COLUMN: Why Alex Albon deserves another chance in F1 after Red Bull nightmare...

18-12-2020 16:08
Column
COLUMN: Why Alex Albon deserves another chance in F1 after Red Bull nightmare...

It’s finally official. Sergio Perez will get his long-deserved move to a front-running team in 2021, joining Red Bull at the expense of Alexander Albon, who is now without a seat for next year, being relegated to test and reserve driver for the team.

The news must come as a punch to the gut for Albon, who was seen as Red Bull’s solution to their second driver problems just 18 months ago. Dropping drivers back down to the junior team is nothing new for Red Bull, they did it with both Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly, but dumping one of their own from the senior team to reserve duties is something new.

In the autumn of 2018, Albon signed with Nissan e.dams to race in Formula E, having finished third in that year’s Formula 2 campaign. But with Brendon Hartley failing to impress at Toro Rosso and Red Bull suffering from a serious lack of junior drivers, Albon was given the call to join the team for 2019.

Albon’s personality made him a likeable character. He was very modest about his ability and grateful to Toro Rosso for the opportunity, and on track, he seemed to fit in without any issues.

He made an instant impression, scoring points in Bahrain and coming from the back to take tenth in China. P8 in Monaco followed, before another turning point in his career. By the mid-point of the 2019 season, Gasly was struggling big time at Red Bull. A string of disappointing results put his future with the team in doubt and during the summer break, the pair were switched by the team.

Albon made his debut for the Red Bull team at Spa, and having been forced to take engine penalties, he started at the back. What followed was a superb drive from the back, coming home in fifth place. Albon was widely lauded for his performance in what was just his 13th Grand Prix, and he backed that performance up by finishing in the top six in the next six races.

What was missing though, was a podium. He got that opportunity at the penultimate round of the season in Brazil, but was hit by Lewis Hamilton and lost his chance. Nevertheless, he was retained for 2020 in the hope he could build on his promising start with the team. In the 2020 season opener in Austria, he looked set for that maiden podium, or even a win as Mercedes duo Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were struggling with sensor issues.

Albon went for a daring move on Hamilton around the outside of Turn 4, and pretty much had the move done before Hamilton infamously clipped Albon again, ruining his podium chances. From then on it seemed like his confidence had taken a huge hit. Way off the pace of teammate Max Verstappen, Albon started to look out of his depth. He wasn’t helped by the incredible resurgent form of Gasly, who stunningly won in Italy and was putting together some fantastic results in the newly-renamed Alpha Tauri.

The podium finally came for Albon in Mugello, but after that he scored just one point in four races, which is surely the run of bad form that made up Red Bull’s mind to drop him. Another podium came in Bahrain after Perez’s late engine failure, but it wasn’t enough to save his seat, especially with Perez taking his maiden F1 win a week later at the Sakhir Grand Prix.

So how did Albon go from rising star to forgotten man at Red Bull in just over a year? There are several reasons, with the main one being the fact it was too much pressure and expectation on such a fledgling career. For comparison, Verstappen had 23 Grands Prix under his belt before being given the chance at Red Bull. Sebastian Vettel had 25, Gasly had 26 and Daniel Ricciardo had 50.

Albon had just 12. Red Bull gave Albon a dozen Grands Prix before putting him in a race-winning car, and comparing him against Verstappen, an absolute freak on track and quite frankly, a generational talent.

With all due respect to Albon, who is an excellent driver, unless you are one of the hottest prospects ever seen in F1, there is no way a driver with 12 Grands Prix worth of experience can compete with someone like Verstappen. On the current grid, perhaps only Hamilton would be able to match or beat the Dutchman in equal machinery, and he’s got seven titles!

F1 drivers are always compared to their teammates. It’s the easiest reference point to gauge someone’s ability. However, to judge Albon against Verstappen in his debut F1 season is simply unfair. It can be argued that improvements should have been made in 2020, but confidence is a strange thing. After some tough races early on in the season, Albon seemed different.

He looked and sounded frustrated, stressed, worn out. It’s a stark contrast from the cheeky, easy-going Albon we saw during his early days at Toro Rosso. Even when he finally got that long-awaited podium at Mugello, he sounded relieved over the radio. Compare that to the elation of Gasly in Brazil 2019, Lando Norris in Austria this year or Esteban Ocon just a few weeks ago in Sakhir, who were all cheering and shouting to their engineers about their achievements.

Let’s also add that Albon is 24. He should be entering his prime years, but he’s set to spend a crucial season of his career on the sidelines. Ayrton Senna was 24 when he made his F1 debut, Alain Prost was 25! Yes, it’s very different nowadays, but the point remains, Albon is far too young for Red Bull to throw onto their ever-increasing scrap pile of rejected drivers.

Admittedly, keeping Albon at Red Bull for 2021 was pointless. Choosing Perez is the correct decision for the senior team, but Albon should have been placed at Alpha Tauri for 2021. Give him the chance to regain his confidence, to find his place, bring back that smile and see his true talents on track.

But there’s another problem with that, 20-year-old Yuki Tsunoda. The Japanese star finished third in his debut season in Formula 2, impressing everyone with his raw pace and race-winning ability. He took three victories, four poles and seven podiums on his way to third in his rookie year, just 15 points behind title winner and 2021 Haas driver Mick Schumacher.

Drivers don’t tend to take to Formula 2 as well as Tsunoda did. Since its rebrand to Formula 2 in 2017, only Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Lando Norris have graduated to F1 with just a year in the series, and all of these names are mega talents. Helmut Marko is reportedly very keen on Tsunoda and wanted him in F1 at all costs. Earlier this week he was confirmed to be joining Gasly at Alpha Tauri, leaving Albon without a 2021 seat.

Could they not have waited on Tsunoda? Another year in F2 wouldn’t kill his career, and Albon may find his form at Alpha Tauri. Red Bull could have used 2021 as a chance to pit Albon and Gasly against each other, to see which one of the two is worthy of another shot in the senior team. Perez could have been used as a temporary fix, with Red Bull promoting the most impressive of Albon or Gasly back to Red Bull for 2022, making space for Tsunoda.

By promoting Tsunoda, what do they learn about Gasly? He’s going up against a driver with no F1 experience, so we’ll find it difficult to see what his true pace is. And what will we learn about Albon with him in the background? Nothing, that’s what.

It’s sad to see, but Red Bull have dropped the ball on this one. Ever since Ricciardo quit for Renault, they’ve been desperately trying to find an immediate replacement, rather than give a driver time to settle and develop. Albon was always on the edge of being pushed out, and that undoubtedly affected his performance.

Now the task for Albon is to try and force his way back into Red Bull’s plans. However, that may be difficult. Red Bull have some promising youngsters set to be in Formula 2 in 2021. Jehan Daruvala struggled in the early part of this season but grew into the series and is set to stay with Carlin, whilst Juri Vips and Liam Lawson are also projected to join F2.

If any of those drivers perform like Tsunoda did in 2020, they could be ahead of Albon in the pecking order. Maybe the Thai driver should look elsewhere for a drive in F1, but with only 20 seats and so much talent around, that could also prove difficult. Perhaps Albon’s misfortune is a warning to the like of Tsunoda, Daruvala, Vips and Lawson. Hit the mark straight away, or you’re fired. Albon is just the latest victim of Red Bull’s swim or sink policy, and we can only hope that this talented young racer can find his confidence and bounce back.

Albon surely has what it takes to have success in F1. This isn’t suggesting he’ll win multiple races or titles, but he’s got talent, as we saw in 2019. Drivers are allowed to have tough seasons, and Albon should be given the opportunity to prove he still has what it takes in F1.

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