4 reasons why Alex Albon will be a more formidable racer in 2020
He’s the guy in the second Red Bull, in the shadow of team mate and sensation Max Verstappen, but Alex Albon is a very quick racing driver in his own right and after a full winter under his belt with Red Bull, and an unexpected lockdown that afforded an unique opportunity to get to know his engineers better, the Thai driver is aiming to "show everyone what I can do as well”.
1. He's feeling refreshed and rejuvenated
We may have only been based 20 metres away from each other at the Red Bull Ring but protocols introduced to protect against Covid-19 mean that when my interview slot with Albon rolls around, we see and speak to each other over video conferencing software Zoom.
Albon is no stranger to virtual communication, of course, the Red Bull driver one of the stars of lockdown as he and a flurry of F1 drivers – including Virtual World Champion George Russell and Charles Leclerc – provided the entertainment on games stretching from F1 2019 to truck racing.
“It’s hard to say [how useful sim racing will be], the truth is I’m not too sure,” says Albon. “In terms of my performance, not really but what it did do was kept my racing mind focused, ticking over, thinking about racing. Having the slight pressure and adrenaline feeling is nice, because you crave it – you just don’t realise.”
Albon temporarily moved back to the family home in the UK, having only just set up in his own place in Monaco over the winter, so he had more outdoor space to train and could be near the factory to give him access to the simulator.
It also meant he was in a position to carry out driving duties during the filming day the team did to dust off the cobwebs ahead of the season restart, with Verstappen ruled out because of the logistical challenge of getting him over to the country, with quarantine restrictions in place.
The break also offered him the chance to have a proper switch off, get away from the intensity of racing for a prolonged amount of time and get his head in the game, read for his first full season assault with Red Bull.
“It felt like a full reset,” he says. “Normally, you have a few weeks off and then you’re straight away back in the factory after Christmas and already working towards the next season, so your mind never really gets away from it. This was a proper stop, reflect on yourself, and then go again.”
2. He has experience working with Verstappen
Racing for Red Bull is intense, the energy drinks company not renowned for giving their drivers much time to deliver on their promise. Needing to perform when you’ve got someone as talented as Verstappen in the car next to you piles even more pressure on. But Albon showed with the way he carried himself last year that he can handle it.
Four months of racing plus a settled winter and pre-season test alongside Verstappen will have been invaluable for Albon in building up a picture of what he’s up against. He’ll have learned plenty, but also will start to pick up elements where he can
“He’s straight, there’s no hiding behind your back with him,” says the Thai driver. “He’s confident in himself, you can see that. It’s good having him as a reference, especially to improve and be a better driver, nice to have that person to go after and to compare to.”
3. He has seen his confidence grow
Verstappen may only be 22, but he’s already got F1 pedigree with eight Grand Prix wins, and was tipped by many as a genuine contender for the title this year. Often when people talk about Red Bull’s chances, they refer to expectations of Verstappen, with Albon something of a forgotten man.
That doesn’t bother Albon, though, and he certainly doesn’t see himself as in the shadow of his more decorated team mate. He’s sees this opportunity as something of a second chance, having been dropped by Red Bull in 2012 before being recalled to drive for Toro Rosso last year.
From there, he delivered from the off, so much so he earned promotion to the senior team after just 12 races. The way he handled himself in that second-half of the campaign was impressive, coping with inheriting a package that would have engine penalties that’d mean he’d be starting towards the back in some races.
It’s why there’s evidently an increased confidence oozing through his body. He looks like he belongs – and he wants to show Red Bull that bringing him back was the right thing to do.
“There is pressure there to deliver,” says Albon. “It’s not easy. I don’t think it’s taken away from me, if anything because we have got a car that is ready. I’m still working on myself, still focusing. Of course, I want to be the one…it would be nice to have good results, and show everyone what I can do as well.”
These aren’t just words either. He’s demonstrating it on track. In the season-opener, he immediately attacked Lewis Hamilton at the Red Bull Ring, when he had a performance advantage, and boldly tried to go around the outside. The move was done, but there was contact, and a podium – and maybe a win was gone.
After that incident, he promised not to change his approach, despite the incident, and he was true to his word, making contact with Sergio Perez at exactly the same point a week later but this time surviving to tell the tale and securing a equal career-best fourth.
4. He's strengthened bonds with his team
Swapping teams mid-season is not easy, especially in an outfit like Red Bull where the pressure is on instantly, but Albon has taken it all in his stride. That said, he knew he had plenty to work on over the winter, particularly surrounding his speed in qualifying, so the stability of a new contract with the same team was helpful.
And while lockdown limited the amount of facetime he had with the team, it still provided an opportunity to get to know them better and strength the relationship so when the chips are down, they are all pulling in the right direction.
“We are learning together, but the relationship is getting better and better,” says Albon. “We were not spending dinners with each other, but we were doing quiz nights, every Tuesday, during lockdown. I hosted the quiz one night, everyone hosted one at some point. I enjoyed it!
“It was a good laugh and great to do as we were spending that much time away from each other – obviously not in a romantic way! I’m sure we’re going to be sick of each other, we’re going to see each other every day now, for at least a few months!”
Albon is putting the effort in to not only ingratiate himself with the people around him but also make himself a better, faster driver. On the evidence of the first two races, he’s making progress on both fronts. This bodes well and maybe, in the not too distant future, it won’t just be Verstappen’s name that is mentioned when speaking about Red Bull’s chances.