Heading into the 2020 Belgian Grand Prix to some Alexander Albon is a driver under pressure to justify his place at Red Bull Racing alongside Max Verstappen.
The 2019 edition of the Belgian Grand Prix was Albon’s first for the Austrian team having replaced previous incumbent Pierre Gasly. Albon would go on to finish inside the points in eight of the final nine rounds of the 2019 season as he claimed eighth in the championship, three points behind Pierre Gasly, with a best classified finish of fourth which the Anglo-Thai driver achieved at the Japanese Grand Prix.
The one race that Albon failed to score points for Red Bull in his 2019 end of season run was the Brazilian Grand Prix, where he was spun round and taken out of a potential podium finish when Lewis Hamilton collided with him after a safety car restart. This incident in turn helped Gasly secure second in that race.Embed from Getty Images
There have been a variety of issues that Albon has faced in 2020 that has meant he has struggled to build on the latter part of his 2019 performances. These issues include his qualifying performances, something he himself has identified as an area that is holding him back. His highest starting position in 2020 has been fourth which is where he started the Austrian Grand Prix. But since then he has only started inside the top six on two other occasions. This has meant that often he has to fight his way through the midfield which in part means he is unable to focus his race strategy on staying with or potentially battling the likes of Verstappen or the two Mercedes drivers at the front. Albon’s qualifying issues have also meant he raises the risk of getting caught up in a collision with another driver, such as with Magnussen at Silverstone. Fundamentally Albon’s qualifying issues, and some of his race performances, stem from being unable to find the right balance with the 2020 Red Bull which has also affected Verstappen at times this season as well.
Naturally being at Red Bull has meant that Albon is compared against Verstappen who has finished inside the top three in the last five races. This hasn’t helped Albon’s case in 2020 but it is important to remember that Verstappen has the experience of competing in Formula 1 for five seasons already while Albon is only in his second. There also needs to be the realisation that Verstappen is very much seen at Hamilton’s level, effectively one of the greats of the sport and one of the top drivers currently competing. This is something that Albon shouldn’t and ultimately doesn’t need to live up to, certainly not yet, in order to have a long career in Formula 1 and at Red Bull.Embed from Getty Images
Albon has also been compared against Gasly with some suggesting that another straight swap could or should be undertaken. I personally think this is slightly naive as it is important to remember that Gasly struggled with the 2019 Red Bull and there are no guarantees that the Frenchman would fare any better in the RB16.
It is also interesting to look at the current races that have been contested in 2020 which in 2019 Gasly contested driving for Red Bull. Taking only Austria, Britain, Hungary and Spain Gasly scored a total of 30 points across those races for Red Bull last season. Due to the 2020 double headers in Austria and Britain it is possible to create a best and worse case scenario for Albon. In the worst case scenario the Anglo-Thai driver has only scored 18 points, yet in the best case scenario Albon has scored 36 points.
Added to this is if you look at the percentage that the two have finished inside the top six while at Red Bull. Gasly contested 12 races with the Austrian team finishing inside the top six on five occasions, meaning he finished inside the top six 42% of the time while at the Austrian team. By comparison Albon has contested 15 races with Red Bull, being classified inside the top six on 11 occasions, a rate of 73%.Embed from Getty Images
Another issue that needs to be considered is what sort of pairing Red Bull wants or needs. It feels that many are expecting or wanting Red Bull to have a Lewis Hamilton/Nico Rosberg pairing at the team or effectively a Sebastian Vettel/Mark Webber, Vettel/Daniel Ricciardo or Verstappen/Ricciardo level pairing.
This raises an interesting point in that it is less about finding another Verstappen and more about finding an adequate replacement for Ricciardo who left the team at the end of 2018. It is worth detailing that by the time Ricciardo joined Red Bull in 2014, the Australian had already completed two and a half seasons in Formula 1 with HRT and Scuderia Toro Rosso.
The most adequate replacement for Ricciardo would have been Carlos Sainz or Daniil Kvyat. In 2018 Sainz was in his fourth season in Formula 1 while Kvyat also had contested three and a bit seasons in the sport by 2018, and was also gaining experience outside of Red Bull by being Scuderia Ferrari’s development driver. Albon hasn’t got this level of experience yet, nor has Gasly, and the only way for Red Bull to rectify this problem is to either look for a driver outside its current roster or to back Albon and give him time and the tools to gain this experience.Embed from Getty Images
This is something that Red Bull appear to be doing although it may feel that there is a sense of deja vu with the Austrian team constantly coming to the defence of Albon, like they did with Gasly for the early part of 2019, with a sense that the Milton Keynes based team will ultimately lose faith and look for someone else to partner Verstappen. But it would appear that Red Bull genuinely have more belief in Albon than they had in Gasly, ultimately giving the Anglo-Thai driver a more experienced engineer to help him, something they appear to have denied Gasly back in 2019.
In a sport where there is little to no room for patience it is perhaps best for Red Bull, and those observing, to have some when it comes to Albon’s position in the team. Aside from Kvyat Red Bull don’t really have anyone else who could be doing a better job than Albon. There needs to be the realisation that the fundamental issue is how do you replace a driver like Daniel Ricciardo. For Albon, or Gasly, to do that they are both going to need something that the sport has very little of, time.