a Red Bull driver, Albon is in that elite group of just six drivers – he is compared to Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc – and the only way to stay in that position is prove that you belong. The standards he is judged by are, as a result, brutal.
So far, Albon has stacked up well enough to earn himself a crack at a full season with Red Bull. But while he has not proved to be out of place in that company, he’s yet to prove emphatically that he belongs there.
Over nine races last year he did, however, prove that he was not overawed. Only twice did he finish behind any of the midfield cars: at Monza, when he was beaten by the slippery Renaults, and at Interlagos, where he was tipped into a spin by Hamilton. While Hamilton carried the can for that one and earned a penalty, Albon did also own some of the responsibility as he, by his own admission, left the door wide open because he wasn’t anticipating an attack until the main straight.
Albon will have had time to reflect on that, and other aspects of his game, over the winter. In that regard, while slightly less experienced than Gasly was heading into last season, Albon has a big advantage given he already has half a season with Red Bull under his belt. While he has set big targets for this season, the fact he has already banked that experience and, crucially, convinced the team that he has that fighting spirit about him that allowed him to deliver the attacking drives that Gasly couldn’t, is a big boost. Twice in his first four outings for Red Bull he converted back-of-the-grid starts into fifth-place finishes.
“I want to be up there fighting Mercedes, fighting Ferrari and fighting Max, of course,” said Albon during pre-season testing. “At the minute, I’m focusing on myself more than anything. Having that winter period to sit down with the team and look at the areas where I wanted a bit more feedback on what I’m doing, working with the team, in the simulator, everything. In a race year, you are always at the track and straight into FP1, so it was good to have the time away from the circuit to relax and speak about the goals for this year.”
Gasly’s ambitions were similar, although he went into the season on the back foot thanks to two crashes in pre-season testing. It wasn’t so much the accidents themselves, but rather the circumstances that stung. The second, on the penultimate day of testing, happened when he was under strict instructions not to damage parts given Red Bull was very short, and the accident also ruined Verstappen’s final day of running.
Gasly is clearly a confidence driver and that, combined with a tricky run of races, got to him. It’s no coincidence that one of his best performances in the first part of the season was in qualifying in Azerbaijan, when he was under no pressure as he’d already picked up a back-of-the-grid penalty for missing the weighbridge during practice. But the more Red Bull urged him to try and dial back the intensity and let his underlying ability and instinct come to the fore, the harder it became.
Whether or not Gasly was harshly treated by Red Bull, a common criticism of its attitude to drivers, despite it having done more to foster young talent in racing than anyone else over the past 15 years, is irrelevant. The situation, being in a top team, is an external factor that is far more significant than anything the team can do. Gasly put himself under pressure and seemed unable to adapt to the esoteric demands of the RB15 in a situation that asked more of him than any he has encountered before in racing.
That was a source of frustration for the team, particularly with Gasly focusing effort on producing a string of new seats in an attempt to get more comfortable in the car rather than focusing on himself. Too often, there were times when he got lost on set-ups while trying to optimize the car for one corner, which then led to losing out elsewhere. He struggled to get the overall compromise right. Albon avoided going down this rabbit hole.
He still has significant improvements to make, but Albon’s good start at Red Bull has bought him the time he needs to chip away at himself. There are two key areas where he needs to improve. First, he needs to close the pace gap to Verstappen after having been, on average and with anomalies discounted, 0.433 seconds behind him on qualifying pace last season. Red Bull will not expect him to close that gap to nothing, but it will be looking for Albon to settle in somewhere around the 0.1-0.2s bracket.
Albon also needs to minimize the crashes. While he didn’t do anything as catastrophic as the two shunts Gasly had in pre-season testing last year, he found the wall too often – in Australia, China, Hungary and Singapore, Russia, Mexico and Brazil. Admittedly, he usually bounced back from these well, never more so than in China, where he charged from a pitlane start to score a point for Toro Rosso in 10th place. But while a team will accept this from a rookie feeling his way, Albon will need to reduce the mishaps.
Most of all, what will serve Albon so well is that he has a phlegmatic reaction to things going wrong. While Gasly appeared to be pitched into a downward spiral by his problems and struggled to get into the right place mentally to regroup, Albon has shown he can do this. After all, his situation heading into last season was hardly perfect given his first F1 test came in pre-season testing and resulted in him binning it on his out-lap!
But he also passed other tests with flying colors. His first experience in the wet in an F1 car was in the German Grand Prix, in which he excelled. Arguably, he was the driver of the day on his way to sixth and avoided the mistakes made by many rivals. His performance was overshadowed on the day by Toro Rosso teammate Daniil Kvyat grabbing a podium with a risky switch to slicks. That’s the Albon Red Bull will want to see regularly.
Albon is a driver who has been through a lot over the years, being dropped by Red Bull early in his single-seater career then facing up to the reality that the F1 dream was over before landing a shock call-up for Toro Rosso. Those tough experiences have cured him as a rock-solid competitor, one who should have the mindset needed to get the best out of himself this year. Then it’s just a question of whether that best is good enough.
As for Gasly, his response on the return to Toro Rosso was astonishing and a reminder of how capable a driver he is. Perhaps by rebuilding his confidence there, he might be able to convince Red Bull that a second go in the top team will have a different result? Certainly, he will have been cured into a harder character by the whole experience, and that will only serve him well.
But Albon is still on his first shot and usually you only get one of those at the very top of elite sport. That’s why the mental strength is so critical. You can have all the potential you want, but it’s the bit between the ears that draws it all together and allows you to manifest that underlying ability in the most high-pressure of circumstances.
The question then is whether he’s fast enough, good enough at managing the tires and consistent enough to be close enough to Verstappen to satisfy Red Bull.
Albon, so far, appears to have that strength and that is what gives him every chance of making 2020 the year he proves he belongs at F1’s top table.