Feature: The unexpected Formula 1 rookie

Motorsport Week catches up with Toro Rosso rookie Alexander Albon to reflect on a remarkable turnaround from scrapping to save his top-flight hopes to joining Formula 1 in the space of a year...

Through the 2018 Formula 2 season there were three drivers who regularly stood out among the others.

One of them was the reigning GP3 champion, backed by Mercedes, and who ultimately proved the victor, capturing a Formula 1 2019 seat on the way. One of them was the reigning Formula 3 champion, nestled within McLaren, and who was the first of the trio to secure a Formula 1 seat for 2019.

The other was someone who not only barely figured on the radar of many observers, but whom had never tested an F1 car, had no F1 affiliation, and who started the campaign on a race-by-race contract, such was his financial predicament.

The rejuvenation of Alexander Albon’s career and the path that has led to a Formula 1 race seat is one of those feel-good stories that has come about through hard work, determination and a small sprinkling of fortune.

Albon is the least experienced F1 driver on the grid

The softly-spoken Anglo-Thai thrust himself into contention with a starring Formula 2 campaign and, allied with the manner in which Formula 1’s silly season unfolded, was well-placed when Red Bull came calling, six years after he was axed from its junior campaign. 

“It was a little bit of a shock,” said Albon on the moment Helmut Marko’s number appeared on his phone. He had been shopping in Abu Dhabi at the time.

“There were rumours, of course back then it still wasn’t as… there were rumours but nothing really was done at that point. It was just rumours. People saw how things were unfolding and presumed it to be more ahead than anything. It was nice to receive that call.”

That speculation came about because Albon never appeared during Formula E pre-season testing for the Nissan team with whom he held a three-year deal. Albon was eventually confirmed as a 2019 Toro Rosso driver the day after the 2018 season finale in Abu Dhabi; “It’s almost a no regret mindset,” he says of that period of uncertainty. “Where you’ve got to do it. That’s always been my dream. If things didn’t work out things didn’t work out.”

The year-on-year transition is remarkable. In 2019 Albon is being pulled left, right and centre – the life of a Formula 1 driver – and has an army of 500 colleagues at Toro Rosso, not to mention everyone at Honda. 12 months ago he was scrabbling to remain on the Formula 2 grid, pleading with DAMS to take a chance.

“It was a situation where the winter testing was extremely stressful,” he explains. “Then you get to a point where it becomes stressful where you start not getting stressed! It was quite a weird thing, but you get over it, you realise every race can be your last race. You can’t just keep being stressed by it. It’s almost like… you adapt to it, by the end of it, it’s like ‘I just have to keep on driving the way I drive’. I wasn’t worrying so much, it was a case of just do your job, keep doing what you’re doing, and go from there.”

Albon's F2 results brought him to Red Bull's attention

It wasn’t the first time Albon had faced adversity in his career. His sole year as a junior in Red Bull colours in 2012 was disappointing, as he took only a handful of points in dual Formula Renault campaigns. From the outside perspective, it wasn’t until his GP3 title fight with Charles Leclerc in 2016 that he truly announced himself as a potential Formula 1 driver.

“Truthfully speaking there wasn’t much more to say than I wasn’t driving too well, that was my first year in single-seaters,” comments a reflective Albon. “It was a tough situation with the team as well, on top of that going through some issues personally, but with all that it was quite normal that Red Bull didn’t keep me on because of how the results went. It’s motorsport. If you don’t deliver you don’t get the opportunity again. I had a successful run in karting. And obviously that first year in single seaters was a bit of a... not a blow, but just starting from zero again.

“When that process happened in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 it wasn’t so much having needing to prove myself, it was just purely getting used to single seaters. At some points, already in 2014, in Formula Renault, I started to feel really comfortable with the car, getting back the confidence I was missing at the beginning of single-seaters, back from karting.”

Albon moved into Formula 3 in 2015, for the re-joining Signature squad, and placed seventh, in a year in which his rivals included Felix Rosenqvist, Antonio Giovinazzi, Lance Stroll, and soon-to-be GP3 and F2 rivals Leclerc and Russell.

“People don’t look into that year too much, but it was a really good year,” he said. “We were a re-appearing team, Signature, and for what we had, the personnel for a new team, we did a really good job.”

2016, though, was sink or swim, and Albon glided through the water.

Albon is the latest in a long line of juniors to get a chance

“That was the chance to compete against the very best,” he says. “That year against Charles, Nyck [de Vries] and Nirei [Fukuzumi] it was a year that I knew ‘okay this is it now, this is against at that time the best junior drivers out there and I’m going to see what I can do’. You could say I surprised some people but I was quietly confident during the year that I could get a good result.”

Albon’s rookie Formula 2 campaign with ART Grand Prix was promising, albeit derailed by a mid-season collarbone fracture, but it was last year where he flourished – and racing against the highly-rated British stars boosted Albon’s chances when Red Bull was thrust into an unexpected position: it had to promote Pierre Gasly from Toro Rosso and was similarly unconvinced by Brendon Hartley.

“I think racing against George and Lando, it’s very clear these were the superstars of junior motorsport and there was a big hype,” he says. “Rightly so. But of course, at that point, if you can fight with these guys, you’re fighting for the championship, and there’s no reason why people would overlook you. It was nice because of course these guys carry a lot of weight with them, and being so highly regarded, it only did me favours that I’m driving with them.”

Albon is comfortably the least experienced Formula 1 driver, with (so far) just a shakedown and two test days under his belt. But he now has his desired opportunity with Toro Rosso, with a chance to make an impression to the wider world.

“I think in terms of end goals I don’t set myself any,” he says. “It’s just more focusing on session by session, getting up to speed. I do want to hit the ground quickly, if it’ll come or not time will tell. [But] I think you wouldn’t be in Toro Rosso if there wasn’t a path [to Red Bull], that’s always going to be the goal, but I’m not looking that far in front, I’m just focusing on this year.”