RACING

Albon rediscovered the spark that Red Bull extinguished

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Alex Albon has been an interesting driver for a very long time, even if he never seemed destined for Formula 1.

It’s always been obvious that there’s real talent there, but it’s often come across as crude and only sporadically shown in single-seaters. The only time Albon really looked like a real F1 prospect was when he came on the grid and played in the first half of his rookie season with Toro Rosso.

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That he arrived in F1 was a surprise and required a whole host of circumstances, including the exhaustion of Red Bull’s junior program, to work in his favour. But whatever the fortunes, in around six months Albon went from a driver who wasn’t even on the periphery of F1 to a rookie delivering strong results in 2019, backed by an aggressive driving style and quite spectacular.

Then, his star in the ascendancy, another bizarre twist propelled him into the senior Red Bull squad for the second half of the year. It could have been Albon’s making. Instead, it extinguished the spark that had transformed him from someone whose peers always felt he was chronically underestimated into a driver capable of shaping a long-term F1 career.

The Red Bull version of Albon was a poor imitation of the Toro Rosso driver who shone so bright at the start of 2019. And what we see at Williams, where Albon was saved from F1 scrap, is much closer to the real deal .

“I would say the Toro Rosso that I was comfortable with and then the move from Toro Rosso to Red Bull, I think, was already a step,” Albon says now.

“And then from 2019 to 2020 there was another step towards the car that was like ‘Wow, OK, this is different from what I’m used to’.

“This year, I feel comfortable, I feel confident.”

Those who doubted Albon’s ultimate ability will have felt vindicated when he was relegated by Red Bull at the end of 2020 to the role of reserve driver.

It reinforced a slightly lazy view that Albon was a nice guy and a decent driver but without the potential to be anything more – an impression that had probably been baked in by a junior career that was a slow burn before gaining momentum when he finished second in GP3 (to Charles Leclerc) and third in his second year in Formula 2 (behind champion George Russell and Lando Norris).

But people like Leclerc and Russell never thought it was right. When Albon was really struggling at the start of the 2020 season, his friend Russell actually rounded off Red Bull quite dramatically, accusing the team of making Albon look stupid.

Motor Racing Formula 1 World Championship Portuguese Grand Prix Practice Day Portimao, Portugal

It was exaggerated, but there was some truth in it. Admittedly, Albon looked much worse than he is. Now at Williams, he takes a second chance to show that, whatever his staggering path to the top, he deserves to be in F1.

“I would say the most positive thing I have felt is that, even though I was out for a year, I feel like I have confidence in myself and I feel good in the car,” he said.

“I think the first thing I’ve always said is tricky is that you drive certain cars and sometimes a car can feel like it’s driving you. It’s like you’re trying to struggle rather than letting the car do its thing.

“Early on with the Williams, even though it has its own riding style, I always felt like I could get the upper hand. I felt confident enough to drive it the way I wanted to drive it, and that helps straight away.

“I felt like coming into Q2, the first race weekend we did it, in a car that wasn’t quite there at the time, it was a great way to start and it made me feel settled into the swing of things a little earlier.

What Albon says about the car feeling ‘like it’s driving you’ is a perfect description of his time at Red Bull and why he was so compromised from the start of his F1 career.

Motor Racing Formula 1 World Championship Portuguese Grand Prix Practice Day Portimao, Portugal

The mid-season at Toro Rosso had been characterized by a confident and aggressive approach behind the wheel, as Albon was extremely proactive – he wasn’t afraid to launch the car on entry and lean on the back, deal with rear-end instability (which the Toro Rosso tended to handle very well) and get back on the throttle quickly.

Mid-back grip breaks, or traction, didn’t deter him back in the day and that’s no longer the case at Williams either. “I’m not trying to force the thing to slide,” he said. “I kind of let the car do its job, you kind of go with it. It’s kind of like a dance, I guess, the way I drive it.

It’s so at odds with what has become a common sight of Albon driving a Red Bull: mellow, passive and, to recycle his own words, making the car feel like he was ‘driving’ him. He rarely looked near the limit. He just looked… restrained.

The general observation is that Albon was more limited by the backside instability of the 2019 and 2020 Red Bulls than his teammate Max Verstappen. That’s still the case, although Albon says that back in the Red Bull days, “people would probably say I liked a more stable car, but compared to all the others I used to run against. to run, I had a lot of front and everything like that”.

What Albon probably means is that to suggest he wanted a more neutral or understeered car would be incorrect. For all the reasons we explained earlier, he likes instability. Historically, he’s been able to handle a car with a balance biased toward oversteer because that’s how he likes to spin the rear end.

But Red Bull’s tip was clearly beyond his comfort zone. And he wasn’t the only one with this problem. His predecessor Pierre Gasly failed to tame him. His successor Sergio Perez also struggled, although the 2021 car was an improvement. Even Verstappen, at the start of 2020, sometimes struggled to live with the car.

Motor Racing Formula 1 World Championship French Grand Prix Qualifying Day Paul Ricard, France

The key to Albon’s solid form at Williams, where he broke into Q2 a handful of times and scored points twice, is that the car has a kind of instability that Albon immediately felt capable of. control.

“This year it’s more down there,” he says. “I like the car quite nervous, quite lively and I’m not afraid to move it.

“I think this year’s cars aren’t the easiest cars, they tend to reward someone if you can be precise, if the car allows you and the tires allow you, you can really get a little more performance that way.

“The way these tires are, especially in races, they’re a bit softer. So you can be a bit more aggressive. Especially if you’re sliding at high speeds – say a qualifying lap, you can get away with a little more than I wanted.

“In previous years, if you started a lap at Barcelona in Turn 3 and slipped from Turns 1 and 2, that was it.

“These tires have a bit more window, so you can afford to have a bit livelier car.”

That, combined with the natural balance of the Williams, plays well against the general understeer trait of the heavy and stiff 2022 cars.

Motor Racing Formula 1 World Championship French Grand Prix Qualifying Day Paul Ricard, France

Importantly, it meshes well with Albon’s preferences as a driver, in a way the Red Bulls never have. And so the spark came back.

While it was inevitable that Red Bull would drop Albon at the end of 2020, it was equally obvious that Williams would be looking to extend his contract beyond 2022.

With his immediate future already secured, Albon can focus on building a strong foundation at Williams. This stability and the cohesion that he has with the team and the car is a mixture that he lacked since those first months with Toro Rosso.

Maybe now Albon will finally show just how far his mercurial talent can really go.

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