Rebooted Alex Albon is ready for shot at F1 redemption

F1

Has Williams found a bargain in Alexander Albon? The Anglo-Thai driver will be aiming to prove it so on his F1 return

Alex Albon 2022

Albon is back in F1 with Williams but can he match Russell's results?

Eric Alonso / Getty Images

Could Alex Albon be one of the revelations of the 2022 Formula 1 season? The British/Thai driver certainly has the chance to make an impact as he reboots his career with Williams following a year on the sidelines.

He was dropped by Red Bull Racing at the end of the 2020 season after struggling, like others before and Sergio Perez afterwards, to match the superb form of team-mate Max Verstappen.

Deployed to DTM and also retained to pursue sim programmes for RBR on both the title-chasing RB16B and the new RB18 he spent last year trying to find a way back into F1.

Albon is a very different character compared to his predecessor in George Russell – less outwardly confident and assertive – but those who know him well know just how fast he can be, and in the end that’s what matters.

“I think he stayed race fit in general because he also was a reserve driver,” says Williams team boss Jost Capito.

“I believe he is still away from his peak, and I think he can still be much better. I believe also his character and let’s say his values really fit to Williams. And when I see how he works in the sim, and how he works with the engineers, he seems to be really a happy guy. I’ve built a good relationship with him, we talk very openly, and I think he feels at home. And I believe if feels at home, he can deliver great stuff on track as well.”

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Indeed, Albon already feels very comfortable in the camp, and he could thrive in an environment that is very different to that at Red Bull.

“They’re a great bunch of people,” he says. “I feel like they’re very motivated, very driven to show what they can do, and it falls in line very much with me as well. We’ve got to know each other in a short amount of time.

“They’ve obviously had a great end to last year, and during last year found great gains, and moved up the order. And you can feel that buzz, you can feel that energy within the team. And it’s very exciting to be a part of.”

In reality Albon’s return is a surprise, and the result of some clever lobbying on his behalf by Red Bull’s management.

Red Bull didn’t want to lose him, but a compromise emerged in the form of Williams. The team saw Albon as a direct replacement for Russell, and unlike others in the pitlane, was willing to let him retain his Red Bull links. In the end it worked out well for all parties.

“I was extremely hungry to get back into F1,” he says. “I felt like I did everything I could to get a seat within F1. 2021 was actually a busier year for me than any other year that I’ve raced in, which is quite weird to believe.

“The hunger was there. Of course, to get a seat or not get a seat comes down to timing, comes down to a lot of things, but I know that on my side I put everything towards it. I did have a Plan A which was clearly to be in F1. The Plan A was also at that point to be with Williams. And Plan B, Plan C was there. I went to IndyCar to have a look at it, spoke with a few teams in Formula E as well.

“And of course, just as a logical sense you do have to keep those things in line, because you never know what happens. The market is so tricky that you just have to keep your options open. Plan A was obviously the one that was strongest in my heart. And it was far above Plan B and Plan C.

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Making an impact already with his new team

Peter J Fox/Getty Images

“Fortunately, towards that kind of middle of the year, things started to look good. And talk started to happen. And that’s a big thank you to Christian [Horner] and Dr Marko, but also Jost and everyone at Williams. We got it to happen, and that was it.”

He is adamant that he’s benefited from his time away from the frontline, thanks to having more opportunity to view other aspects of the team in his test and sim role.

Hours in the sim, in a modified version of the car he’d raced the previous year, were very valuable.

“I’d say the year out does definitely help in terms of the way that you have a better understanding of the way things work within F1. If I talk specifically performance, it’s what makes a race car fast, what made the Red Bull car fast. You learn these things as you go along.

“And towards the end of 2020, for example, I was starting to figure it out. Things like set-up philosophies, where you kind of get a better understanding of how to get the performance out of the car, but also the confidence within the driver and things like that.

“You just have a lot of time to process it, having that year outside. You still have that time to talk about it and to think about things, and as well look at the data and the way that Max and Checo communicate, and learn from them as well. Because obviously Checo brought a lot of experience from his years in F1.

“I had the opportunity of course to look at why he’s so good at race pace. You can pick and choose and find things like that. At the same time, I built a lot of experience understanding the Red Bull car, but obviously, it’s a different beast, the Williams, there’s different things going on.

“These cars are tricky to drive, especially on the limit”

“You can bring some things over, but not a lot of things. I think I am better prepared in that sense. I feel like I’m also more mature, mentally stronger as well, than I was back then.”

He admits that getting fully up to speed won’t be easy. Indeed, recent examples of drivers returning show just how hard it is to re-adjust, given the limited pre-season testing.

“I think the one thing which will take a little bit of time to get used to is just purely the lack of laps, if you look at Esteban [Ocon] and Fernando [Alonso], it did take a little bit of time for them to shake off the dust, let’s say.

“These cars are tricky to drive, especially on the limit. I think with the re-set though, it actually works out pretty well for me, there’s, that element of everyone starts on a clean slate. So the playing field is more even.

“But inevitably, there will still be that time where I’ll need to use those six days of testing efficiently on my side more than anything else to really get comfortable with the car, as comfortable as I can do, ready for the season.”

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What can Williams achieve in 2022? The team had good momentum in the second half of last year, but it remains to be seen if it can maintain that relative to the opposition.

“In terms of goals, it’s very hard to quantify it in such a new regulation,” says Albon. “In terms of putting us in a position on the grid, it’s very hard to say, but I would say if we can start the year on a strong foot and see how we go there, I feel like if we can finish the season better than how we started it that’s very positive.

“And I feel like if we can show progress, show that way of developing the car in the right way, developing myself in the right way as well. I think it puts us in a great place. I think some teams are going to hit this year running, and they’re going to hit the floor doing a very good job. Other teams not so much. And we’ll have to see where we are on that ladder.

“Wherever we start in Barcelona, we’re going to make sure we do our very best to finish in Abu Dhabi with some good improvements.”

The prominent Red Bull logos on Albon’s helmet tell their own story. However, he insists that he’s not thinking about the longer term and a possible return to RBR should a vacancy arise there.

“You have to fully view yourself as a Williams driver going into the year. On my side, it’s very simple, my targets, my goals, I want to do the best job I can this year, and that’s doing the best job I can for Williams.

“I’m working hard with the guys, not looking at all that kind of, let’s call it, the future side of things. And I really see myself as a Williams driver for this year and focusing on the job at hand. I know what I’m going to do is do the best job possible.”