There can be no credible criticism of the calibre of the three drivers who made their grand prix debuts in Melbourne. The junior careers of Alex Albon, Lando Norris and George Russell are stellar, with titles and multiple race wins in recognised frontline career series littering their CVs.
Toro Rosso’s Albon, the oldest of the trio at 22, has perhaps the most impressive karting pedigree, he won world and European karting titles, was a serial winner in GP3 and an outside title contender in last year’s FIA F2 Championship. He’s been on and off the Red Bull junior programme and more than once faced career oblivion, not knowing where the next drive was coming from. But he hung on long enough that Dr Marko eventually arranged to have him released from a contracted Formula E programme with Nissan to be Pierre Gasly’s replacement at the junior Formula 1 team.
Norris, just 19, has had a more securely funded career path that has been planned with meticulous purpose, but he has delivered all the way. The youngest driver ever to win the karting world championship (at 14), he won nine races in his European F3 season as well as the title and, like Albon, was a contender for the 2018 F2 title up until the final round. McLaren has had him under contract for two years and he made a few toe-in-the-water Friday practice appearances in the latter part of last year, impressing by generally outpacing Stoffel Vandoorne and comparing very closely on pace with Fernando Alonso.
So keen was Williams to sign Mercedes young driver Russell, now 21, that it did so over and above several highly competent and experienced drivers who could bring a budget. He, too, is a multiple title winner, from karts (he won the 2011 CIK FIA European KF3 Championship), through to cars (BRDC Formula 4 and GP3 champion). He got his first taste of F1 with Mercedes at the Hungaroring in 2017, following up with a couple of late-season FP1 sessions with Force India that year. In the midst of beating Norris and Albon to last year’s F2 title, he set the unofficial fastest F1 time around the Hungaroring during another test with Mercedes.
You get the idea: these are serious talents and potentially exciting additions to the F1 grid. We followed each of them through their Melbourne weekend as they made their F1 debuts proper.
They know each other well and are friendly; Russell and Albon even went out for dinner together in Melbourne on Wednesday evening, compared notes on how brutal the high-speed grip of these cars felt in Barcelona testing, and reassured each other that it wasn’t just them.
Born: March 23, 1996
Technically, Albon is Thai, like his mother, as that is the nationality of his racing licence. But he was born in London and his father (former BTCC racer Nigel Albon) is British. He is perhaps the most open of the three, the one with least media training.
Quite shy, but very friendly, he’s seemingly happy to talk to anyone for any length of time if they engage. He’s the least at ease in the spotlight, but it’s coming; in the last year or so his public confidence has really come on, according to those who know him. He’s very likeable, quick with the giggle. Advisors have told him he needs to be more assertive with the team.
He’s arrived in F1 almost as a bonus. When he signed up for Formula E he’d reconciled himself that this was good, he could make a solid professional career from racing. Much as Russell believed when it looked as though he was going to be a BMW DTM driver. But Russell’s had his sights on F1 ever since he became a Mercedes junior two years ago. For Albon it’s a very recent surprise – and it kind of shows. It all seems like it’s a bit of a whirl for him, the media attention, the intensity of the debriefs, the far-flung location. For Norris and Russell, under F1 team umbrellas for a couple of years, it all seems – on the surface at least, covering over the butterflies – much more routine.
“I’m not stressed,” Albon claimed on Thursday before the race. “It’s just… media; it’s a big jump from F2. I’m just getting used to it. It’s a different world. We’ve just come back from promo events in Japan and Thailand and then another in Melbourne, in the city. In F2 we can walk around comfortably anywhere we want, but here it’s a bit different. Until the lights go out on the grid I’m probably going to be shaking a bit. It hasn’t hit me fully. I’m seeing it more and more now and I think yesterday hit me quite a bit when I saw the [Melbourne street] event.”
He chats happily, talks of how his F1 deal came together in a big hurry. He came into Barcelona testing cold, with only simulator work to go on. “I just got a feel for the car, it didn’t really fit me at first. On the lowish fuel runs the performance hits you a bit, the high-speed stuff. You’ve done it on the simulator so you know what you can do, but the physical forces aren’t there… and when they are there the grip is just immense.”
Born: November 13, 1999
Norris, extra diminutive alongside the lanky Russell and tall Albon, has something of the mischievous schoolboy about him. But without ever following it up with pranks. It’s just in the enthusiastic way he talks, quick and smiling, but the underlying messages bely that. He’s got the most bubbly front of the trio, but he’s perhaps the most difficult to read. His answers to questions are more staccato than Albon’s, more precise but less expressive. At McLaren he’s already part of the furniture, familiar with the systems and the people, very much at ease and already like a seasoned pro.
But he’s every bit as nervous as Albon, as he readily admits. “The excitement sort of covers it most of the time, but it’s there. It feels very different to just coming to do FP1. It’s daunting when you think how many people are watching – plus the whole team at Woking looking at your on-boards and data. There’s a weight on my shoulders to perform. It’s a job; I’m not doing it for fun.
“I’m just trying to take it step by step; there’s a lot of stuff to take in. The track looks a bit narrow in places, looks fun. I just want a smooth, stable weekend and be able to improve my driving. I feel quite confident inside the car; I did a decent number of laps in Barcelona.”
Asked about the barometer of his team-mate Carlos Sainz, the inner confidence is clear as a bell. “There are some things Carlos can do better than I can, some things I’m better at than him. I need to learn all I can from him, as someone going into his fifth season of F1. Not just driving, but working with the team and the engineers. It’s not about how I can beat him, but just improving myself.”
Born: February 15, 1998
Russell is the head boy; diligent, intelligent, composed. Very sensible. He has got every angle covered, has given everything immense thought and ticked the boxes. He clinched the Williams drive after doing a Powerpoint presentation to the management about why he merited a seat. Ambition oozes from him. He doesn’t do quips or one-liners. He arrived here a week early to be sure to acclimatise, took a trip up Ocean Drive, but turned around after a couple of hours.
He’s ready. “Of course I’m looking forward to it. This is Formula 1 and there are thousands of people who would dream to have my position. F1 is not like any other sport. There are 20 teams in the Premiership with 20 or 30 players in every squad. In F1 it’s just the 20 best drivers. And to be here is a huge achievement.
“This pre-season’s been quite strange because I’ve been so busy preparing for it and didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. Because I didn’t know what to expect from F1, I just wanted to be ready for this day. Melbourne has come around extremely quickly.”
He may be prepared, but the one thing that he cannot change is the fact that in a Williams FW42, he’s going to be running at the back, with only team-mate Robert Kubica for company. The car is getting on for 2sec per lap slower than the McLaren or Toro Rosso driven by his fellow rookies. “From my side and the team’s we’re going in with no pressure on our shoulders. Everyone’s expecting us to finish last by a long way and come out of the garage and have the wheels fall off. Anything else we do is going to be an achievement. I’m just going out there to enjoy it and build on it. There are some good foundations in the car. The drivability really feels nice and the guys can concentrate on adding more downforce.
“I hope to be here for the long haul. F1 is a ruthless sport and, if you slip, you’re out of the door and don’t get a second chance. Getting here has been a huge achievement but it all starts again now. I’m not going to get complacent. I’ve got this opportunity and I’m here to make the most of it.”
Melbourne, 15-17 March 2019
Watching trackside in the morning, Norris looks the most familiar and at ease. Maybe it’s those FP1 sessions from last year. Russell looks composed, with plenty in hand, as if he’s just data-gathering. Albon is attacking with relish – but perhaps a little too much. The Toro Rosso is often out of line and he eventually puts it into the Turn Three gravel. In the afternoon, he remains spirited but a little wayward, relying a lot on his car control.
For the record, here’s how they compared to their team-mates on Friday. In the morning Norris was the closest, 0.7sec off Sainz. Albon was 0.9sec off Daniil Kvyat. Russell 1.2sec off Robert Kubica. In the afternoon, Norris had the deficit down to 0.6sec, Albon to 0.7sec and Russell was now 0.2sec ahead.
There was plenty to reflect on after the debriefs. All were in the ballpark of where the cars should be. Everything would come down to putting it together in qualifying.
Remarkably, all three outqualified their more experienced team-mates. Norris made Q3 and Albon Q2, but Russell wasn’t going to get out of Q1 in a Williams. Sainz was unlucky to have his last Q1 lap – which was set to be top 10 – ruined by a limping, flat-tyred Kubica. Scratch one McLaren. But Norris picked up the baton magnificently, punching above the car’s weight and qualifying eighth.
Albon had made some set-up changes that suddenly brought him the feeling that had been missing, allowing him to qualify 13th, two spots ahead of Kvyat. Russell was more than 1sec faster than Kubica, putting together a superbly clean lap.
Norris was beside himself. “I loved it! Before this weekend I never did a nice lap in the car, either in Barcelona testing or on Friday here. Either I locked up or pushed too much. But today I did it several times. I’m very happy. I lacked a bit of confidence coming into the weekend because of not managing to put things together like I knew I could. But this has brought it back. After Barcelona we knew where we were – and it definitely wasn’t where I’ve qualified today.”
Albon was only slightly less thrilled. “I think I could have made Q3. I was just a tenth off. I guess every driver thinks that, but coming from FP1 and through the practices I was a bit on the back foot, just didn’t really feel that comfortable with the car. During qualifying I started finding some stuff that really helped, working with the team in unlocking the car to make it a bit more predictable. That gave me an extra bit of time and put me back in that midfield group. Melbourne’s not the kindest track to start out at. It’s so bumpy. And if you’re not comfortable and confident the lap time will never come, because you really need to be using all the track and playing with the bumps and the kerbs. It took time to get up to speed.”
Russell: “I crossed the line with a smile on my face after all three Q1 laps. I really felt we got the most from it. Overall, we want more, obviously. I want to be in the car longer than just the first few minutes of Q1. I went into this weekend with the mindset of step by step. I learned in Macau  that track time was key. There, I wasn’t inside the top 10 in any of the practice sessions or Q1. Then we put it on pole in the main session. I used the same approach here.
“Once I knew where the limit was, I went and gave it everything. Today I think that was our maximum. My goal now is to help the team go forward. I have no interest in fighting Robert for 19th place.”
Race day and the place is filled. Sitting on the grid, the crazy number of people, the ceremony and ritual. But then everyone leaves and it’s just you and the other cars. The lights went out and three new grand prix careers were underway.
“I have no interest in fighting Robert Kubica for 19th place”
Norris didn’t make a great start, Albon did – so they found themselves running nose-to-tail in the mid-pack behind Antonio Giovinazzi, whose Alfa was slowed by body damage. This allowed those running on medium tyres to leapfrog them later, pushing them out of the points. It was just the way the cards fell. Russell ran ahead only of team-mate Kubica, but made it to the end, two laps down.
“I’m happy I got through it with no dramas, and physically feeling fine,” he said. The race, I got through it basically. Yesterday was a really great day for me, I left the circuit with my head held high and today we knew what we faced. We’ve just got to analyse everything now, try to put a plan together.”
Norris was downbeat after his Saturday elation. “A bit disappointed. I didn’t maximise our potential and made a couple of mistakes.”
Albon summarised the frustration. “You’re fighting but you don’t want to ruin the tyres. The race started off very well, I dropped the clutch and thought ‘great, that was OK!’ I made up two positions straight away and at that time we were in the mix, as I was already just one position away from the points. That was pretty much as good as it got for me, though. We were in a battle with Giovinazzi, I think he was struggling with his tyres and everyone on that strategy lost out. All of the guys who stayed out on the harder compound behind overcut us. That compromised our race.”
But such disappointments are from the perspective of three actual GP drivers…
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