Alex Albon can thrive away from Red Bull poisoned chalice — MPH


The next Pierre Gasly? Alex Albon has every chance of repeating the Frenchman's success after both struggled at Red Bull, writes Mark Hughes

Alex Albon in DTM garage 2021

Albon has been racing in DTM with AlphaTauri this year

Red Bull

The recent recruitment of Alex Albon to Williams as George Russell’s 2022 replacement is great news for a driver whose initial promise was brought up short when he was paired with Max Verstappen at Red Bull. He was still only part-way through his rookie season when he got given maybe the toughest gig in F1 – both a brilliant opportunity and a poisoned chalice.

Qualifying a respective 0.42sec and 0.49sec slower than Verstappen in 2019 and ’20 and often not being close enough on race day to be of strategic use in supporting Verstappen led to him being dropped. Retained in the squad, but not in the team. If that suggests he’s ultimately not quick enough to have a successful F1 career, let’s just remind ourselves of the fortunes of his predecessor in the Red Bull senior team, Pierre Gasly. Just like Albon, he’d looked terrific in the Toro Rosso and was promoted to the senior team – where he qualified an average of 0.57sec slower than Verstappen and was quickly demoted. Yet since his return to the junior team he has delivered some truly remarkable performances, none more so than his Italian Grand Prix victory a year ago. But for having to take to the run-off for the Bottas-induced carnage in Hungary this year, he’d likely have won that too. He’s fresh off the back of a great fourth place in Zandvoort where his second row qualifying effort was truly impressive.

It’s not at all unfeasible that Albon will be just as impressive upon his return next year.

Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez cycling at Monza

Perez is only the latest driver to struggle in the Verstappen-focused Red Bull

Red Bull

Meanwhile, Albon’s replacement at Red Bull, the established star Sergio Perez has so far qualified an average of 0.4sec adrift of Verstappen and is struggling to come to terms with how this can be.

Do you see the pattern? Yes, it confirms Verstappen’s stunning turn of speed. But it goes a little deeper than that. Verstappen’s brilliance has allowed the team to go further down the development path of its high-rake cars than it would otherwise have been able to – and this has made extracting the maximum from them much more difficult for mere mortals and has amplified Verstappen’s advantage over them.

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It’s a pattern that would hold no surprises to Eddie Irvine who recalled how impossible it was to get anywhere near Ferrari team mate Michael Schumacher in the pitch-sensitive 1996 F310 but how it became feasible to get much closer as the Ferraris improved year-on-year. The gap between genius level driver and good driver is often exaggerated by the difficulty of the car. In the case of the ’96 Ferrari it was difficult because it was bad, but recent Red Bulls have been difficult but fast.

Why so? With a high-rake car the aero balance moves forwards more than on a low-rake car as the car slows. The rake increases as the downforce bleeds off and the rear ride height increases, which gives a more aggressive angle of attack for the front wing and leading edge of the floor. In that way, the natural understeer at slow speeds of an F1 car is reduced – and therefore the car can be made more stable in the fast corners without being slowed too much by understeer in the slow ones. That’s the general justification for high-rake and the aero surfaces of the whole car will be based around that.

Red Bull of Max Verstappen at Spa 2021

Verstappen has mastered the art of driving with extreme high rake

Red Bull

But it can only be taken so far. Keep going higher with the rake and at some point the aero migration towards the front becomes too aggressive and the car becomes unstable into slow corners. The greater the level of instability the driver can live with, the faster the car will be – but the more difficult it will be to drive. The less skilled driver will only be able to retain control by driving it below its limits. They will feel like limits to him, but the telemetry from the other car will say different.

That is the essential genius of Verstappen and why gaps to his team mates are so big. As Gasly has shown, struggling as Max’s team mate doesn’t preclude future success and hopefully this is a point Albon will be able to underline next year.