Where did it go wrong for Albon? The drives that cost him his Red Bull seat

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Alex Albon in his Red Bull in 2020

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Wind back to September 2019 and Alex Albon’s arrival at Red Bull was a shot in the arm for the team after the struggles of Pierre Gasly.

An engine penalty meant that he started 17th, but an impressive race performance saw storm through the field and finish in fifth — just ahead of Sergio Perez.

Today, it’s Perez’s recent drive from the back that sticks in the memory, and the Mexican who has the second Red Bull seat for 2021. At the same time, Gasly heads into the winter as a Formula 1 race winner for AlphaTauri.

Albon is left reflecting on the toughest season of his young career and his new role as a test and reserve driver, dedicated to simulator work and tyre testing. We look at where it went wrong.

 

The highs

Alexander Albon, 2020 Tuscan GP

Albon crosses the line to pick up his first F1 podium at Mugello

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For the opening 60 laps of the 2020 season, Albon built on the form he’d shown the year before. He was in contention to win the Austrian Grand Prix when contact with Lewis Hamilton pitched him into the gravel and ended his maiden podium hopes.

After Verstappen had retired, Albon was right where Red Bull needed him to be in the closing stages pressuring Mercedes for the victory on fresher tyres.

His first F1 podium did arrive eventually, coming at the Tuscan GP after Verstappen’s DNF left the third spot on the podium open. He’d had to fight for the place, though with a great overtake on Perez around the outside of Turn Four, followed by a move on Daniel Ricciardo for P3  on the outside of Turn One with nine laps to go.

A second fortuitous podium came at the Bahrain Grand Prix as a result of Perez’s misfortune and retirement a stone’s throw from home, but it was a timely boost for him having been unable to capitalise on his Mugello podium any earlier.

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Arguably, Albon’s next best showing was in Abu Dhabi during the finale, as he was able to clear the McLaren of Lando Norris in the opening stint and close back up to the back of Hamilton under the safety car.

He didn’t drop into no man’s land after the resumption, and his P4 position prevented Mercedes from being able to change strategy to pressurise race-leader Verstappen. It was an all-too-rare example of what Red Bull has missed most in 2020 with his performance gap to his team-mate.

Team principal Christian Horner praised the drive and late-race pressure on Hamilton, calling it Albon’s “strongest race weekend”. But it came too late to save his 2021 seat, after a series of lowlights that undermined his case and chipped away his confidence, race by race.

 

The lows

2020 British GP, Alex Albon

High profile errors like the crash at Silverstone blighted Albon’s season

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On average, Albon was 0.686sec slower than Verstappen on a Saturday and put up an average qualifying position of seventh across the season. His average finishing position from the 16 races he made the chequered flag in was a lowly seventh — five places behind Verstappen.

For the second driver of the second-best team on the grid, he has underperformed by whichever metric you decide to measure him by, let alone directly against his team-mate.

On just seven occasions throughout the 2020 season, Albon was within 0.5sec of Verstappen during qualifying. The other 10 races he was well adrift of the only driver in identical equipment.

British GP qualifying was a particularly poor result after changing his race engineer in search of better form. Following a practice crash, he was knocked out in Q2, qualifying just ahead of Nico Hülkenberg who was stepping back into a Formula 1 car for the first time since Abu Dhabi 2019. A lap one collision earned him a five-second time penalty and he finished a lowly eighth.

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Another poor Saturday showing in Russia left him P10 on the grid as Verstappen challenged Mercedes for pole position. Verstappen ended up splitting Hamilton and Bottas on the grid 1.141sec clear of the Anglo-Thai driver.

It has been more than a thorn in the side of Red Bull the entire year to not have two cars up fighting with Mercedes, and while the Milton Keynes team may not have been championship-calibre across the season, it would likely have been closer than the 254-point chasm which separated it from the constructors’ champions.

His groaning “they race me so hard” message as he struggled to overtake Daniil Kvyat during the Eifel GP (before he cut across and took the nose off the AlphaTauri driver’s car) was cringe-inducing, however sympathetic you felt towards him.

Track limits violations became a regular occurrence during each race weekend as he struggled to coax the RB16 to behave under his control. Albon was often out of ideas as to why the car wasn’t performing as he might have liked and exasperated team radio messages became routine.

Horner admitted that the car didn’t suit Albon and its spec changed from session to session, which made it tougher to adapt to. His struggles didn’t stem from lack of trying but as they mounted, he became a different driver to the one that stormed through the field at Spa in 2019 on his Red Bull debut over one year ago.

And yet the team still clearly see promise: firstly by giving him until the end of the season to prove himself and now by retaining him as reserve driver. Can he convince Christian Horner to offer him another shot in 2022?