Is Alex Albon even better than we think?
Almost 12 months ago, Alex Albon was about to begin his Formula E odyssey, but fast forward to the Brazilian GP this coming weekend and the Thai driver has been confimed to return with the Red Bull team in 2020 after an impressive streak of results since his promotion from Toro Rosso.
There haven't been many things more impressive since Formula One reconvened after the summer break in Spa than the emergence of Alex Albon performing strongly in a front running car. If we rewind to this time last year, Albon was preparing for his maiden voyage in Formula E with Nissan, partnering Sebastien Buemi after a third place finish in the Formula 2 championship standings. But then, when Daniel Ricciardo announced his shock departure from the Red Bull camp after five trying and ultimately unsuccessful seasons, a seat was made available at Toro Rosso after Christian Horner made a knee-jerk reaction to promote Pierre Gasly in the Australian's place.
Red Bull's pool of drivers have been dwindling in recent times, but it was Albon that got the call to chase his lifelong dream of racing in Formula One, partnering Daniil Kvyat for the 2019 season. And it appears that everyone involved with the decision were going to be rewarded handsomely, with Albon largely outperforming his more experienced team mate for the first half of the season, with some gutsy and hard fought performances, yielding strong points, such as his highly impressive sixth place finish at the crazy, rain-soaked German GP - a result that was only overshadowed by Kvyat getting a podium in the sister car. But during the four week break in between the Hungarian and Belgian GP, it was Albon that got a surprise call-up to replace the underperforming Pierre Gasly at the senior team. Many questions would be asked of Albon. How would he perform against arguably the fastest outright driver on the grid in Max Verstappen? How would he rise to the pressure of challenging for podiums on a weekly basis? We soon found out in Spa.
Fast, aggressive, fearless & consistent
Spa seems to be a breeding ground for startling debuts of sorts, and Alex Albon's drive proved to be no exception to that unwritten myth. After picking up engine penalties carried over from Pierre Gasly, Albon was forced to start from the back of the grid, meaning his debut race under the wing of the senior team couldn't have been more pressurised. However, Albon delivered right on cue with a commanding charge through the field to finish a solid fifth place, showing poise and patience as well as guts and determination where his more experienced team mate Max Verstappen did not. The paddock was impressed, and they had every right to be.
Albon carved through the field impressively at Spa, scoring 10 points on his Red Bull debut, raising the eyebrow of many.
Monza was where we saw the first glimpse of serious aggression from Albon, however. On lap three we saw it immediately, with Carlos Sainz proving powerless to Albon's late braking attempt into the second chicane after Curva Grande. The Spaniard was able to cut back and retake the position after the chicane, but it was Albon's tenacity to hang on around the outside of the first Lesmo corner that ultimately cost him positions. But the fightback was certainly on, and the Thai driver brought it home in sixth place behind the two overperforming Renaults of Ricciardo and Hulkenberg. Yet more promise in just his second Red Bull start.
After qualifying a whole six tenths slower than his team mate, the focus was then on the race for Albon in Singapore. and in just his third start for the senior team, he handled himself superbly to bring home yet another solid points finish. It was now becoming apparent that the choice to swap Gasly for Albon after Hungary was proving to be an inspired choice. You could see the difference in the body language of the car. Albon was racy, poised and ready to take a chance if one was ever offered. Pierre Gasly always seemed to be a couple of tenths behind the car, chasing it around the track instead of leading it.
Heading into Russia, Red Bull knew that Albon would be starting from the back due to more mechanical penalties, thus testing the Thai driver's patience and skill once again just like in Spa the previous month. But an accident in qualifying meant he'd actually have to start from the pit lane, making matters a little more tricky. Taking advantage of a stellar opening stint and then a virtual safety car to get on the right tyres for a charge at the race's closing moments, Albon carved through the field with some inch-perfect passes to bring the car home in a career-best equaling fifth position. The impressive run continued, and the consistency was leaving many muttering the notion of a contract extension.
Albon gained a total of 15 places en route to another top five finish at Sochi, further impressing the F1 paddock.
In what turned out to be his most impressive weekend since his Red Bull switch, on a track that's deemed as the most intense and technical track as Suzuka, Albon really showed his pedigree. He set an identical Q3 lap to Verstappen, only losing the grid position by virtue of setting the lap after the Dutch superstar. And after Verstappen and Leclerc collided at turn two on the opening lap, that left Albon with the ultimate opportunity to fight for his maiden podium. But his collision with Norris on lap four scuppered his race, and ultimately led another fight back race to finish a career-best fourth place. Barring the mistake that cost him some performance, the pace was definitely there and the comments from Christian Horner after the race deemed that he was extremely happy with Albon and the way he was conducting himself in and out of the car. A 2020 seat alongside Verstappen was almost sealed.
Another finish in the top five in Mexico was overshadowed by Verstappen's scintillating qualifying pace followed by his accident with Bottas on race day that forced the Dutchman to fight back through the field was followed by yet another comeback drive in Austin, Texas after contact with Carlos Sainz at turn one. All we need now is for Albon to have a clean race to really show his pace and fight for the podium. These mistakes will iron out over time, but the promise is there, and it's an exciting time for Alex Albon and Red Bull Racing heading into 2020.
Confirmed for 2020
Now, as we approach the Brazilian Grand Prix, another track that Albon will be visiting for the first time, Red Bull announced this past Tuesday that they will be retaining the Thai driver's services for another season. This gigantic shot in the arm for Albon will give him all the ammo he needs to prepare for next year to his absolute highest abilities and help Red Bull come out swinging when we arrive in Melbourne next March. If every race since Spa have been the interview, then 2020 will be the probationary period, with everyone at the team keeping an eagle eye on his performances early on. But if the last races of 2019 have anything to go by, then Albon should provide the consistency to help Red Bull push on in the constructor fight with Mercedes and Ferrari, as well as keeping his already illustrious team mate Max Verstappen honest. It's a mouth watering prospect.
Albon has outscored Verstappen by 68 to 54 in the seven races he's spent at Red Bull. An impressive stat.
The bottom line is: Alex Albon is quick. Very quick, actually. He's shown some exceptional race craft, gutsy driving and a fearless competetive edge when surrounded by the sport's greatest names on the same piece of tarmac. The future is bright for the likeable driver, and 2020 will be the true litmus test for a driver that looked to be driving in Formula E just 12 months ago.
Motorsport is a funny old game, isn't it?