Ten months ago, Alexander Albon believed his childhood dream of becoming a Formula 1 driver was over. This weekend, in what has been a remarkable turn of events in a whirlwind 2019, he is driving a Red Bull at the Belgian Grand Prix.
Back in October last year, the British-born 23-year-old, who races under the flag of Thailand, had signed a deal to race for the Nissan team in 2019 in the all-electric Formula E series, after accepting that he had lost his battle to make it to F1.
Then came a phone call from Red Bull adviser Helmut Marko – who in 2012 had dropped Albon from the drinks company’s junior-driver programme – to say he wanted him to drive for their junior team Toro Rosso.
His F1 ambitions alive again, Albon was extricated from his Formula E contract, secured the Toro Rosso drive and set himself on the course that will see him line up for the rest of the season as Max Verstappen’s team-mate in a car that has won two of the last four grands prix.
“Twelve months ago, I was fighting for a seat in F1, and now I’m here,” Albon says. “It’s nuts.
“It is quite laughable when I look back at it. The first thing I did was call my mum and dad. It was a journey we all took. From as early as 2012, I don’t think my career has been very, er, fluid, let’s say.
“I’ve had a few ups and downs and just to be in this position has been incredible. There are a lot of drivers who have done an amazing job in F1 and have never been given the opportunity of being in a race-winning, championship-winning team. So it is a big opportunity for me and I really know that.”
As for how excited he is, he says: “It’s a 10 for excitement, but the nerves are quite high as well.”
Albon’s big break comes at the expense of Pierre Gasly – the Frenchman has swapped seats with Albon, demoted back down to Toro Rosso, after a disappointing first part of the season, in which he has usually been a long way off Verstappen.
How did it end up this way?
Albon’s dreams of making it to F1 seemed to have died a slow death – from being a big name in karting, a World Cup winner in 2010 and a rival of Verstappen to being picked to be part of the Red Bull young driver programme, then dumped by the ruthless Marko after one season in car racing.
Albon moved on from that to finish runner-up to team-mate Charles Leclerc – now at Ferrari – in GP3 in 2016. But after an up-and-down debut season in Formula 2 in 2017, as Leclerc stormed the title, Albon only just managed to secure a second F2 season in 2018.
That was for the French Dams team. They were impressed by Albon as he raced to third in the championship behind Britain’s George Russell and Lando Norris and offered him the place in Formula E, where Dams run the Nissan programme.
He admits now that he thought his chances of making it to F1 were over.
“Yeah, it was a little bit like that,” he says. “When you sign for Formula E, it was a bit like, ‘Ah, OK, I didn’t get the opportunity [in F1] but I’m really happy to be in Formula E; it is pretty much the next biggest thing for a single-seater driver.’ And that’s when the call [from Marko] came.”
And what did it feel like to finally get the big break he had always wanted?
“It was, not weird, but it was, let’s say, a rocky path to F1, especially the beginning of last year.
“At the start of 2018, it looked like nothing was going to happen, even to race in F2, never mind to race in F1. So in eight months it went from just managing to race in F2, first race, second race, and then this opportunity here. It was pretty immense. A bit of a shock. Just kind of like: ‘We did it!'”
Why Albon and not Kvyat?
Albon found out about his promotion to Red Bull in a meeting with Marko on 12 August. He went to Austria thinking it was a regular mid-season catch-up, only to be told their plans. “It was one of those things,” Albon says. “‘Oh by the way, this is what’s going on.’ You guys knew only an hour after I did.”
At the start of this season, both he and his erstwhile team-mate Daniil Kvyat – both of whom have at one stage been axed by Marko – were beneficiaries of the fact that a hole had appeared in the Red Bull young driver programme.
The company had been somewhat caught on the hop by Daniel Ricciardo’s move to Renault – leaving two gaps to fill in the junior team after Gasly’s ill-fated promotion and the sacking of New Zealander Brendon Hartley.
After the first half of the season, on the face of it, some will be surprised that it is Albon who has now been chosen to replace Gasly rather than Kvyat.
After all, Kvyat is much more experienced, has 27 points to Albon’s 16, has made it into final qualifying three times to Albon’s two and scored a surprise podium in the chaotic German Grand Prix.
But it actually makes sense. Kvyat, after all, has already been demoted or dropped by Red Bull in F1 a number of times, and he is into his fifth F1 season. So for Albon to come in raw and match him for pace, as he has done, is highly impressive.
And while Germany may have been Kvyat’s stand-out race in terms of results, in fact Albon out-classed him – and Gasly, for that matter, despite the Frenchman’s faster car – that day.
Albon was a considerable distance ahead of Kvyat for the vast majority of the race in the challenging wet conditions and lost out only because Kvyat made a late stop for dry-weather tyres at exactly the right moment, vaulting him up to second, which became third when he was passed by Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari.
Albon ended up sixth, but was running fourth at the time of the final safety car, behind only Verstappen and the two Mercedes, having briefly battled with Lewis Hamilton – an outstanding performance in a Toro Rosso.
On top of that, while Kvyat and Albon were tied 6-6 in qualifying after 12 races, Albon has been ahead on the grid for four of the past five races, and lined up a superb ninth in Silverstone, suggesting he is beginning to build a head of steam.
A quick learning process
Albon – who still lives with his mum, three sisters and brother in Milton Keynes, and does the school run for his younger siblings when he is there – says it has taken time to feel completely at home in F1.
“I’m still finding my feet in F1,” he says. “I’m not starting from the beginning, but I’ve got to find out what the car is like to drive, how the team works and learn everything. There are parts I can bring with me from Toro Rosso, but there are other parts that will be new.”
He is an exciting driver to watch. He has an attacking style, but there is a lovely fluidity to the car’s movements when he is on a roll.
“These cars, they have so much downforce,” he says. “Stability isn’t really what I like in a car. I don’t mind it moving around but that’s not always the quickest way to have a car. I like a lot of front in the car; just understanding the amount I can get away with has been quite important.”
Was he aware that he had made a very positive impression halfway through his debut season?
“Not really. I don’t look at everything outside. My mum does. But not really. I don’t like looking at that.”
“I don’t need to. I guess you can look at critics but in the end the people I get advice from are in the team, fans or my engineers or stuff like this. I know what I need to work on personally and I don’t need the external world to… It’s distracting and the world is quite opinionated.”
And now the big time – but is he Thai or British?
The move to Red Bull means Albon will have to cope with a lot more external opinions, and the stakes just increased by multiples.
It is the opportunity of a lifetime, but as befits such a chance, it won’t be easy. Apart from Hamilton, Verstappen is probably the toughest yardstick in F1, Albon has to adapt instantly to a new car, and Marko will expect him immediately to exceed Gasly’s level and start to mix it with the other top teams, and boost Red Bull’s chances of beating Ferrari to second in the constructors’ championship.
On top of that, this is sink-or-swim – do well, and Albon will be in a Red Bull next year. Fail, and that F1 chance will likely have passed him by almost as soon as it has been revived.
On the face of it, Spa is not exactly an ideal place to start. It’s one of F1’s most daunting circuits, a true-blood classic, steeped in history and with a succession of demanding, high-speed corners. But Albon has always gelled with high-speed circuits, as he proved at Silverstone.
“I like medium and high-speed stuff,” he says. “It always treats me well.”
He adds: “I love the track at Spa. The conditions can be mixed, but I think I want that in a weird way. I wouldn’t mind a race like Germany again.
“It will be baby steps, really. We’ll build the blocks and then just do our jobs. I will take each session as it comes and see where that leads us for each race.
“I know it’s a step-by-step process, and it will be like that for the rest of the year. It’s not going to come straight away, but I do want results.”
Going up against Verstappen, who has been outstanding for the past 15 months or so, is a big ask, but Albon already has experience of that. They raced against each other in karting in 2010.
“We did the World and European championships together,” Albon said on Thursday, omitting to mention that he won both. “We had a few crashes together. We had a good rivalry going. Max was the young guy, and I was the experienced one. Which is a bit weird. I am a bit older than Max, but he is more experienced in F1. We had some good races.”
The need to be right on it in qualifying pace is lessened to a degree this weekend because he has a grid penalty after a Honda engine upgrade, which means he will be starting from the back, but the scale of his ambition is clear from his response to whether that lessens the pressure.
“You could say so, yeah,” Albon says. “We just go into the weekend more focused on the race pace, which also means more laps. That will be the target. And that feeling straight away into qualifying, it will be a different atmosphere. I would still like to have given it a go and see how I would have done and tried to start further up than I will be.”
Finally, then, how should people refer to him? Is he Thai or British? The full answer is: both.
Albon races under a Thai licence, and Toro Rosso have been pushing hard on that side of his identity for promotional reasons this year. But many people consider him effectively British.
He has a British father – the former touring car racer Nigel Albon – and a Thai mother, Kankamol. He was born in London, has spent much of his life in the UK, and has been supported throughout his career by the British Racing Drivers’ Club, which last year gave him its President’s Award for outstanding achievement.
Albon himself says the distinction is more of an issue for others than himself.
“I see media trying to put me on one side or the other,” he says. “My mum’s Thai, my dad’s British. There’s not really a leaning towards either. In motorsport you can only choose one licence and I chose Thai. I see a lot of ‘London-born Thai’. That’s fine.”
How to follow the Belgian GP on the BBC
BBC Sport has live coverage of practice, qualifying and the race across the BBC Sport website with updates on BBC Radio 5 Live, plus live digital coverage on the BBC Sport website and app – including audience interaction, expert analysis, debate, voting, features, interviews and audio content.
You can follow all the action and the latest news on the BBC Sport F1 page and via the BBC Sport app, and catch up with analysis and interviews with the BBC Radio 5 Live Chequered Flag podcast.
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