Alex Albon has suffered enough career setbacks to know how to handle them, even though the blow dealt by Red Bull at the end of 2020 was the worst one yet.
Losing his seat at one of Formula 1’s leading two teams to Sergio Perez came as little surprise given the difficulties of Albon’s season alongside Max Verstappen.
“I want it more than anyone on the grid” :: Alex Albon
But given Red Bull’s recent tendency to give drivers extra chances, and the fact he has been retained in a reserve and development role so will be in the coalface at Red Bull all season in 2021, his optimism at finding a seat again in 2022 might not seem misplaced.
“I’ve been through this kind of situation many times in my racing career, so it hasn’t been all that bleak,” Albon says, joining written media for the first time since the news of his demotion last December.
“There haven’t been any violins in the background, it’s more just been about getting back into it.
“I’m confident in myself, I know I can bounce back. And that’s my target.
“What I learned was, at the end of the day, how much do you want it?
“I want it more than anyone on the grid. And with that comes a lot of determination. And I won’t stop at any point.
“It’s just about putting my head down. I got through it before. I’ve been able to get to where I am, because of all the hard work that I have done.
“I want that seat back.”
Albon’s determination is laudable. Not for the first time, it’s easy to sympathise with his situation and maybe even will him on.
He has an endearingly relentless ability to shove negativity aside and look ahead, rather than mope around picking over a particular misfortune.
This quality of Albon’s, so well-liked by Red Bull, was tested time and time again last year, and it looks like 2021 will be much the same thing.
Being demoted to reserve driver rather than placed in a race seat back at the sister team, AlphaTauri, he had left just over a year earlier means Albon now faces a year out of grand prix racing.
He has little more than simulator work, the odd tyre test and some Ferrari GT3 outings in the new-look DTM series on his horizon.
Meanwhile, Red Bull’s four seats are occupied by an F1 mega-talent (Verstappen), a couple of hungry, leading midfield drivers who became race winners in 2020 (Perez and Pierre Gasly), and a highly-rated rookie (Yuki Tsunoda, joining Gasly at AlphaTauri).
“They would have got rid of me, let’s be truthful, if they didn’t believe in me” :: Alex Albon
Albon’s entire F1 career revolves around an initial Red Bull reprieve, having been dropped by the programme way back in 2012. It’s difficult to see where his third chance will come from.
“Obviously, there’s no actual driving,” he admits. “Unless something happens. I’ve got the DTM gig, which I will do to the best of my ability. And on top of that, the team know what I’m capable of.
“They would have got rid of me, let’s be truthful, if they didn’t believe in me.
“So, on my side I know they still trust me, they still have faith in what I can do. And we just have to see how things work out during this year and going into next year.”
Albon craves another crack at F1 and says he would take a seat at AlphaTauri again if that’s what it took. That’s a change in tone from late last year when he had zero interest in that demotion (as it would have been at the time). But beggars can’t be choosers and Albon is in a situation where his fate is not his to control.
To his credit, he knows that. He knows that his responsibility is to play the development and reserve driver roles dutifully and effectively. That means working hard on the simulator when, at the factory, a process that has already begun in trying to inform the 2021 RB16B as well as possible, and it means soaking up everything in a race weekend environment when he is at grands prix.
Then there are two hurdles. The first is whether Albon can actually, in that position, prove he has addressed what caused Red Bull to bench him in 2021.
The second is whether there is even a seat for him should Red Bull decide he’d be worth giving another chance to.
Off-track he can prove he is a committed, hard worker with a great attitude and a likeable personality. He is already showing that with a response to being dropped that has drawn public praise from Red Bull’s superiors.
“Something I’ve carried with me since a very early age is ‘what can I do right now that gives me a better chance or is beneficial to me?’” he says.
“And the way I see it is that if you do wallow around [in self-pity], you’re not doing anything to open any doors or to get a seat back.
“So, I think you just have to put yourself in a position where [you’re thinking], what can you do as a driver to give you the best opportunity?
“And to me that was obviously to get straight back into it and not to be negative.”
But Albon’s ‘bouncebackability’ and character were not the traits Red Bull doubted last year. He was an inconsistent qualifier and, in the second half of the season, not the most convincing racer either.
Though he protests that the general trend of his 2020 was improvement, this was not truthfully the case vs Verstappen. It was only in the final weekend in Abu Dhabi where Albon made a noticeable and significant leap compared to his team-mate – and, lo and behold, that manifested itself in the wingman performance Red Bull had been waiting all season for.
Unfortunately for Albon, as he now acknowledges, that was too late to save his drive. The real problem is he can only prove that was a breakthrough not a one-off if he gets behind the wheel of a top F1 car again. And to do that he needs to find a way to prove to Red Bull the shortcomings he had last year have been, or are being, addressed.
It’s difficult to judge whether Albon’s capable of that from the outside. Last year he often struggled to properly articulate his problems with the unruly RB16, especially once Verstappen got a handle on it and Albon continued to struggle to break out of the midfield group.
Now, harsh as it may sound, he doesn’t sound all that convincing when he talks about Red Bull’s decision to drop him.
The drivers who respond best to setbacks like this tend to do two things: accept the decision rather than resent it; understand why it was made so they can learn from it.
Albon certainly doesn’t hold the decision against Red Bull and he isn’t criticising how long it took, or the fact he ended up on the sidelines rather than back at AlphaTauri: “The decision was late because the choice was late as well. It was there to see how the year would progress, and things were going better but obviously it was still a little bit too late.
“A lot of that is down to timing really, because obviously Yuki’s had a very strong year last year as well so I can understand why it was the way it was.
“There’s no hard feelings with that side of it.”
But does Albon know, truly, why he wasn’t able to do what he needed to do on-track to avoid that decision? While it might just be his forward-looking mentality, he still seems unwilling – or unable – to discuss the cause or extent of his underperformance.
Asked if Red Bull made the right decision, Albon was understandably hesitant to answer, before settling on: “Honestly, it’s not really my decision. I feel like, of course, I’m disappointed in it.
“There is no secret that it was a difficult car. It was a difficult season for me last year.
“You have to take it. Really my response is more, not so much thinking about ‘why this?’ and ‘why that?’, it’s more ‘what can I do now to get back into it and fight again?’.”
Albon’s at-times unconvincing account casts some doubt over whether he has the answer.
That might seem a harsh takeaway but Albon’s hunger for another shot at F1 needs more substance than just desire and positive thinking. Some of his answers this week were consistent with moments last year when, at his least convincing alongside Verstappen, he admitted to simply not knowing why things were going so badly.
He did buck that trend with his final answer. While there was still a degree of blaming other factors, there was also some detail – more of that necessary substance – that made Albon’s confidence more believable.
“Firstly, I think I was slightly down on experience,” he says when asked by The Race which weaknesses from last season he will try to correct this year, and how.
“That’s one thing which I can say. It felt like during the year working with my engineer we were just getting an understanding of what needed to be done to get the performance out of it. And that was just an ongoing process.
“It felt like things were definitely clicking more and more towards the end of the year, maybe some results weren’t great, but the general path was improvement.
“I won’t be in the car as much this year but what I can do is learn, firstly.
“I will be able to track every race so I can at least understand from an engineering side how the team operates on a more in-depth scale.
“But also, it was just about being on top of the car because it wasn’t an easy car last year, and part of me knows for a fact if I could be able to be more comfortable with it the performance would have been much stronger.
“That’s kind of what I’m doing right now, for this RB16B. It is about making the car better and that’s been a lot of the stuff that I’ve been doing over the winter.”
As for who Albon might return to F1 with should he prove himself worthy, he says “the goal” is Red Bull, either back in the seat Perez has taken or in one of the two AlphaTauri spots.
But a Red Bull Racing seat relies entirely on Perez underwhelming and not earning a longer stay with the team, and Albon then being front of the queue rather than Gasly or Tsunoda.
And an AlphaTauri drive depends on either Gasly or Tsunoda replacing Perez at Red Bull, or leaving to join another team. In Gasly’s case, it isn’t the wildest theory. But it’s still a situation outside Albon’s control.
“We’ll have to see,” Albon says about looking beyond Red Bull for a drive.
“I think by the summer break, you kind of understand how things are playing out.
“Until that point the full effort is with Red Bull, and we’ll see how it goes.”