When Red Bull Racing F1 promoted Thai rookie Alexander Albon from Toro Rosso to the senior Red Bull team, they emphasised that the final nine races of the season would serve as a series of evaluations for Albon. Red Bull’s plan was designed to allow Helmut Marko, head of their driver development program, and team principal Christian Horner to make an informed decision regarding the race seat alongside Max Verstappen for the 2020 F1 season.
At first glance, it appears that the Thai driver is performing to a much higher standard than his predecessor Pierre Gasly, an impression borne out of general opinion. Indeed, Albon has scored more total points after the four races since his promotion in comparison to his teammate Verstappen. However, first glances will not suffice for Red Bull’s top brass.
The Belgian Grand Prix was the first race after the switch was announced; Albon had to start from the back of the grid as Honda brought a new power unit for his car. This was a blessing in disguise for Albon; it meant he could avoid direct comparisons with Verstappen for the whole weekend. But his race was not without pressure. Marko had previously cited Gasly’s inability to fight his way through the field as a weakness. With Albon starting at the back, it was a perfect opportunity to show he was cut from a different cloth.
The race started badly for Albon. Throughout his first stint, he struggled to overtake the inferior cars ahead. For a moment it seemed he would suffer from the same issues as Gasly. However, after his pit stop and a switch from medium to soft compound tyre, Alex’s performance improved dramatically. By the end he had climbed from 17th to 5th, making highlight-reel overtakes on Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez along the way. But while his race looked impressive on the track, placing 5th would have been the minimum expected of Albon. Furthermore, his first-half issues, alongside the fact that he only just claimed 5th position on the final lap, constitute significant asterisks. Albon himself admitted he had a “really bad” first stint and was dissatisfied with his race.
Next stop, Italy; again, the pressure was reduced because penalties meant that it was teammate Max Verstappen’s turn to start from the back of the grid. The dutchman was nevertheless faster during practice, though the gulf was smaller than it had often been with Gasly. On the third lap of the race, perhaps too eager to show his superiors that fighting his way past slower cars was no problem, Albon attempted a brave move around the outside of Carlos Sainz, and was punted off the track by the McLaren. This lost him a couple of positions, but no significant damage was done. Albon was 6th at the chequered flag, behind both Renaults – definitely a disappointment.
On to Singapore, one of the toughest tracks due to its extreme heat and the proximity of the barriers around the street circuit. On the face of it, the 6th position which Albon achieved here was a good result. He spent most of the race close behind the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, keeping pace with the Finn. But again, closer inspection reveals problems. The slow, managed pace of the front runners throughout most of the race served to obscure their capabilities. Only for the final ten laps was everyone’s true pace apparent, and in that period Albon’s times were closer to Lando Norris’ McLaren. In a race where his teammate finished on the podium, Albon’s blushes were spared by the unusual nature of the race.
One week later, the F1 circus arrived in Sochi for the Russian Grand Prix. Friday and Saturday panned out poorly for Albon; not only was he significantly off of his teammate’s pace throughout practice, but a qualifying mistake saw him shooting backward into the barriers. The car needed extensive repairs, so Albon had to start the race from the pit lane, leaving him last after the first corner. Nevertheless, he achieved an impressive fifth-place finish at a track where overtaking is not easy, displaying mental fortitude in the wake of what had been a borderline disastrous weekend until the race itself.
The jury remains out. Albon has shown an ability to overtake which his predecessor lacked, but his outright pace has not been up to scratch for a top team like Red Bull. An improvement on Gasly he may be, but with the very experienced Daniil Kvyat lurking in the wings, there may be doubts that Albon is the right person to elevate the team to 2nd place in the constructor’s championship in 2020. Can Albon satisfy the doubters in the Japanese Grand Prix?