Alex Albon’s British Grand Prix weekend looked poor on paper: 12th place in qualifying and eighth in the race while Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen finished second from third on the grid.
But on his first weekend working with new race engineer Simon Rennie, there were positive signs.
While Albon downplays the suggestion he’s struggled this season, it’s clear that there are problems to be overcome.
He’s only in his second year of F1 and up against an outstanding team-mate in Verstappen, but given the expectation level at Red Bull it’s clear that he needs to raise his game in order to ensure his stay with the team becomes a long one.
“With the issues that we currently have with the car, and an inexperienced driver like Alex, we felt that it was unfair on the race engineer to have that pressure” :: Christian Horner
He unquestionably has the ability to do that, pointing to the need to get more comfortable in an unpredictable and tricky car as the key to unlocking his potential.
“I don’t see it as struggling,” he said of his season after being eliminated in Q2 last Saturday.
“I feel like race one, we had a very strong race, race two we finished fourth and race three we finished fifth. If that’s struggling, then I’d be worrying about other things.
“With the first races, things haven’t gone our way and to be honest I’m not worried in the sense that I feel like it’s being tough or it’s going badly. It’s just tough in qualifying.
“On my side, I’m just focused on trying to get more comfortable with the car and extract the full performance this weekend.”
While Red Bull has backed Albon, even taking to attacking any criticism, the fact Rennie has replaced the less experienced Mike Lugg as race engineer is a clear sign that the team felt the need to take action.
Rennie has worked with Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Robert Kubica and Daniel Ricciardo in the past with great success, and after being in a factory-based role was brought back into trackside action last weekend.
“With the issues that we currently have with the car, and an inexperienced driver like Alex, we felt that it was unfair on the race engineer that was working with Alex, who was relatively inexperienced, to have that pressure, so brought Simon back into the front line for the rest of the season,” said Horner last Friday.
“Hopefully that experience, that knowledge, whilst we develop aggressively this car, will only help Alex because you have to understand for young drivers so many things are changing.
“Every time he gets in the car, it’s that little bit different. I think an experienced hand like Simon is definitely positive for him.”
FRIDAY: A PROMISING START INTERRUPTED
Friday practice started well for Albon, who made solid progress through FP1 and set the fourth-fastest time, albeit seven tenths of a second slower than Verstappen.
The ultra-fast middle sector proved to be his strongest, 0.663% off his team-mate, with the main losses in the slower first sector, where he was 0.933% down.
The main losses there were being a little too conservative at the Turn 4 left-hander, although he also had a messy run through Brooklands and Luffield on that lap.
On Friday afternoon, it was difficult to compare his qualifying simulation run pace to Verstappen given the latter didn’t get a proper lap in, but again the first sector was the main struggle as he ran wide at Turn 3 and struggled to keep the rear end under control at Luffield.
“Banging it in the wall was not going to do his confidence any good” :: Paul Monaghan
After that first lap he complained of mid-corner understeer, although he suggested this might have been down to the front tyres being cold. His general comment was “I still feel the car’s a little bit lazy”.
After aborting his second qualifying sim lap thanks to another Luffield moment, he went again and it was on this lap that the rear end gave up two-thirds of the way through the fast Stowe right-hander, pitching him into the wall.
“The rear went quite quickly and I struggled to collect it. I thought I had it, but you get the tank slapper as well,” said Albon.”
This was a big setback, but perhaps the consequence of asking too much of rear tyres that would likely have overheated and potentially lost their edge given the way that run panned out.
But overall there were signs of progress and the communications from Rennie, particularly on traffic, appeared to have the desired impact of being calm, clear and relaxed.
A problem after the rebuild ahead of the start of the session meant Albon didn’t hit the track until the closing stages of final practice thanks to a battery change, logging a total of 10 laps.
His first push lap was deleted thanks to exceeding track limits out of Copse, the result of understeer – something Albon confirmed with his feedback after the lap of “it was OK, just quite a lot of understeer in the high-speed corners”.
He aborted his second push lap after requesting to put for a front-wing flap adjustment to dial in a little more front end. He set his best time, a 1m27.178s on the first lap of that run, which put him only 12th but was his fastest lap of the weekend by that point. While a second off Verstappen, considering the FP2 crash and the loss of the first part of FP3, it was a solid session.
“Banging it in the wall was not going to do his confidence any good,” said Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monaghan later that day. “We got it rebuilt for him in a bit of a scrabble this morning, but the boys did a stunning job to get it rebuilt and then deal with our little hiccup.
“We got him out for a couple of runs so I suppose he got some running this morning as opposed to none before qualifying and the gain in terms of running to him is huge.”
Albon then fell in Q2 having set only the 12th-fastest time, which was a big disappointment. The gap to Verstappen in Q2 was 0.401s, but we also have to factor in Albon being on softs for his fastest lap whereas Verstappen used mediums so he had the advantageous starting tyre.
“If we could give Alex a better-balanced car then he’ll go stick it straight into Q3 without any bother, so I think the challenge lies more with us” :: Paul Monaghan
“It definitely didn’t help,” said Albon after qualifying when asked how big an impact the lack of track time was.
“Obviously, it’s a bit notorious, Silverstone, for the wind. But I don’t want to make any excuses of course, it’s tricky up there.
“We obviously missed a bit of track time coming into qualifying, which would have been pretty useful. Friday went pretty well. Obviously, we had the crash, but the pace was strong so I was pretty positive going into today but just struggled just a little bit with the change of balance and extracting the most from myself.”
That sounds like the usual racing driver excuses, but actually the wind change that impacted everyone in the second part of Q2 seems to have had a big impact on Albon’s weekend.
What was disappointing about Albon’s session was that he appeared not to progress as qualifying progressed, starting with a 1m26.643s on his first run in Q1 and finishing with a 1m26.545s on his final Q2 run – with the two laps in between those at a similar pace.
But the encouraging thing was that the underlying pace to make Q3 was there. Had he combined his three best sectors, the first and last sector on his second Q2 run and the middle sector from the previous run, he would have made the final stage of qualifying comfortably in seventh.
The losses in sector two were significant, putting him a massive 0.217s off his theoretical best, and largely appear to be down to the changing wind conditions at that time, which hindered many drivers.
The lap appeared to start to go wrong when he had to correct a rear-end slide at Luffield, although he was slower throughout the rest of that sector – one in which he’d usually been relatively strong given it was the slower corners that were causing trouble.
Even if he had been able to piece together the ideal lap, it would have still put him just under three tenths slower than Verstappen on a quicker tyre, but he’d have been in Q3 and potentially on for a starting position as high as the third row.
“You’ve got a low-speed corner in sector one and low-speed corner towards the end of sector three and the others demand quite different characteristics from the car,” said Monaghan.
“If we could give Alex a better-balanced car then he’ll go stick it straight into Q3 without any bother, so I think the challenge lies more with us than it does with Alex to be brutally honest with ourselves.”
The other encouraging aspect was the continued clear, concise and decisive calls from Rennie, with no repeat of Albon’s complaints about track position disadvantages.
Albon described the Rennie link-up as “working well” after qualifying and was confident about his race pace from 12th on the grid despite the fact his Friday crash meant he hadn’t completed a long run.
RECOVERY IN THE RACE
Race performances have been Albon’s forte ever since he joined Red Bull, but this time things went wrong for him. He wasn’t happy with his tyre temperature at the start, particularly the fronts – and it does appear that getting the front tyres in the right window is an area of weakness for him.
The move on Kevin Magnussen after the Haas driver clipped the raised kerb at Club and was pushed wide, allowing Albon to start to draw alongside through the flat-out final corner before being turned in on, ensured that Albon would not recover so easily in the race.
“We just need to have a straightforward boring weekend for him” :: Christian Horner
After lengthy conversations about the potential damage, during which Rennie warned the team was light on data from the front-left, Albon was left out but radioed in at the restart to report wheel damage.
That left him 17s off the back of the field and committed to a two-stop strategy. This was doubly damaging as it happened before he was hit with the five-second penalty for being deemed to have caused the Magnussen collision. This meant he had to serve the penalty at his second stop at the end of lap 30.
When he rejoined, Albon was 17th and last – 17s behind Nicholas Latifi and 28s off the top 10 with 22 laps left.
During that final stint, Albon passed six drivers – Williams pairing Latifi and George Russell, Alfa Romeo duo Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi, Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and Lance Stroll’s Racing Point. This added up to eighth place thanks to the fact Romain Grosjean pitted from in front of him after a marathon first stint and the tyre failures suffered by Carlos Sainz Jr and Valtteri Bottas.
Given the fact his race was badly impacted by the timing of the safety cars, the fact he had to pit after the first restart and the penalty he served that dropped him to the back, Albon’s race performance was a strong one.
If you take the average of the fastest 22 laps of every driver, Albon was the fastest and while that’s explained by the fact he was on a different strategy, it shows he was pressing on. And in doing so, he managed to catch and pass Stroll and Vettel who both had races that panned out on the orthodox strategy.
“I thought his recovery from there was excellent, we’ve seen it on numerous occasions his ability to come back to the field and his pace in the race was very good,” said Horner.
“We just need to have a straightforward boring weekend for him. But I thought today once again he’s driven a very strong grand prix.
“I hope with the ability to come and run the weekend here again effectively next weekend, I’m sure he’ll progress from there. I was very pleased with his performance today.”
The green shoots of recovery were there for Albon. While still limited by the unstable rear end of the Red Bull, primarily in the slower corners, the underlying pace is better than it looks.
If he can deliver that speed consistently and find a baseline, then he can start chipping away at the big gap to Verstappen.
What Albon needs in the upcoming 70th Anniversary Grand Prix weekend is a clean run throughout. The repeat visit to Silverstone is well-timed for him in terms of continuity and if he can avoid the mishaps, there’s an opportunity for things to come together better for him than they did last weekend – but qualifying will be key.
“This weekend is mainly just about getting more comfortable with the car and getting on top of it,” says Albon.
“The long-run pace is good, it’s just the short-run pace we need to work on.
“The good thing is that we have the same track this weekend, so we can directly compare what we learned and what we need to work on. We’ll try and get it dialled in and focus on the areas we struggled with last weekend.”
For Albon, that means finding a combination of the set-up sweet spot and building his own confidence to lean on a car that is a little unpredictable and capable of catching out no less a driver than Verstappen.
But it does appear to be a car that doesn’t offer that happy medium, with understeer a regular complaint for Albon during the weekend but perhaps necessary given the limitation of the rear.
“I wouldn’t say we put in understeer to make it safe,” said Albon when asked by The Race about the set-up approach.
“Obviously we just want to be as optimal as possible with a car and there’s definitely places, especially with tail winds where when you are on the edge of the rear, already it does make it more difficult when you have a tail wind or anything like that.
“It’s just trying to get the balance a bit more consistent through speed types and corner types. That’s where my focus is.”
If he can find that balance, Albon has the pace to be closer to Verstappen than he has been so far.
If he can combine that with attacking race drives while perhaps minimising his tendency to get involved in incidents, having had contact with other cars in three of the first four races in 2020, then we will finally start to see Albon’s prodigious ability shine through.