George Russell launched to Alex Albon’s defence after the Red Bull Formula 1 driver’s disappointing Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying session, saying his friend has “been made to look like an idiot”.
Russell and Albon, who was outqualified by the Williams driver, have a friendship that goes back to their childhood years in karting, and that bond led Russell to making an unexpectedly strong statement on Saturday at the Hungaroring when being quizzed about the qualifying outcome by Sky Sports F1.
“He’s one of the best drivers we all raced,” reckons Russell. “Max [Verstappen], Charles [Leclerc], all of us will say it, he’s always been at the front of everything he’s done.
“I don’t know what the hell is going on and I feel really bad for him because he’s been made to look like an idiot and he’s absolutely not.
“He’s won in everything he’s done, so I don’t know what’s going on, but they need to sort it out for him.”
Russell’s remarks haven’t landed well at Red Bull, where Verstappen suggests the Williams driver “doesn’t know anything about the team, so I think it’s better he focuses on his car and his performance instead of speaking for someone else”.
On a day when Albon was so convincingly outperformed by Verstappen, having been comprehensively beaten in the Styrian Grand Prix as well, Russell’s impassioned defence of his friend was understandable.
Whether it was the correct sentiment, however, is another matter.
“Understeer, oversteer, lack of grip. Not having a lot of top speed as well. Everything together just makes it slow” :: Max Verstappen
Saying that Red Bull’s making Albon look like an idiot suggests that Albon’s being stitched up, or there’s more Red Bull could be doing to help him.
Given this is a team that had ambitions of winning the championship this year, leaving Albon to struggle just doesn’t make sense.
Plus, he was eight tenths of a second slower than Verstappen when he got knocked out in Q2, and while Albon blamed traffic for playing a part in his struggle he is honest enough to acknowledge the role he played as well.
“I’m still not happy with my qualifying performance,” says Albon. “I definitely made a few mistakes and we would have been in Q3 if it wasn’t for that. But it’s not a top five where we should be.”
This is where Red Bull is letting its driver down, though.
The RB16 is clearly not a well-sorted car, as evidenced by Verstappen only qualifying seventh.
Verstappen paints a bleak picture: “Well, we just don’t have a good balance throughout the corner. Understeer, oversteer, lack of grip.
“Not having a lot of top speed as well. Everything together just makes it slow.”
Red Bull’s nervous car has been evident since pre-season testing but the hope was that the team would get on top of it, and a raft of upgrades were brought to the season opener as well.
Only that hasn’t helped, they haven’t all worked as planned, and now the team is using something of a mix-and-match of new parts.
Albon reckons it has improved the Red Bull slightly, but was left to bemoan a car that he cannot get to grips with. He was either holding back in his post-qualifying media briefing, or he and the team are genuinely lost as to what the problem is.
“We have various parts on the car from different stages,” says Albon. “We have been making the car better.
“If we were on top of it, we wouldn’t be where we are. So there is a case of still exploring.
“As soon as you get to that point where you’re close to having a moment, it just goes” :: Max Verstappen
“Clearly, our qualifying car trim wasn’t ideal and we’re still trying to figure out what we need on the car.
“There isn’t one thing, it’s not like the same thing over and over again.
“It’s just quite tricky to get the car into a quick window.
“It’s not been easy. I can tell you that. But the car is a work in progress.”
That tallies with Verstappen’s complaint of multiple problems at different stages. It is entirely consistent with a car that is on a knife-edge, one that swaps end without much (or any) warning for the driver.
Such a characteristic will not breed confidence for those behind the wheel, potentially inducing understeer if they are not active enough with the steering or triggering a slide or a spin if they try to attack a corner. And that is not isolated to this weekend.
“I’ve been spinning before, so it’s not like it only happens this weekend,” says Verstappen.
“Clearly so far this year it’s not been the easiest car to drive.
“A car’s never easy to drive because if you’re driving on the limit it’s always going to be easy to spin or lock up, because otherwise you’re not pushing.
“But clearly this one as soon as you get to that point where you’re close to having a moment, it just goes.
“Yeah, it’s just not easy to catch.”
This is no good for a driver like Albon who is only now starting his first full season with Red Bull, and will be exaggerated on a track like the Hungaroring where each sharp change of direction flows into another.
In which case, Red Bull should be making sure Albon has everything he needs to perform. And it’s fair to say in qualifying that was not the case.
Albon ended up at the back of the train of cars in Q2 despite requesting his team made sure that wasn’t the case. It led to him slowing right down at the end of his out-lap, barely starting his flier in time, and running quite close to Nicholas Latifi’s Williams ahead.
It was therefore little surprise that Albon had a small lock-up into Turn 1 and that marked the start of a poor lap. Albon uttered an irritated message over the radio shortly after it finished.
As much as Red Bull probably dropped the ball here, it’s also true that Albon didn’t really encounter any setback on the lap itself. It was just a bad lap, poorly prepared for.
And frustrating though the circumstances were, Albon’s mind should have been on maximising what he could. But it wasn’t, and he didn’t.
He could be heard almost tutting when Latifi emerged from his garage in front. Then at the end of the out-lap, as everybody backed up in the penultimate corner, he came back over the radio to complain: “Guys, why did we wait again?”
Red Bull didn’t put Albon in a good position, but Albon didn’t execute as well as he could have in the circumstances.
It would be grossly unfair for Albon to be judged squarely on his performances with a difficult car, and Red Bull needs to make sure it is operationally as effective as it can be – now more than ever, with its driver feeling pressured.
So as Russell says, Albon is probably being made to look worse than he is, because the car’s underperforming.
But this is something that both Red Bull drivers are having to contend with, and Verstappen is doing a better job. Albon’s inexperience will not be helping, but that’s just reality and the nature of elite competition.
Bad cars are part of F1 and unless there’s evidence of foul play, or Albon running in a significantly inferior specification, it’s too easy to pin the blame solely on the team.
Albon’s job is to get the maximum out of the car, Red Bull’s job is to help him achieve that. Neither is fulfilling their obligation to one another.
So, Albon’s not an idiot, and he’s not this slow. But to absolve him of any responsibility during a particularly tricky weekend would be an unfair and inaccurate conclusion.