Can Alex Albon challenge Max Verstappen at Red Bull Racing?
With Pierre Gasly being replaced by Alex Albon at Red Bull from the Belgian GP onwards, you have to wonder, what can the Thai driver really achieve?
The silly season has well and truly begun. It appears that the Marko axe has fallen on yet another promising young talent in Pierre Gasly. The young Frenchman has failed to deliver for Red Bull in the 12 races he's been given, and it just so happens that his lacklustre Hungarian Grand Prix was his final race in the senior team. So, as of the Belgian Grand Prix in three weeks time, he will be replaced by rookie Alexander Albon from the Toro Rosso team, with Gasly returning back to the Faenza team that he had such a fantastic season with in 2018. Many will begin to question the nature of the Red Bull young driver programme, with the likes of Daniil Kvyat arguably having a stronger season than Albon, and being overlooked once again for the Red Bull seat. It seems that Helmut Marko's pride is too strong to be toppled.
But now the question is, can Albon deliver what Gasly couldn't in that Red Bull? The general consensus in the paddock will be that it's probably too early for the Thai driver to make the step up to the senior team. But saying that, he has shown an incredible turn of pace this season, and some excellent race craft that has no doubt caught the eye of Christian Horner and Helmut Marko. We all know what Max Verstappen is currently achieving for them at the moment, and it'll be difficult for Albon to get on terms with Max immediately, but with the glimpses of speed and talent that he's shown, there's no doubting that he will give just as good if not better than Pierre Gasly did. Simply put, he must perform.
So how has Albon performed so far in 2019?
After being drafted in to the Toro Rosso team following a third place finish in Formula 2 championship last season, many people were aware of Alex Albon's speed. But to say that he's over performed would be an understatement. He's been more than a match for his more experienced team mate Daniil Kvyat, and has at times outperformed the Russian. Even though Kvyat scored the team's second podium ever at Hockenheim a couple weeks go, it was widely known that Albon was the better performer in that race, staying within the top five for the majority of the race on merit, whereas Kvyat landed in that podium position with an inspired tire choice. Another eye catching performance was his eight place finish in Monaco, in just his sixth race start, as well as his points finish in Shanghai after starting in the pit lane. And just to back it all up, his wheel to wheel battle with his team mate in Hungary last week was proof that his race craft is sound, and he's willing to fight hard, perhaps something that's been missing in Pierre Gasly's armoury in 2019.
Albon's impressive and mature sixth place performance was highlighted by an impressive battle with Lewis Hamilton.
Why didn't they choose Daniil Kvyat to replace Pierre Gasly?
It's fair to say at this point that the Russian is a known quantity within the Red Bull camp. After being promoted to Toro Rosso in 2014, he impressed with consistent points finishes, leading to a drive in the senior team alongside Daniel Ricciardo in 2015. Kvyat actually outscored the Australian and landed a seat in 2016, where his season and career really took a turn for the worse. He was dropped back to the Toro Rosso team after the Russian Grand Prix and struggled to find his mojo until being dropped completely after the Singapore Grand Prix in 2017. After taking a year off in 2018, he has come back a changed man. Now a father, Kvyat has scored some fantastic points finishes, including a sensational podium in Hockenheim just two weeks go. He is showing a level of maturity that wasn't seen during his first tenure in the F1 paddock.
It appears that Red Bull are giving Alex Albon nine races to prove his worth to the Milton Keynes based squad, as they weigh up their full-time driver lineup for 2020. With Max Verstappen all but confirmed to be the lead driver at Red Bull next season, it's essentially a three-way fight for who will join the Dutchman. Alex Albon, Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly are thought to be the main contenders for this seat. Silly season is in full effect however, with many people pointing at Fernando Alonso returning to the sport after a year out, but the chances are very minimal as Red Bull haven't signed a driver outside of their driver programme since since signing Mark Webber from Williams in 2007.
Will Albon be allowed to challenge Verstappen straight away?
Albon will be joining Red Bull at a pivotal time in the championship, and the pressure couldn't be higher for the young Thai driver. Max Verstappen is becoming the main rival to Lewis Hamilton as we approach the second half of the season. Red Bull will be looking for a strong second driver to help aid Verstappen's late season surge on a somewhat unlikely title push. But Albon's more important objective would be to start outscoring Vettel and Leclerc in the ongoing battle with Ferrari for second place in the constructors' standings. To say that he's being thrown it at the deep end is an understatement, as he is actually becoming the least experienced driver to join the Red Bull senior team since Robert Doornbos back in 2006. As soon as the green light comes on at the end of the pit lane for the start of FP1 in Spa, the pressure is well and truly on.
Max Verstappen currently leads both Ferrari drivers in the Drivers' championship, but it's a close affair.
However, when the points situation has become more apparent as the season winds down, there's no doubting that Albon will be able to stretch his muscles and challenge Max for potential podiums and victories for the remainder of 2019. Everyone in the paddock is aware of the talent that Albon possesses, so the dynamic between him and Verstappen could either help Red Bull flourish, or we could get a repeat of the previous toxic pairings or Verstappen/Ricciardo or Vettel/Webber.
One thing is for certain, and that this is an absolutely massive opportunity for Alex Albon. If he continues his upward trend of results that he's been achieveing at Toro Rosso, then there's no doubt that he will score big points and potential podiums that will help Red Bull massively this season. But with three drivers now waiting in the wings to support Max Verstappen in 2020, this gives Helmut Marko an astronomical headache.
Spa-Francorchamps cannot come soon enough.