Feature F1 Unlocked
IN DEPTH: ‘We’ve had to have our elbows out’ – Alex Albon reflects on a pivotal season for him and Williams
It’s difficult to keep the smile off Alex Albon’s face right now.
Three years ago, the now 27-year-old was facing the end of the road in Formula 1. Dumped by Red Bull as a race driver – after his second chance with the energy drinks company – his future was uncertain.
But fast forward to now and he’s one of the hottest properties in the sport. A humble and self-effacing approach to a lifeline at Williams for 2022 – a move helped by his old employers Red Bull – has sparked a remarkable rebirth.
This year, despite having a car that was among the slowest in the field, Albon has stepped it up a gear on a personal level and ground out a series of impressive results. He’s revelled in being the team leader, alongside rookie team mate Logan Sargeant. And the result has been a haul of 27 points – across seven top-10 finishes – to almost single-handedly guide Williams to P7 in the constructors’ championship.
Considering the former giants of the sport were fighting not to finish last again this year, the fact they could finish clear of AlphaTauri, Alfa Romeo and Haas not only delivered a huge sense of pride, but more significantly, it yielded a prize money gain in the tens of millions of dollars.
“I feel pretty proud of the races we have had this year,” says Albon, when we chat as the sun goes down in Abu Dhabi.
“In retrospect looking at the year how it unfolded, I’d say maybe Melbourne was a bit of a disappointing race (Albon crashed when running sixth) – it was an opportunity that I missed – but if you take that one away, it feels like every chance we’ve had to score points, we have taken it.
“It’s not been easy, we’ve had to have our elbows out for most of it. I think that’s partly why we’ve been able to be in a position where we are ahead of the midfield, as we’ve been able to score points at most opportunities – which I think the others just missed out on.”
Albon is referring to his performances, but as he almost always does, he uses the pronoun ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. It’s because the Thai driver sees himself as one cog in a massive machine. He wins together with his team. And he loses together with his team.
And it’s that mentality that has yielded a championship position for both him (P13) and the team (P7) that exceeds the outright performance of the car and shows how far he’s come individually since those difficult days at Red Bull.
While Albon comes across as a nice guy, he is fiercely competitive and utterly focused on racing. The quality of his feedback has grown exponentially with his increasing experience and sources inside the team say how critical that has been to getting the most out of the package this year.
That has been especially important in 2023 as Williams have had a ‘peaky’ car. Menacingly quick on the straights, less at home in the corners, there were clearly tracks where Williams knew they had a shot at points and others where they knew a bit of luck would be needed.
It meant they had to deliver when it mattered – and Albon stepped up and did just that. In doing so, he emerged as a team leader for the first time in his career – and it was a role he relished.
“It [becoming team leader] kind of just happens, it’s not a case of putting your hand up and saying, ‘I’m the leader now’,” he says with a smile. “Having a rookie as a team mate, it naturally means there’s a bit more responsibility on your side of the garage in terms of the development of the car, but also the set-up windows, and testing items on the car as well. I’ve enjoyed it.
“Last year for me was a bit more about having to prove myself and try and show people I belong here and it was the right decision to take me. Coming into this year, I felt like I had done that last year – I proved what I can do. This year it was more about getting this team up the field – working with James [Vowles, who started as Team Principal at the beginning of this year], working with the whole team, figuring out how we can get the points finishes.”
That kind of approach shows how far Albon has come regarding confidence. He was hurting after Red Bull dumped him for a second time, with nagging doubts about his ability bouncing around his head. But with the support of those around him, he steeled himself for another comeback. Did those tough times earlier in his career actually help him level up this year?
“I believe so,” he says. “I’m not the most naturally confident guy out there. I had a tough career in Formula 1, but I think now it feels like – after I’ve signed a longer term contract – I feel like my feet are on the ground, and I feel confident to be out there, I feel like I give myself credit now, and at the same time, that creates this positive spiral for me, having the team fully around me, and me fully trusting in everything they are doing.
“It feels like there’s been a winning combination in this, and I’ve been enjoying it a lot.”
That positive spiral extends out to the rest of the team. The trackside personnel have a bounce in their step, there’s more laughter coming out of the garage and hospitality unit, morale is higher than it’s been in years. After seasons of slogging around at the back, Williams are fighting for points again.
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“There’s a huge element that we’re all racers, we’re all competitive,” says Albon. “It doesn’t matter what area of the factory you work in. To go into every weekend knowing there is a fight for points, it’s so much more exciting than last year.
“A lot of people who are working from last year’s car to this year’s car, [when] a great result for us where we executed everything perfectly was P15 or P16 – it’s hard to get motivated by. You go into the next weekend and it’s the same thing again. Once you’re in the championship hunt and you’re fighting for these points, the thrill is great, there’s so much motivation and hunger in that.”
That motivation has been boosted by the arrival of Vowles, who joined from Mercedes to replace Jost Capito as team boss last winter. Vowles has a proven track record in Formula 1, having played a role in the Silver Arrows’ utter domination of the early phase of the hybrid turbo era – winning eight constructors’ championships on the bounce.
For Albon, he’s relished being able to mine Vowles for information so that he can continue his never-ending journey of wanting to be a better driver and help keep up the upward trajectory Williams are currently showing.
“James coming along – he’s clearly a strong leader,” says Albon. “Having that experience especially from his time at Mercedes, in some ways is a voice of reason. You know what he is saying works, [because] he’s got the history to back it up. We want to be that championship-winning team, he knows what that looks like – so when he talks, we listen.
“I love to pick his brains, just about everything that Mercedes do, what they used to do, what he believes they are doing now, and I’m just one person in the team. Everyone – aero wise, strategy wise engineering wise, they are also picking his brains.”
One of the early decisions Vowles took was to stop development early on the 2023 car to throw more resource at next year’s machine. It meant that the team’s last in-season upgrade broke cover in race eight in Canada (with 14 races still to go). It was a bold call, but they managed to hold onto P7 despite all three teams below them developing extensively thereafter.
“It’s been a bit of a survival actually, yes,” says Albon. “From Canada, once we put that upgrade on the car, we had about six or seven races where we knew we had to score points. The way the Formula 1 world works, and how frequently everyone upgrades their car, it wasn’t going to be long before the others caught up. And actually in the season, they have overtaken us. It’s been interesting to see how it’s unfolded.
“What we have done is focus our efforts on next year. That’s why we stopped after Canada. The goal is, if you look at how we’ve done this year – we’ve made a huge step from last year, and actually, really, we want to make an even bigger step next year.”
Do that and Williams could start to become an enticing place to be going forward. Albon has a contract that keeps him at the British squad until at least the end of next season (2024). Does the direction Williams are going make him want to stay?
“Right now,” he says. “I feel like we are on the up. There’s no question about that. I’m there at the factory, doing a lot of the work in the simulator for next year’s car. I see the progress, I see the hunger, and the culture changing in the team. The gap to the front, being truthful, is still big. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.
“Of course I want to bring this team up there, I want to be a part of that journey, but time will tell. I won’t be there when I’m 40 years old and still chugging along, saying 'next year will be the one!'
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“But at the same time, I do see the direction the team is heading in. I’ve got time on my hands, I want to see how it unfolds, and that’s it really. I do feel valued in this team, I do enjoy working here – so yeah.”
Albon has impressed a lot of people in Formula 1 with his exploits this year, to the extent that sources say rival teams have him in mind as a starter on their roster in the next couple of years.
This sits alongside a Williams team who will be very keen to extend his stay. It’s lovely to be in demand – and high praise for a driver who has driven one of his strongest – if not the strongest – campaigns in F1 this year.