How Albon is starting to show front-running potential
Last month Alex Albon replaced Pierre Gasly at Red Bull and he is already starting to prove he has the potential to be an F1 front-runner.
With it being his first season in Formula 1, many argued that is was too soon for Albon to jump up to Red Bull and go head to head against Max Verstappen, and that it could end yet another talented driver’s career.
Daniil Kvyat was the first driver to step up to the Milton Keynes based team to be demoted, and Gasly followed suit three years later, after just 12 races with the outfit.
Red Bull dropped Gasly after the Hungarian Grand Prix because he was unable to get close to Verstappen in qualifying, and could not recover from bad positions on race day.
Gasly was unable to get his car into Q3 until the third round at China, despite having a car that should have been fighting for the top six, and on top of that, even when he had a decent qualifying result, he often went backwards in the races.
If qualifying was Gasly’s sole issue then it is likely he would have retained his seat for longer, but once he dropped back through the grid, he would often find himself unable to easily get passed slower cars, and unable to support his team-mate.
While Gasly was struggling, Albon was having a quiet but useful learning curve at Toro Rosso, performing well against his team-mate Daniil Kvyat, who is also known quantity for Red Bull to make comparisons against.
Red Bull did not want to take Kvyat back and did not want to retain Gasly, and so Albon was realistically their only option, but it was also a move they desired having compared him against Kvyat.
Going into his debut weekend with the energy drink giants, Albon knew he would have his work cut out, receiving an engine penalty and having to start from the back of the grid, but he put in a strong performance, finishing the race fifth, while also making an impressive overtake around the outside of Daniel Ricciardo at Turn 11 on his rise through the field.
He had a tougher time in Italy, being out-paced by both Renault’s and the McLaren of Carlos Sainz Jr, but recovered some ground to take sixth in the race – having started eighth – on a track that is the least suited to Red Bull.
Singapore was a difficult weekend for Albon, but although he was some way behind the top five, it was a reasonable performance considering he had never driven the circuit before Friday practice, and so, in addition to gathering data for his car set-up, he was also learning the layout and trying to find the extra pace.
Russia also exposed Albon’s inexperience, losing his car in a cross-wind and crashing out of qualifying, but even though the 23-year-old started from the pitlane, he fought his way back through the field to finish fifth, just 24 seconds behind his team-mate.
And it is those drives that will catch the eye of Christian Horner and Helmut Marko, because Albon has the qualities to enter into damage limitation mode and salvage something on race day after a difficult Saturday.
Being a rookie, Albon will be given slightly more patience than Gasly or Kvyat received, but the pressure will still be incredibly high, with Red Bull not scared of dropping drivers like they are going out of fashion.
But Albon is coping, learning and is even starting to thrive.
At last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, Albon turned up at Suzuka faced with another circuit that he has never driven.
Suzuka is a highly technical track but also a real driver favourite, especially the esses, spoon curve and the 130R.
Albon had a lot to learn and it was assumed that he would be slower than Verstappen, but he extracted the maximum out of his car to set an identical lap time to his Dutch team-mate, once again demonstrating the potential he has.
Unfortunately, he made a bad start, dropping him down the order, but he wasn’t afraid to get his elbows out during the race, making a late lunge to pass Lando Norris at the final chicane.
It was borderline legal, with the pair making contact and Norris having to go off the track, but he avoided a penalty and scampered away in pursuit of Carlos Sainz, who he eventually passed during the first round of pit-stops.
Once again making the most of the car available to him on race day, Albon crossed the line in fourth place, securing his best F1 result to date.
Albon will inevitably make mistakes, especially with this being his first season in F1, but he appears to have got the car better suited to his style and is coping with the pressure extremely well.
Although he initially struggled in qualifying – like Gasly – Albon has consistently shown that he can get his elbows out and make superb overtakes whilst carving his way back through the field, executing recovery strategies perfectly, and that is what his predecessor was unable to master.
With the ability to recover from difficult positions, it will instil confidence in his bosses and earn their respect and admiration for still coming home with a decent haul of points.
When Gasly qualified down the order, Red Bull will have written off his weekend, knowing he was unlikely to recover many places, but with Albon, they still have something to gain, even if Saturday didn’t go as expected.
There is still a lot that can go wrong for Albon between now and the end of the season, but if he keeps racing the way he is, and can replicate his Japanese Grand Prix qualifying performances for the remaining races, then there is no doubt he will retain his seat at Red Bull, and he could set himself up to give Verstappen more of a fight in 2020.