Alex Albon’s grace period with the harshest of Formula 1 critics is over. The enduring brilliance of Max Verstappen is masking Red Bull’s struggles and Albon is now in the firing line as the chief victim of the team’s worse-than-expected start to the 2020 season.
There’s an easy, lazy argument to make for that. Verstappen has won a race, finished on the podium at every grand prix he’s finished, and is second in the championship. Albon’s still searching for a podium, has a best result of fourth and is only sixth in the points, behind a Racing Point and a Ferrari.
“They’re always going to be talking about the Red Bull second seat. That’s almost an inevitability” :: Alex Albon
The spotlight intensified as the first six races developed because Verstappen’s performances made the Red Bull’s early, obvious weakness look fixed. It appears as though Verstappen’s on the march while Albon’s been left behind. So the questions began to pile up – including those about Albon’s future, and whether Red Bull would allow this to continue.
“I think it’s just the way racing is,” Albon tells The Race. “I think it’s never going to change. I see they’re always going to be talking about the Red Bull second seat. I think that’s almost an inevitability.
“I don’t think it’s even so much coming from Red Bull it’s just coming from the perception of Red Bull kind of being Red Bull. Which I think is unfair.
“You read stuff but then you know what’s really going on and there’s no kind of…Yeah, it’s just different.
“It’s new, obviously, I haven’t been under fire in my racing career until pretty much the last few races.
“It’s been OK. At the end of it, everyone’s going to talk, that’s kind of expected. I’m guessing especially with lockdown and everything, there’s always going to be a bit more talk than other times.
“But it’s OK, I just get on with it really.”
Albon is in conversation with The Race a few days before a difficult and disappointing Spanish Grand Prix that was probably his toughest Sunday of the season and represented a weekend that flipped his 2020 form on its head.
Up until now his problem has been qualifying worse than he should and then putting in feisty Sunday drivers to get back to where he should be.
At Barcelona, it was the opposite, a sixth-place start that was further from Verstappen than he’d like in terms of pace but was perfectly acceptable in terms of position for a car that flirts with being third-best depending on the form of the Racing Point.
What did for Albon that Sunday was getting stuck at Turn 1 when Valtteri Bottas had to back up mid-corner, then a combination of high degradation and curious Red Bull strategy condemning Albon to a race out of sync and in traffic.
So, not for the first time with Red Bull, let alone his wider career, Albon finds himself looking to bounce back. This weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix is a good opportunity to do that as Spa is the first race venue Albon is returning to as a Red Bull driver, following his mid-season promotion in 2019.
That race characterised a chunk of what Red Bull likes about Albon that it ran out of patience with in his predecessor Pierre Gasly: where Gasly would get stuck, Albon cracks on.
Barcelona aside, that has continued this year as well. He has been emphatically second-best to Verstappen in qualifying and that makes his life harder than it needs to be, but he has recovered on Sundays almost without exception.
“It’s kind of just putting it past you and moving on,” says Albon. “I think to me at least there’s never been an issue. Obviously Saturdays, you can be disappointed, I think that’s normal. But Sunday is a chance to reset and go again.
“That’s kind of how it’s been. I think we have a good car on a Sunday, a very strong car, so that always helps a little bit. But I feel I can rebound pretty well.
“Racecraft-wise I’m happy with how I’m doing, I feel like races in general have been strong. We’re not really where we want to be as a team on Saturdays. But Sundays the car starts a little bit nicer to drive in, and we can feel a bit more on top of it.
“To me, it hasn’t been that negative at all, that’s the way I see it. My way of dealing with it is almost like, well, when I really think about it, and put the results where they are, it’s not been a bad year so far.
“We were fighting for a win in race one, obviously didn’t quite work out [contact with Lewis Hamilton over second place] and we had a bit of luck with the strategy but we were there on merit, we did the right things. And we’ve had good Sundays when we’ve gone through the pack.”
“You have to ignore the talk, all the background noise. You have to have your own self-belief that what you’re doing is right” :: Alex Albon
Rebounding is something Albon’s had to do more than he’d like in 2020. But there was a time where his current pace deficit to Verstappen wouldn’t be as much of a problem, and that time was last year. Actually, any year since the current generation of high-downforce cars were introduced in 2017.
Albon is off the pace by an extra 0.95% compared to Verstappen, which puts him behind two Racing Points, two McLarens and a Ferrari. But in 2017, 2018 or 2019, he’d still be sixth-fastest with that deficit. Quite comfortably, as it happens.
Verstappen is only 0.103% clear of Sergio Perez, and he’s never had a ‘midfield’ car within 1% over a season before.
So, we can draw two simple conclusions: yes, Albon’s got to reduce his pace deficit to Verstappen. But Red Bull’s competitiveness vs the opposition means the gap between him and Verstappen is being filled by multiple drivers who haven’t been this close in previous years.
Without that breathing space, everything is complicated. And it’s very easy to overlook how good Verstappen is. Yes, what he’s capable of is a good reflection of how fast the Red Bull actually is and of course Albon needs to aspire to that level. But Verstappen is excellent at adapting around imperfections, is vastly more experienced than Albon and is one of the very best drivers in F1.
It would not only be unfair to expect Albon to be at Verstappen’s pace, it would be wholly unrealistic. There will be an inherent deficit – maybe 0.2%, 0.3% or 0.4%, and that’s all Red Bull really needs of its second driver when Verstappen is the main man. Albon will need to do more to convince others of his top-tier pedigree but right now halving his gap is a sensible target.
If that’s achieved, even that gap will keep Albon in a genuine qualifying fight with a couple of traditional midfield cars. The fact is over one lap Red Bull’s RB16 is not a clear second-best. Verstappen just makes it look that way.
“I think you can always stress yourself,” says Albon.
“Our careers, our performances, are always done by the stopwatch and also by comparisons from your team-mates so it’s very much about focusing on yourself and looking at your own improvements, looking at areas you want to improve in the car and feel more comfortable.
“That’s where you have to ignore the talk, all the background noise. You have to have your own self-belief that what you’re doing is right and we are making steps.
“And that’s it really, you’ve just to just take your version of how everything’s going and focus on the areas you want to work on.
“In previous years there’s always been that very normal thing where there have been the top three teams and then everyone below it. Now it’s pretty much you’ve got Mercedes, and then everyone else in that sense.
“Of course with Racing Point making a huge step forward, they’re up there, they’re extremely fast.
“So it is very tight in that kind of second phase. Of course that’s when you got to be close to your team-mate, you’ve got to make the most of your car because times are tight now. It just means that we have less headroom.”
None of this means Albon’s allowed to coast, or shouldn’t be under any pressure, or can continue at this level for the rest of the season. He has one of the worst records against his team-mate on the grid, being beaten in every qualifying session and every race both have finished, with just 42% of the points (only Sebastian Vettel at 36% and Daniil Kvyat at 14% have worse).
He’s working on developing a thick enough skin to cope with the public learning process he’s going through
All this serves to do is highlight the true context he’s operating within. It’s very easy to forget Albon’s only a second-year driver. The fact Red Bull committed to a major change by replacing his race engineer shows the blame’s not being put squarely on Albon – there’s a recognition, internally, that he’s perhaps not had everything he needed to improve.
“When you look at Red Bull, how they work and operate, it’s super impressive,” says Albon.
“I wasn’t experienced and I’m still learning right now. It’s kind of bringing that through and learning and even now I have Simon [Rennie as race engineer], I’m still learning about things about F1, about the tyres, about set-up. There are so many things you can change in a Formula 1 car. And it’s almost establishing which direction you want to go, which area is going to fix it.
“It’s that communication with the guys that’s really what’s going to get you going in the right way. So, yeah, there’s not really any secret sauce or recipe to it.”
It’s also worth remembering that Albon’s preparation for his first full Red Bull season was three days at a chilly Barcelona before the season was parked for four months. When it did start, the goalposts had been moved by Mercedes and Red Bull’s car wasn’t as good as people hoped.
Trying to play catch-up while still learning how to make the most of the equipment is not an easy process. It should not be underestimated just how many tools there are in a modern F1 car – tools that Verstappen is well on top of, and Albon is still learning.
“We’ve done winter testing, we’ve had four months break, and then we’ve kind of come into the car again – and the car that we’ve jumped into is completely different to the car in winter testing,” Albon says.
“Each team, despite not doing a lap, has evolved their car from winter testing which is weird, but amazing at the same time. So you’re driving around with a different car.”
Returning to the scene of pre-season testing so long ago seemed to be producing a turning point for Albon, as the Spanish GP weekend was a gradually more impressive affair until the race.
He says that he’s been missing a “rhythm” through qualifying, an evolution of getting quicker and quicker. It’s been apparent almost all season long and perhaps most obvious at Silverstone where he switched from used mediums to new softs in Q3 and barely improved.
In Spain, he was getting closer and closer to Verstappen through the weekend and although he didn’t quite hook it up in qualifying, where he should have been around 0.4s behind his team-mate, it was at least a more acceptable showing.
It also included a bit of elbows-out in Q2 when he refused to sit behind a train of cars and instead muscled past a couple of drivers on his out-lap to ensure his track position was secured. The lap that followed wasn’t that tidy but it was still an improvement and without it he wouldn’t have made it to Q3. These small details go unregistered by a lot of people but they will add up to making Albon’s life a lot easier.
Albon’s critics jumped on his Spanish GP performance and either gave very little acknowledgment to the trying circumstances of his race, or deliberately misinterpreted them. Barcelona is a bad track for these cars and demands drivers are a second, maybe 1.5s, faster to actually overtake.
The Red Bull’s 1.5s quicker than very few cars in race trim. Still, Albon pulled off a couple of strong passes.
The aftermath of that race was trickier, and he cut a frustrated and perplexed figure in the immediately following the grand prix. But there’s no doubt he has the mental strength to resist a negative spiral, even though it would be easy to give in to the external criticism and be defeated.
“You pick up the phone, it’s going to be there,” he says of the negative feedback. “So, there’s not much you can do. But it’s very much working with the team, working with my crew, but also with the factory as well.
“There’s obviously areas that we want to work on, and areas that you don’t feel as comfortable in the car or just not quick enough, but that’s the only focus. At least, I really don’t care about what the other stuff is going on around.”
It’s not uncommon for drivers to develop a ‘me against the world’ mentality when things aren’t going to plan. That approach can have benefits, but also drawbacks – the last thing a driver struggling needs to do is bury their head in the sand.
“We want boring races” :: Alex Albon
Albon endeared himself to Red Bull on the basis that he has a greater capacity to acknowledge a shortcoming and work on it. In the meantime, he’s working on developing a thick enough skin to cope with the public learning process he’s going through.
There is enough evidence in Albon’s demeanour and attitude, and flashes of performance on-track, to believe that a breakthrough is coming. He knows he needs it. “We want boring races,” he jokes.
Achieving that will require Albon to finally piece together a complete weekend, which must come sooner rather than later. A stronger qualifying will ask less of him in the race, and give the team, journalists and critics less to quiz him on as well.
Until then, a question mark will remain over his place at Red Bull. Albon has the resolve to end that debate, the big question is whether he has the fundamental ability needed to back it up.
Driver and team believe so, that’s why he’s being given every opportunity to improve. But it’s down to Albon to do that before time runs out.