Alex Albon: My rookie of the year
Why Alex Albon has stood out for me this year.
Ah, 2019. What a year it has been in Formula 1. A year, where more often than not, we had the young drivers step up and show us what they truly are capable of in the amazing Grand Prix machines. You had the young guns such as Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen rising to the top of their respective teams and outpacing the more established drivers such as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, evidently showing us why they are tipped to be future champions. Further down the grid, you had new drivers in the form of Lando Norris and George Russell rise up and show what they're made of in their respective teams, but one driver stood out for me beyond them all this year, Alex Albon.
Born to a Thai mother and British father on the 23rd of March 1996, Albon rose through the ranks from karting all the way to Formula 2 in the last few years, claiming four wins and runner up spot to Leclerc in the GP3 championship in 2016, moving up to F2 with ART the following year. While Leclerc took the 2017 F2 title and moved into F1 for 2018, Albon stayed for a second year in F2, switching to the DAMS team and taking three victories on the way to securing third in the championship behind season behind season-long rivals Norris and champion Russell. As these two found their way into F1, joining Leclerc on the grid for 2019, it looked as if a shot at Formula 1 was gone for young Alex.
2019 Austrian Grand Prix. (Red Bull Content Pool.)
Preparing for a season in Formula E with the Nissan e.dams alongside former Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Buemi for the 2018/2019 season, a phone call was about to come that would change his career and undoubtedly, his life. While out buying shoes in Dubai after the 2018 F1 season finale in Abu Dhabi, Albon received a phone call from none other than Red Bull's Helmut Marko with the offer of a lifetime, and Toro Rosso announced that Albon would be racing in F1 for the 2019 season with the team. Nissan e.dams eventually found what turned out to be a viable replacement in Ollie Rowland for their Formula E campaign, but Albon was now coming to terms with the fact that he was finally a Formula 1 driver.
Sure, you might ask, what makes Albon as good as much more successful drivers like Leclerc, Norris or Russell? I'll tell you. When these three guys made their debuts, we already knew who they were, and to some extent what they were capable of in a Grand Prix car. They were each given numerous free practice and test sessions by their respective teams to the point that we were almost tired of seeing them. They had the experience of a Formula 1 car, so it was really only expected that they would do well.
Alex however? Well the first time he ever drove a Formula 1 car was at the shakedown in Italy with Toro Rosso's 2019 challenger, the STR14. He spent the two week test session in Barcelona racking up enough mileage for his super licence in order to compete in Melbourne, his car running a green LED light on the back of the car as opposed to the usual red seen on most cars.
Alex had been literally thrown into the deep end and been expected to float, but he swam lengths. It would only take until his second ever Grand Prix to score his first F1 points with a brilliant ninth place finish, but it was the following race where he showed what he could properly do. A bad crash in Saturday's FP3 session left the mechanics with too much damage to have the car ready for qualifying left Alex with a pit-lane start on race day. Albon blitzed through the field to take tenth place and F1's Driver of the Day award, proving one thing; he was here to make a lasting impression. Other classic and impressive results followed the determined Thai driver, such as a sixth place finish at the crazy German Grand Prix, his first time ever in a Formula 1 car in the wet, but it was the lead up to the return from summer break where Alex would once again see his career take a very drastic turn.
Alex Albon, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing driver. (Red Bull Content Pool.)
As former Toro Rosso driver Pierre Gasly struggled to fill the shoes of ex-Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo within the senior team during the first half of 2019, Red Bull revealed during the summer break that Gasly was to swap seats with Albon for the remaining nine races of the season, meaning that Albon, with only 11 Grands Prix under his belt, was about to make his debut with one of the most successful and competitive teams in the sport. Even more, he was about to make his debut with the team that initially booted him from it's young driver programme at the end of 2012 for poor performance. If Alex need a time to shine, this was it, and boy did he shine.
His first race for the senior team put him in a bad position at the Belgian Grand Prix where, ongoing engine penalties forced him to start seventeenth in a car that he was not yet familiar with yet. That did not stop Alex as he powered home to fifth place, after a very ballsy move on Sergio Perez down the back straight to claim the place, even going as far as putting two wheels on the grass to get by. A mistake in qualifying in Russia saw another magical storm through the field on race day, but it was in the penultimate race of the season that Albon really showed his worth. After the race resumed from Valtteri Bottas' breakdown, Albon launched a daring move around the outside of four-time champion and former Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel to rob third place off the German driver, showing that he was indeed out for his first podium. However, it would not be as contact with Lewis Hamilton on the second to last lap spun Albon out of what seemed to be a secure second place behind teammate and eventual race winner Verstappen, but Albon showed the world that day that he definitely could mix it up with the very best on the race track.
Sure, in comparison to Verstappen his qualifying form has been off the pace but you have to remember that he has jumped into a car that was not made for him, and I think he will much more suited to whatever the Milton Keynes team bring to the track in 2020. Alex said himself that it is a truly great feeling to be sure of his future in the coming year, something he has never experienced in his racing career, as Red Bull took no second thoughts on holding onto him for next year. On top of that, he has a great relationship with teammate Verstappen and he is just a really lovely guy. There is something about him I just love, as every picture or video you see of him there is a massive smile and even the thumbs up to be seen, but on track he is very quickly becoming another force to be reckoned with in the form of a young driver.
2020 is going to be such an exciting season, and I cannot wait to see Albon unleash his full potential and talent alongside Verstappen in the Red Bull team. I would even go as far as marking Red Bull and either Verstappen or Albon as champions for next year, as I honestly can see it happening, they look that good at the moment. But like Leclerc, Norris and Russell, we do know what Verstappen can do in a Formula 1 car, now it's time for Alex to show us fully what he is capable of, and I cannot wait...