Why are Albon and Vettel lagging so far behind their team-mates?


While Alexander Albon and Sebastian Vettel struggled in the midfield at Portimao, their team-mates were running in the top four — and not for the first time. Chris Medland asks what is going wrong for the pair?

Alex Albon and Sebastian Vettel during the 2020 F1 Austrian Grand Prix

Vettel and Albon have been comfortably shaded by team-mates this season

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

There are two sides to every story, and while we rightly laud the performances of Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc when they excel, it’s now almost by default that they come in contrast with struggles for their respective team-mates.

The pressure has been ramping up on Alex Albon this season. Much like Pierre Gasly last year, he just hasn’t been able to deliver the performances to anywhere near the same level as Verstappen, and the improvement required isn’t being seen.

Red Bull know there’s a great talent there, otherwise they wouldn’t have so staunchly backed the Thai-British driver. But the maiden podium in Mugello didn’t prove to be the breakthrough result the team had hoped, and Albon has since picked up a solitary point in three races.

“There are obviously drivers that have significant experience and ability, it’s a very unusual situation they could be available.”

Tenth in Russia was followed by a clumsy race and eventual retirement in Germany, and then 12th in Portugal. At the same time, Gasly has picked up 20 points with a ninth and two top-six finishes. But that isn’t turning heads at Red Bull…

“We have a lot of information on the drivers over a big period of time,” team principal Christian Horner says. “Pierre’s done a super job [in Portugal] and he’s driving very well in that environment with AlphaTauri, he’s comfortable in that car with perhaps the less pressure that goes with that environment as well, and less expectation.

“I think their aspirations as a team are different to as it was as Toro Rosso so it makes sense that the fit works well in both directions with Pierre and the AlphaTauri team.

“I think that you’ve got to look at all of the options. I don’t think we’d be doing our job if we didn’t look at the situation within Formula 1 that there are obviously drivers that have significant experience and ability, it’s a very unusual situation they could be available.

Alex Albon holds his trophy after finishing in third place in the 2020 F1 Tuscan Grand Prix at Mugello

Albon’s third place in Mugello wasn’t the tipping point he was hoping for

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

“So our first and foremost priority is to give Alex the opportunity to lay claim to that seat. Let’s not forget when he jumped in that car last year he outscored and outperformed Pierre significantly in the balance of 2019. If we were to swap them back, why would it be any different?”

Message received: Gasly won’t replace Albon, but someone else might if results don’t improve. So why are Red Bull so strongly defending their driver this time round compared to a year ago? Gasly actually plays a big part in the answer.

By excelling at Toro Rosso but then struggling at Red Bull, it was clear it wasn’t solely down to driver potential on Gasly’s part. His performances since returning to the junior team – a podium and a win included – only emphasise that. So with Albon following a similar path, it has become clear there is a car trait that Verstappen can handle but so few others can.

“If Alex was in an AlphaTauri he’d probably be doing a very similar job to what we saw with Pierre”

Verstappen of course has the reputation that would protect him for a long time if he didn’t perform, but he is getting everything out of the Red Bull and more.

Whereas Albon is faced with a very nervous rear end that threatens to snap away on him, but more importantly that has a bigger impact on how far away from that knife-edge he can comfortably drive, because each mistake just builds more pressure.

“I think the car is a more difficult car to drive than the AlphaTauri, we know that and it’s very, very clear,” Horner says. “The car is much more rear-sensitive and I think that can be unnerving for drivers. Max copes with that incredibly well, other drivers have struggled more with that. I think that’s just the facts of it.

“I think if Alex was in an AlphaTauri he’d probably be doing a very similar job to what we saw with Pierre, I have no doubts of that. It’s just the characteristics of our car, they’re struggling to commit on corner entry and you see it a little bit with the Ferrari with Leclerc and Vettel at the moment, you see it in the race with [Lewis] Hamilton and [Valtteri] Bottas. That’s just the way it is sometimes.”

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Ah yes, that brings us on to Sebastian Vettel. Perhaps one of the most perplexing scenarios we’ve seen in Formula 1 in a long time. This is the same driver that dominated in the early part of the last decade to win four straight championships, and looked revitalised when he joined Ferrari after a tough 2014.

Alongside Kimi Raikkonen – who now at Alfa Romeo has shown he’s still got it – Vettel was dominant, but then two title chances slipped away in 2017 and 2018.

That seemed to break his resolve. Leclerc came in last year and matched Vettel, and the German’s cage was definitely rattled. Then ever since the announcement he would not be retained, his performances have dropped off a cliff.

Unlike the Albon and Verstappen comparison, though, Vettel doesn’t feel there is a specific characteristic of the Ferrari that can explain the deficit between himself and Leclerc.

“No, I don’t think so,” Vettel insists, despite what Horner says. “I think you know, I’ve been racing for a long time. And sometimes you have cars going your way, sometimes not your way. But apart from that, you’re trying to adapt as soon as you can. And that’s something you always have to do and I’m doing also this year, so nothing has changed in this regard.

“But it’s about the question of how much grip you feel is there and how much then you’re using. So in this regard, maybe Charles is able to feel different grip or a different area of the car that I’m not feeling. Clearly, I’m not going as fast and not able to feel it for whatever reason.”

Sebastian Vettel driving under a stormy sky at the 2020 F1 Portuguese Grand Prix at Portimao

Vettel says that he can’t get the same feel for this year’s Ferrari as Leclerc

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

For such an experienced driver to be speaking in such terms is surprising. Either Vettel is at a complete loss as to why he can’t match Leclerc, or he’s not driving the same car. And he attempts to dismiss the latter notion.

“I think that I have to think that we have the same car, I trust the people around me and in the garage. I have one picture that is told to me by the stopwatch at the end of the lap, the other thing is by my feeling. Feeling wise I really struggle to put the good laps together, be consistent and feel the grip that maybe Charles is able to feel.

“I’m working on it and there’s nothing else other than work that will get me out of it so I think together with the team around me I’ll try to make the maximum. Hopefully I’ll be in a better place next week.

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“Obviously our main weakness is on Saturday and on Sunday we are always struggling because we are in the middle of the pack and it’s a very difficult race from then, very different, so probably not always the best sort of comparison.”

And the last point is another that highlights a Ferrari problem that makes things worse for Vettel. A year ago, the car was comfortably a front-runner and so disappointing performances still yielded solid results. This year, Ferrari is at the head of the midfield on a good day, but at the back of it on a bad one.

Both Vettel and Albon find themselves in traffic in difficult to drive cars on regular occasions, and wrestling one around an empty track is one thing, but trying to outbrake and outmanoeuvre a rival is quite another. It compounds the problems they’re having, eats up their tyres more quickly and hampers their finishing positions.But only they can improve that.

They need to find a way of extracting out of the car what their team-mates can over one lap, and from there so much more can fall into place in terms of driving approach, strategy and, ultimately, race results.

Certainly Albon has to do that if he wants to retain his seat. Vettel will at least get a chance to start all over again at Aston Martin next year.