Earlier this week Alex Albon was promoted to Red Bull from its junior squad, Toro Rosso but is it too big a gamble for the 23-year-old?
Albon has had a strong start to his rookie year, having scored 16 points and achieving a best result of sixth at a rain stricken German Grand Prix.
The British-born Thai driver had never stepped into a Formula 1 car prior to pre-season testing at the start of this year, and had to adapt quickly in order to cope with the demands of his notoriously ruthless team.
Despite the pressure he has been evenly matched with fellow Toro Rosso driver, Daniil Kvyat for much of the season. He has rarely made mistakes and has only retired from one Grand Prix – at Canada – having been hit by the Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi earlier in the race.
Albon over Gasly
The season had been shaping up well for the 23-year-old, marking him out as a real talent and a
driver for the future, but surprisingly he has suddenly found himself fully thrown into the spotlight at one of the biggest teams and up against the most in-form driver on the grid – Max Verstappen.
The announcement that Pierre Gasly was being dropped was expected to happen sooner or later as the Frenchman was simply unable to get close to his Dutch teammate and worse still, he also struggled to remain clear of the midfield, but Albon’s announcement was a surprise.
A lot of people had expected that if a mid-season swap were to happen then it would be the more experienced Kvyat who would be called up.
He has experience, has regained his confidence and has raced well, scoring Toro Rosso’s first podium in almost 11 years at the German Grand Prix, but he has been overlooked in favour of his less experienced teammate.
Red Bull have always looked at potential rather than immediate ability and their gambles either pay off massively – like the signing of Max Verstappen – or fail miserably, and nearly cost drivers their career.
Kvyat has been through the same process as Gasly and it took him two years before he finally got his confidence back. He also ended up on the sidelines, spending a year as a development driver at Ferrari, in order to get himself ready for a return to Formula 1.
Is it a gamble for Red Bull?
By joining Red Bull, Albon becomes the first driver to race for a ‘big-three team’ in their first season of racing since Lewis Hamilton debuted for McLaren in 2007.
Red Bull won’t be expecting Albon to be as quick as Verstappen and nor should they be, but they
will be hoping he can be consistently fast and put himself in the position to beat at least one of the Mercedes’ or Ferrari’s if they falter.
Gasly couldn’t do that no matter how hard he tried, and he made too many mistakes, regularly crashing in practice sessions, losing him valuable time and costing the team a lot of money and spare parts in the process.
But there is almost a scent of desperation from the energy drinks giant. They have a lack of depth in junior drivers and they seem to be reluctant to hand out second chances.
If they didn’t want Kvyat to return and they wanted Gasly gone, they had no option but to throw the dice and promote Albon even if he may not be ready.
In theory, Red Bull have nothing to lose. If Albon is a success then they can really throw the gauntlet down to Ferrari and challenge for second place. If things don’t work out, then they will still finish third.
While that works for Red Bull, things are very different for Albon who has everything to gain, but also, everything to lose.
In the deep end
This move has thrown Albon in to the deep end but he has the personality to keep himself grounded
and manage the pressure. From the outside he appears laid back, but he has steely determination and has displayed this throughout his junior career, most notably after being dropped by Red Bull in 2013.
He went on to have a strong junior career, finishing second in GP3 and third in last year’s F2 championship, showing that he never gives up and has the ability to perform even when the cards are stacked against him.
Make or break
When Albon arrives at Spa he needs to maintain his consistency and must avoid mistakes. His battle with Kvyat at the Hungarian Grand Prix proved that he can go wheel to wheel with another driver and keep it hard but fair, and avoid causing any damage in the process.
That move will have no doubt gone down well with Horner, even if he was unable to make the pass stick in the end.
More importantly, Albon will need to be fast from day one. Red Bull don’t sit around for long as their treatment of both Kyat and Gasly shows, but Albon coped well with the initial pressure that surrounded him at Toro Rosso, having never sat in an F1 car, and he was competitive straight away.
If he can cope with the pressure and live up to his team’s expectations, this could put Albon firmly on the map for the following seasons. It could also be the beginning of his career falling apart, rising to a top seat way before he is ready for it.
No matter how you look at it, the move is a big gamble for both Red Bull and Albon, but hopefully this time it works out, and another future star won’t have their career thrown into question before it has even really started.