Following a year away from the sport, Alex Albon has returned to Formula 1 with Williams, where he will hope a fresh start can re-ignite his hopes for a potential seat with a race-winning car.
The story of Alex Albon’s time in Formula 1 is rather sad, much like that of Pierre Gasly and his time at Red Bull Racing. The 2019 season would see the young driver score two points finishes in the first four races, before being promoted to the Red Bull seat after the summer break. Albon scored an incredible fifth place after storming through the field from the back of the grid in his first outing for Red Bull at Spa, and was turning heads throughout the paddock.
The British-Thai driver performed very well in his first season, and continued his contract with Red Bull going into 2020. However, Albon’s performance started to drop over the course of the year, meaning he couldn’t be the backup that Max Verstappen and Red Bull needed to challenge for both championships. Red Bull were the second fastest car in 2020, and Albon was consistently scoring below the top four – meaning he was being out-scored by slower cars in some of the races.
After only two podiums (both of which were third place finishes) compared to Verstappen’s eleven podiums and two victories; Red Bull pulled the plug and replaced their number two driver with Sergio Perez for the 2021 season. Albon wasn’t even demoted to Alpha Tauri, he simply took a year out as a reserve driver in order to make room for rookie, Yuki Tsunoda, who would be occupying the second Alpha Tauri seat alongside Gasly.
This brings us to 2022; where the grid has changed a lot. Bottas has left Mercedes and replaced Giovinazzi at Alfa Romeo; and George Russell has taken the seat of Bottas, thus presenting Albon a new opportunity with the Mercedes-powered Williams F1 Team. With Albon now a part of a different team, the opportunity for him to branch out into less restrictive teams will no doubt be beneficial to his career.
The fundamental flaw with being a part of the Red Bull family is the lack of options. Right now, a promotion from Alpha Tauri to Red Bull would put you at the very front of the grid, competing for race wins and possibly a world championship. However, Red Bull is well and truly committed on winning with Verstappen until 2028, meaning the second driver at Red Bull is the ‘support’ role.
As a result, a Red Bull driver has two options – try and get a seat with Mercedes (which is now unlikely for a couple of years with the new Hamilton and Russell pairing), or move to a midfield team, such as Ferrari or McLaren. These restrictions put a number two Red Bull driver in a tricky predicament, and the 2022 regulations will hopefully balance out the field in order to give more teams and drivers a chance at race wins.
Now that the 25-year-old has hit the ‘restart’ button and is set to make his race debut with Williams in just a handful of weeks time; the decision for Albon to move to Red Bull poses the question on whether this seat will put him on a similar journey to that of his good friend, Russell.
Russell, despite being a Formula 2 champion, was the unluckiest of the four young drivers as he was stuck at the back of the field in an uncompetitive Williams. Norris was at a recovering McLaren, Leclerc moved to a lightning quick Ferrari (before the struggle of 2020) and Albon was promoted to Red Bull. Now that the opportunity has presented itself, Russell has gone from the back of the grid to the front.
Could Albon use his experience at Williams to potentially replace Lewis Hamilton in a few seasons time? While the exact amount of time left of the seven-time champion’s career is anybody’s guess, Mercedes will certainly need to consider a replacement for when he decides to retire or switch teams – and Albon, should he play his cards right, has set himself up perfectly to pounce on the opportunity when it happens due to his Williams seat.
On the other hand, there are more options for the Williams driver to be promoted, in the form of the other Mercedes-powered teams. Aston Martin and McLaren are currently other options within the Mercedes contact book, although Albon could certainly jump ship to another team or stay put depending on various factors, including driver market, Williams’ 2022 competitiveness and more.
Speculation on an F1 driver’s future is a very tricky thing to predict, as a transfer can often be incredibly random – such as Sainz moving to Ferrari and Albon originally being dropped from the sport in the first place. However, the future could be very bright for Albon if he can extract the most performance from that Williams as possible, as he is now close contact and no longer rivals with the fastest team’s principal…