Alex Albon doesn’t need to beat Max Verstappen, or even push him hard every race weekend to be doing a good job for Red Bull this year. But while the team needs a number two driver performing the role Valtteri Bottas does for Mercedes, that doesn’t mean Albon’s yet delivered to the level required.
It’s always been difficult to evaluate the performance of the support act in big teams. Red Bull has Verstappen, a driver few doubt will be a multiple world champion given the right machinery, and Mercedes has Lewis Hamilton.
It’s logical that they are seen as the spearhead and it can be disruptive to place two big guns in the same team even if you are fortunate enough to sign two of them. But being a de facto number two driver isn’t just about being behind the leader, it’s a question of being close enough to be contributing. In Albon’s case alongside Verstappen, how do we tell if he’s doing enough?
It’s a phenomenally difficult task to be team-mate to one of F1’s greatest drivers of the time. Doubly so in a tricky-to-drive car that, as Red Bull has conceded, has had some problems with aero instability over the past couple of seasons. That’s something that also affected Albon’s predecessor, Pierre Gasly.
History is full of cases where the difference between a great driver and a good one has been stretched by a difficult car. In recent times, Stoffel Vandoorne’s F1 reputation suffered badly up against Fernando Alonso and, like Albon, he was constrained by an instability in the car that he struggled to drive around. The impact was so big that, after a promising first full F1 season in 2017, Vandoorne’s qualifying deficit of just under three-tenths grew to four tenths the following season.
Looking back further, Felipe Massa’s deficit to Alonso was at its biggest when Ferrari’s 2012 car was at its trickiest, while Heikki Kovalainen, a fine driver, was made to look mediocre by comparison to Hamilton as their time at McLaren (below) together went on. The examples are legion.
So what is enough? The comparison with Bottas at Mercedes is a good one and his average gap this year has been 0.130s to Hamilton – but there has been less than a tenth between them in qualifying on five occasions. Bottas is often heavily criticised, yet this is up against statistically the greatest qualifier in F1 history. Bottas sets a good standard, never quite good enough to be a title threat but plenty good enough to keep Hamilton under friendly pressure and bring home solid points for the team.
Albon’s qualifying gap to Verstappen is, on average, almost half-a-second – near as makes no difference the same as Gasly’s, who was a few hundredths slower over the first half of 2019. That is far too big and needs to be reduced but the signs are that it should go in the right direction. The underlying pace in recent weekends has been a little better than that, so the gap can feasibly start to close.
“Each car has its quirks and it’s just being confident really,” said Albon when asked about his improvement during the Tuscan Grand Prix weekend. “Once the confidence is there, the pace improves – it’s pretty simple like that.
“So it’s working with the team and getting comfortable with the car. Of course, at points you just have to get on with it and drive it and that’s where, obviously Max is very quick. He can drive a very loose, he can drive a very understeery car and he’s experienced as well.
“I’m still getting there. Spa and Monza already felt like a step forward with understanding what I need personally to go faster and it’s getting that consistently each weekend. The last few weekends consistently have been a step forward and that’s positive rather than a little bit of an up and down throughout the weekend or race to race.”
Realistically, an average gap of a couple of tenths is a decent long-term target for Albon and should allow him to back Verstappen up in the races effectively. This is important because if Red Bull is ever going to win the constructors’ title again, it will need its second driver to score heavily – historically that means at least at two-thirds the level of the team leader. Currently Albon is at 57%, but considering that’s distorted by Verstappen’s three retirements he’s not as close as he looks even though there have been a few questionable strategies used in races.
Albon will also need to be quick enough to take points off Verstappen’s future title rivals. So far, he’s not been able to be in the right position to do that and has too often been scrapping with Racing Points, Ferraris, McLarens and AlphaTauris. Since the middle of last season, when both Red Bull drivers have finished, Albon has been one place behind Verstappen just twice. That also needs to improve.
But what Red Bull has to recognise is how difficult it is to close this gap in a limited car and try to extrapolate the gap to a more benign one. When a great like Verstappen drives around the limit of the car, a lesser driver – even a very good one – will be further behind. And understanding how big that impact can be is key to Red Bull’s evaluation of Albon.
That perhaps explains why it has yet to confirm if Albon will remain in its A-team next season. Red Bull has the luxury of patience given it has plenty of drivers under contract and a few quality drivers with experience available outside of the scheme it could turn to if necessary.
But the bar Albon needs to clear isn’t that far from his gasp. In the short-term, qualifying within a quarter of a second or perhaps even three-tenths of Verstappen and finishing directly behind him regularly, even if a distance behind, should be enough – especially for a driver only in his second season. Given he’s already impressed the team with his attitude and approach, something it rightly or wrongly had question marks over with Gasly, that should be enough.
Then, given Albon will harbour ambitions of being top dog one day, once he’s reached the level of a good top-team number two he can consider pressing on.
It’s not easy, but when was life ever straightforward for those sharing the garage with drivers like Verstappen or Hamilton?