The second Red Bull seat comes with some of the highest expectations of any in Formula 1, expectations and standards that Alex Albon has so far been unable to live up to in 2020.
Red Bull has given Albon its loyalty for the whole season so far, and at the Portuguese Grand Prix team boss Christian Horner reiterated that the seat is Albon’s to lose – but has also suggested that the next two races will be major deciding factors when it comes to the choice of who should be alongside Max Verstappen next year.
“We need to have another tool to fight Mercedes and that’s why we really want both cars running at the front,” said Horner.
“Obviously, we’re getting to a point in the year where we’re going to need to make decisions, really within the next two or three weeks about our line-up for next year and our hope and desire is that Alex demonstrates and just grabs that seat by the scruff of its neck and owns it.”
Following a qualifying session where he ended up three places and half a second behind Verstappen, our writers give their verdict on Albon’s precarious situation – and whether it is already too late.
The writing is on the wall
It’s been pretty much spelt out by his team: Albon has this weekend and Imola to rescue his drive.
He has been rather more composed on track this weekend than at the last two events, but that was a mediocre qualifying effort.
Maybe if he’d not taken too much Turn 1 kerb on that final run, it might have been better. But sixth-fastest, 0.5s off his team mate and behind both a Ferrari and a Racing Point is not what the doctor ordered.
One of the slower cars that qualified ahead of him was driven by a driver without a contract for next year. At this rate, Albon might rescue George Russell’s 2021 drive rather than his own.
Frustrating flashes of potential
One of the reasons Red Bull has given Albon so long to try to piece things together is there have been flashes of potential, glimpses of the driver he needs to be, throughout the season.
But at this stage, all those ‘nearly’ moments just make his situation more frustrating.
There’s only so many times Red Bull can make excuses or accept mitigating circumstances for Albon failing to qualify fourth, and finish fourth, and be a decent rear-gunner for Verstappen.
This time, the unusual Algarve circuit created a weird qualifying session so there is an unusual variable at play, but it was there for everyone. He also felt unfairly impeded by Verstappen on one of his Q3 laps. But when it all shook out, Albon qualified half a second slower than his team-mate and got beaten by a Ferrari and a Racing Point.
That performance doesn’t justify a Red Bull seat, it does the opposite. He probably has 1.5 weekends left to save his drive, and sorely needs to do the job he’s been threatening to do all year but never quite managed.
There is still time
Say what you like about Red Bull, you can’t dispute the fact that it wants Alex Albon to succeed and make its 2021 driver line-up an easy choice even if you don’t like the way it has gone about it. The pressure on Albon is now public thanks to team principal Christian Horner saying it’s down to Albon to justify his place, particularly over the next two weekends.
While you can argue that’s not a supportive attitude, the approach the team took to Albon for more than a year was positive and encouraging. The tone has changed a little bit recently and it’s the right move to try a different tack. This is elite sport, it’s about delivering and by telling Albon that he needs to deliver now it’s piling on the pressure to see how he responds. After all, some respond superbly in such situations. The best drivers perform under the most intense pressure.
It’s a tough challenge, especially for a driver only in his second F1 season, but this is a difficult environment and there comes a time when you have to deliver. Albon has the potential to come together but his progress has stagnated recently despite making good underlying progress in the first half of the season.
Red Bull isn’t asking him to be Verstappen. Instead, it wants him to be about three-tenths off and able to nail down fourth place. Today, he was sixth and 0.533s off Verstappen – pretty much exactly on his seasonal average.
So it’s down to Albon to get his head down, turn in the quality of race drive we know he’s capable of, and make his case. It’s hard, but he’s trying to hang on to one of the four best seats in F1 – so of course it is. He can do it and there is still time to save his seat. The question is, will he?
More to F1 than just Red Bull
Albon’s current performance is what it is. There is zero reason for Red Bull to expect it will suddenly improve by a few tenths that’s needed.
The problem is, the recent history of that second Red Bull car almost certainly makes it impossible for the team to effectively benchmark Verstappen, or to assess the true performance of its car.
Such disparity between the two RB16s makes it hard to tell whether the designers have done a good job, or whether Verstappen is completely indispensable to the team – and slotting in known quantities like Nico Hulkenberg or Sergio Perez may at least help get a better read on that for the RB17. It would also help understand whether there’s some systemic issue at play.
Because, ultimately, Albon looked really good at Toro Rosso last year, and he looks no worse (many would say better) than Pierre Gasly did in the Red Bull alongside Verstappen. Yet, with AlphaTauri’s line-up looking all but settled, Albon could be out of grand prix racing after just two seasons.
The fact is, Gasly has blossomed into a thoroughly outstanding F1 driver at AlphaTauri this year. What that suggests is that, even if Red Bull gives up on Albon now, the rest of F1 should not. There’s certainly a team in the paddock he could still do a job for.
Release the pressure… on Red Bull!
In any other top team, a driver wouldn’t be able to keep his seat at the level of performance Alex Albon is showing relative to Max Verstappen.
Red Bull has a chance now to change direction for a couple of years, to release the pressure on itself.
Its junior scheme has produced an incredible conveyor belt of Formula 1-worthy talent over the years, but it’s going through a slightly fallow period right now, and it should be given time to get another bunch of stars ready.
The best way to take the pressure off the junior programme is to look outside of the Red Bull pool of drivers. Nico Hulkenberg has impressed standing in for Racing Point this year, Sergio Perez is currently on the market for 2021, and if he isn’t, that may mean George Russell will be instead (although likely with Mercedes contractual links).
Red Bull is fortunate that it has its own driver shortage just as F1 has more decent drivers than seats. Picking up an outsider to be a more reliable number two than Albon has managed to be so far is the logical move.
It doesn’t make sense to keep Albon in the seat out of some sort of loyalty to the Red Bull junior programme, because it dropped Albon from that years ago!
Who really calls the shots?
Red Bull needs two drivers top drivers that are nip and tuck with each other if it is to stand any chance of winning another constructors’ championship. As we all know, Max Verstappen is pretty decent week in, week out so as long as he has the equipment he will stick around.
That all means the pressure is on whoever is in the second car. Pierre Gasly had that pressure and now it’s Albon’s turn. I’m pretty sure he has had everything that Red Bull knows how to give him, but that has never been an arm around any of its drivers’ shoulders.
If your phone rings from Helmut Marko, it could mean anything and that’s the uncertainty that gets into a driver’s head. Albon doesn’t admit this, but I guarantee inside it is eating him up.
Lately, Christian Horner and Marko seem to be scrapping as to who makes the decisions within the Red Bull team and that will niggle at Albon’s confidence even more. Today, relative to Verstappen in Q1 he was +0.556s, Q2 he was +0.373s, Q3 he was +0.533 seconds slower – that is an average of +0.487s, which is probably a little worse than normal but in reality a lifetime to make up.
Yes, the major problem probably lies in the car but as Mercedes shows, if you have two top drivers in very similar cars one of them will always pick up where or when the other has a drop off. Albon needs to show he can do that and at the moment it doesn’t look like that will ever happen, so at least now he knows that the management (whoever that is between Marko and Horner) is now looking and expecting improvements very soon.