Alex Albon’s Formula 1 career almost never started, given that he was set to race for Nissan e.dams in Formula E when Toro Rosso unexpectedly signed him for the 2019 season. And it might have come to a juddering, permanent halt when Red Bull dropped him after 18 difficult months as Max Verstappen’s teammate at the end of 2020. Instead, he was offered a second chance by Williams – one that has started encouragingly.
Albon, who retains his links to Red Bull, drove superbly to score Williams’s first points of the season with 10th in the Australian Grand Prix. That it required a marathon stint on hard tires, combined with the assistance of Lance Stroll being a rolling roadblock for Albon’s midfield rivals, to take just a point says much about the team’s current struggles. But while it’s been a difficult start to the year, Albon has been perhaps the one positive for a Williams operation that is still hanging around the lower reaches of the F1 timesheets with a car that’s a Q2 threat on a good day.
Williams didn’t have the pick of the drivers when it came to selecting its replacement for Mercedes-bound George Russell. With Nicholas Latifi in the other car, a solid and well-liked character but not one who has shown consistently good performance in F1, it needed someone with the potential for that extra edge of speed.
Albon was the logical choice, a driver who has always had a big reputation for his fundamental level of ability, but who has never used it to full effect throughout his career. While he won races at every level in single-seaters, he never won a title – and it says everything about his karting pedigree that a CV that includes finishing runner-up in GP3, third in both Formula Renault Eurocup and Formula 2 and a couple of F1 podium finishes could be considered in any way disappointing. By his own admission, he found the transition to cars difficult.
Old friend Russell advocated for Albon as his replacement, although the decision to sign him was the logical move for the team – particularly once it was clear Valtteri Bottas was set on a move Alfa Romeo. The question was, could Williams unleash Albon’s full potential?
Albon did produce some good performances during his first two seasons in F1. His sixth place in the 2019 German Grand Prix, the first time he’d driven an F1 car in the wet, was remarkable – a drive that would have netted the podium finish that teammate Daniil Kvyat ultimately claimed but for the Russian’s strategic gamble. He also showed well once alongside Verstappen with consistent top-six finishes, improving on what his successor, Pierre Gasly, achieved, albeit in a car that was less competitive in the first half of the year.
But Albon didn’t kick on as hoped in 2020. The team liked his attitude and approach, an area where he was felt to have an advantage over Gasly, and there were regular signs of progress. But there were just as many setbacks and Albon simply couldn’t live with the lively Red Bull handling characteristics like Verstappen could. Despite wanting to keep him, Red Bull had no choice but to look elsewhere and sign Sergio Perez.
Plenty of effort was made to make life easier for Albon, including bringing back the experienced Simon Rennie as race engineer in place of Mike Lugg. But, despite a breakthrough podium finish at Mugello, things never quite clicked. As a result, Albon stayed on as reserve driver and spent a year on the sidelines.
Albon approached his year off-track with the right attitude, working hard with Red Bull and delighting in building a wider understanding of the way F1 teams worked. He spoke of the benefits of dealing with personnel and departments that he would rarely cross paths with when in a full-time race seat and also built knowledge of the 2022 cars. Heading into the winter, he will have had a better grasp of the details of the new regulations than any of the regular race drivers, who were focused on their ’21 campaigns.
So when Williams signed Albon, it not only signed a driver whose pure ability is rated as well up there, but also one with significant knowledge from three years with a top team and the right attitude.
But there was still an element of risk given things hadn’t come together for him at Red Bull, raising questions about whether Albon ultimately had the mental strength to cut it in F1. For while he has a good record of bouncing back from setbacks quickly – for example, his second F1 points finish in China in 2019 followed a big accident in FP3 that kept him out of qualifying and led to a pitlane start – he floundered while being measured against Verstappen at Red Bull. Was it significant that his best Red Bull performance of 2020 came in Abu Dhabi, after it was clear his fate was sealed?
It always seemed Albon needed a good start with Williams to create a foundation. And he got exactly that, even though it didn’t necessarily show in the timesheets in the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix. Williams had a difficult pre-season, but set-up tweaks made after FP3 in Bahrain made the car much more to Albon’s liking. The result was an unexpected Q2 appearance, with Albon 14th.
The Williams team also felt in Bahrain that it was making progress with giving Albon the kind of car that he wanted, with head of vehicle performance Dave Robson describing him as “quite a different driver to what we’ve had recently”.
Albon favors a car with a stable rear end, something Red Bull didn’t consistently offer, to allow him to carry the speed into the corner. It’s a smooth, productive style that allows him to extract his best. The Williams may not be the quickest, but it has moved that way in terms of set-up.
His performance in Saudi Arabia was also good, although his race was ruined by a collision with Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll. He was hit with a grid penalty for that (albeit one that didn’t matter when applied in Australia given he started at the back after being excluded from qualifying for not having the necessary fuel to provide a sample) although that was a slightly harsh punishment.
But that was followed by his outstanding drive in Australia. The hard Pirellis were durable so it shouldn’t be considered a miracle that he was able to make the tires last in terms of wear, with the Williams looking after its Pirellis well. That rear-end stability perhaps played a part in that, ensuring he didn’t overwork the rears and accelerate the degradation.
What was impressive was the speed Albon produced on the C2s, which often matched that of the rapid McLarens – and even sometimes Mercedes – on younger hards. Even more attention-grabbing was just how in control Albon was in that race as he produced what he described as a series of qualifying laps. He didn’t require endless coaching, he just got on with it, relying on his feel and tire understanding – the latter another area where Williams feels he has gained this year – to get the most from the car. What’s more, early on he also pushed back against the instruction to save the left-front given the need to pass Latifi (without the assistance of team orders). That showed a willingness to assert himself when needed – and, indeed, that’s something he had also done earlier in the season on set-up direction.
While he did require some luck with Stroll backing up a group of cars that included Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu, who then had to correct a big rear-end slide in Turn 1-2 while attempting to make a pass on Albon (just emerging from the pits on the last lap), it was a superbly-executed race. Albon just appeared to be completely in control – entirely in the spirit of Russell at his best.
The result is confirmation that Albon has achieved what will have been his first personal objective with Williams, establishing itself as its lead driver. Latifi had aspirations to do that, but he’s struggled with the car and hasn’t been at Albon’s level. The quicker driver in a team will always hold greater sway in terms of influencing set-up and development direction, and Albon is now well-established at Williams. It is now his team, just as it was Russell’s previously.
He is well-equipped to make the most of that. Albon is not the kind of driver who just jumps in the car and drives around problems, he does work hard technically and that aspect of his game is only improving with experience. That made him a driver ill-suited to the challenge of hanging onto Verstappen – something Perez showed was desperately difficult with the characteristics of the high-rake previous generation of Red Bull cars – but a much better fit at Williams.
As Albon said after the Australian Grand Prix, “we are not spraying champagne or raising trophies”. There’ still a long way to go for Williams, which has had to watch former rivals at the back of the grid Alfa Romeo and Haas start the season well while it has floundered.
But in Albon, it at least has a driver who appears capable of being its focal point not just for this season, but for those beyond. While only confirmed for ’22, it’s understood there is a mechanism for a longer stay in the contract, assuming Red Bull doesn’t want him back.
As Russell has proved, it’s possible to make a big impact even at the back. Albon has made the Williams team his own, but now he has to show that he can be the ideal focal point for the long haul.