Assessing Alex Albon
This article will focus on the following: Albon's rapid rise in Formula One with Toro Rosso and his 2020 season at Red Bull.
Alex Albon has been subject to extensive media attention throughout the 2020 season as he is the direct comparison to the man who is single-handily taking the fight to Mercedes: Max Verstappen.
The rapid rise
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It must be remembered that Albon was afforded just 12 races away from the spotlight to find his feet in Formula One at what was then known as Toro Rosso. His promotion, while it could be argued was too premature, was justified. He was a regularly scoring points with two stand-out drives in China and Germany. In China, he suffered a crash in Free Practice 3 meaning that he was forced to start from the pit lane. Despite this, he managed to finish 10th and was deservedly awarded ‘Driver of the Day’. While in the rain-affected, chaotic German Grand Prix, Alex finished an impressive 6th from 16th on the grid.
The other factor in Albon’s short tenure at Toro Rosso was the performance of the incumbent in the second Red Bull seat, Pierre Gasly. Gasly struggled throughout the first half of the 2019 season, failing to score a single podium. His lack of pace was most evident at the Austrian Grand Prix, when team-mate Verstappen won the Grand Prix. Gasly, on the other hand, finished P7 and a whole lap down in identical machinery.
In short, Albon was on the up and Gasly was facing a downward spiral and so Red Bull decided to swap their seats with immediate effect from the Belgian Grand Prix.
Albon quickly made an impression with his daring late-braking overtakes, most notably at Spa, where he rose from the back of the grid to P5. He was also on course to make it a Red Bull 1-2 at the Brazilian Grand Prix before an unfortunate collision with Lewis Hamilton in the dying laps of the race. His results on and off track in the second half of the season earned him a race seat for 2020, where he was expected to build and improve on his rookie season.
The 2020 season
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Albon currently lies P5 in the driver’s championship. This may appear understandable given Mercedes’ continued domination of the V6 turbo hybrid era. However, he is a massive 47 points behind his team-mate Max Verstappen. That is almost the equivalent of 2 race victories after just 9 races have been completed so far.
However, the points table does tell the full picture of Albon’s season. In the opening round of the season in Austria, Albon made a late-race charge while on a softer compound and was challenging the two Mercedes for victory. Had he not collided with Lewis Hamilton again for the second time in three races, Albon may very well have gone on to pass Bottas for the win. If all the stars had aligned for Albon on that day, he would have been able to use that momentum to go from strength to strength. Like Brazil, it was not to be.
For the next seven races, Albon was still without a podium in a car that was clearly the second-fastest on the grid. By this point, Verstappen had already 6 podiums, including a win at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix. This has led to many to suggest that Gasly and Albon should return back to their original teams, especially after Gasly’s shock victory at Monza. However, at the latest Grand Prix in Mugello, Albon responded by recording his first podium finish after a number of impressive overtakes all the way around the outside of experienced racers two experienced racers in the form of Sergio Perez and Daniel Riccardo. I feel that this result may prove to be a turning point in Albon’s career, providing him with much needed confidence and belief that he not only has the potential, but there is now the evidence which demonstrates that he can handle himself at the sharp end of Formula One.
Another aspect which has been affecting Albon’s on-track performances has been the Red Bull’s handling characteristics. It is considered to have a ‘snappy’ rear-end which Verstappen is seemingly comfortable with, but Albon is not. Time and time again it has been proven that when a driver does not trust the car that is beneath him, the confidence levels drop and consequently so do the results. Just look at Ferrari’s current situation and the performance disparity between Charles Leclerc and a struggling Sebastian Vettel.
Verstappen is clearly the No.1 driver at Red Bull and so the car has been built around him. Max has had a chance to mould the car over the past 5 seasons that he has spent at the team. Albon does not have the standing within the team to command a change in car philosophy which could better suit his driving style. He must learn to adapt.
Albon has undoubtedly struggled throughout 2020 to keep Verstappen within his sights, but if he can build off his career-best finish in Mugello then his place at Red Bull will be secure. Throughout his junior career and time in Formula One, Albon has shown flashes of speed. He now must start building consistency in order to become a more complete driver and assist Red Bull in their efforts to topple Mercedes in the Constructors’ Championship in future seasons. Is he a Max Verstappen? No, but he is most certainty a much better driver than many give him credit for. Let’s see how the remainder of the season unfolds for Albon. It seems that Red Bull are adopting the same philosophy.