Feature: Albon - the case for F1's forgotten rookie

It’s pretty usual at this time of year, on the cusp of a Formula 1 season start, for the debutants to get attention. Particularly when they’re a strong Formula 2 graduate with plenty of promise. Particularly too when they’re starting in a decent midfield seat. Particularly also when they are (sort of) British.

Among the various 2019 season previews two (British) rookies have been prominent. George Russell and Lando Norris, ‘Britain’s two F1 debutants’, are the dual subject of much rumination and focus.

But there’s a third British F1 debutant. Or, as intimated, a sort of British debutant. Yet he’s hardly been mentioned, certainly not by comparison. It’s Alexander Albon, making his bow for Toro Rosso.

Firstly to explain the ‘sort of’ British point for the uninitiated, Albon is British born and raised with a British father though races with a Thai licence, reflecting the nationality of his mother. And his odd man out status extends further it seems, as evidenced by one recent Norris/Russell season preview feature which relegated Albon to a short sidebar, which called him “The ‘other’ F1 New Boy”. Mark Hughes summed it up when he observed that of the trio “Albon by comparison is seen as a bit of an outlier”.

Part of the explanation no doubt is that he’s not officially British. Part of it too may be that his promotion to the Toro Rosso seat for this season had a whiff of getting it because there was no one else.

The Red Bull young driver conveyor belt right now has an empty patch and Dan Ticktum doesn’t yet have the requisite superlicence points.  So rather as it did not long ago with Brendon Hartley, and more than once with Albon’s current team-mate Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso rummaged through its waste paper basket of drivers previously discarded by the programme, and this time fetched out Albon.

Albon by comparison is seen as a bit of an outlier - Mark Hughes

But it sells Albon way short. Certainly in his raw talent where he arguably tops both Russell and Norris, if we are to use respect from peers and karting performance as measures.

“He’s one of, if not the, most underrated drivers in junior formulas,” said Russell. And little wonder.

“Back in his karting days he was the one that all the drivers we’ve deified as having the future of the sport in their hands, aspired towards. He was their benchmark,” explains Will Buxton of Albon. And those doing the aspiring included Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly as well as Russell.

“He’s a proper talent, and I hope he gets the chance to shine in the series he always seemed destined for.”

Yet Albon’s outlier status perhaps has its biggest explanation of all, that for some time he has been operating somewhat under the radar. Which is related to him taking a few years of car racing to make good on his latent talent; there have bumps in the road on his journey to the top.

His adaptation from karts was difficult; in his first year in cars he didn’t score a single point in the Formula Renault Eurocup in 2012, and Red Bull which had supported his karting ditched him from its roster.

Team Enstone’s junior team picked him up not long after but then Renault took over in 2016 and launched its own scheme; with this Albon got the unwanted status of being dropped by a second F1 programme.

He ploughed on though, largely now off his own bat, and in 2016 he pushed a certain Charles Leclerc all the way for the GP3 title. Yet come the following year Albon’s debut F2 season was nothing special and he ended up only 10th in the final table. Then he lost a sponsor after the campaign’s end.

Back in his karting days he [Albon] was the one that all the drivers we’ve deified as having the future of the sport in their hands, aspired towards. He was their benchmark - Will Buxton

Last year he had another go at F2, albeit starting with a one-round deal and no idea if he’d have the cash to compete the campaign. Yet his bosses at his DAMS team concluded, astutely, that such was Albon’s talent it was worth taking a massive financial risk on him. The punt came in for driver and team.

Albon got into the thick of the championship fight with those two self-same British rookies, and he only missed out at the last to Norris on title runner-up spot behind Russell after stalling on the grid in the final round. He won four races, showed himself to be a polished racer and also had the better record than Norris in non-reverse grid races. Granted Albon unlike the other two had a year’s experience in the category, but it remains an impressive effort.

Of the trio though Albon now, in a reversal, starts F1 with a disadvantage. While Russell and Norris have had plenty of simulator time and some practice and test running in an F1 car Albon has had nearly nothing. Indeed prior to pre-season testing all he could count on was a shakedown of the STR14 at Misano the week before. “I think compared to myself and Lando, Alex will be in a tricky position because he’s been thrown in out of nowhere,” Russell commented recently. “No sim work, no testing before this year…”

Yet Albon impressed plenty of onlookers at Barcelona with his smooth and quick running in the car – he even topped the timing screens for much of the fourth day – as well as his level-headedness out of it. This was despite the most ignominious of starts, spinning and beaching his Toro Rosso on his first out-lap. He was unlucky given everything, as there were peculiarly cold track temperatures at the time in which F1 tyres aren’t really designed to operate, but you’re between a rock and a hard place as if you go too slowly you lose the operating tyre temperature altogether.

“Alex Albon has been a real find,” said an observing Gary Anderson at Barcelona. “When you consider he never drove an F1 car until Toro Rosso did the shakedown, he’s been impressive throughout testing.”

Then there is Albon’s equipment. Like it or not a driver’s reputation is linked in significant part to the quality of what’s underneath them. As an illustration, would Leclerc be sitting in a Ferrari now had the Sauber struggled in 2018 like it had the season before? Probably not.

And Albon enters this campaign with a car likely at least as good as Norris’s; certainly better than Russell’s who initially at least faces the unenviable task of being off the back with only his team-mate as competition.

Alex Albon has been a real find. When you consider he never drove an F1 car until Toro Rosso did the shakedown, he’s been impressive throughout testing - Gary Anderson

The Toro Rosso by contrast looks strong, well in the thick of the midfield and for some it’s around the front of it. Anderson for one placed the STR14 fourth best car in his post-Barcelona ranking. Toro Rosso this year also has a closer technical partnership with Red Bull, sharing plenty of non-listed parts including the car’s rear end, which can only be a good thing. Reliability meanwhile, rather a Toro Rosso bugbear in 2018, has looked much more sorted too.

There’s another characteristic of the machine that should help.

“’No nasty surprises’ was Alex Albon’s assessment of the STR14 – and for a rookie driver, that’s a perfect situation,” adds Jake Boxall-Legge. “This year’s Toro Rosso looks balanced and driver-friendly; perhaps lacking the peak performance of the top runners, but the team has continued on its path of producing well-conceived chassis.

“Both drivers look comfortable with the car, and should factor heavily in the midfield order – perhaps even capable of a tilt at the upper echelons of the points on their day.

“With two drivers needing to get up to speed – one returning, one brand new – having a solid, consistent baseline package is definitely a bonus, especially in the usually-chaotic early season.”

Albon appears to concur. “The car’s more or less consistent,” he noted at Barcelona. “There’s not an area specifically we really need to target, but we need to fine-tune.”

This year’s Toro Rosso looks balanced and driver-friendly. With two drivers needing to get up to speed having a solid, consistent baseline package is definitely a bonus - Jake Boxall-Legge

And if the car is set to hit the ground running it’s particularly good news. Early in a season, when reliability is lower, is usually the time containing greater opportunities to score.

Albon also is viewed universally as a nice guy, cheerful, relaxed and absolutely apolitical. A few worry however that this could be a vice rather than a virtue in the warped world of F1, in that a touch more ‘edge’ (or however we might term it) would help him look after himself.

Particularly given where he is. As his current team-mate as well as his predecessor pilot at Toro Rosso may attest, Red Bull’s B Squad can be a pitiless place. “There’s a lot of pressure on his shoulders in that team,” observed Russell appositely. While as intimated yet another British rookie, Ticktum, will have imminent designs on a drive there so Albon’s place is likely to come under immediate threat and scrutiny.

But we’ve intimated something else already too. That Albon in his motor racing career has shown plenty of resolve. He’s kept ploughing on despite numerous setbacks. He’s kept learning – such as after his tepid first campaign in F2 analysing in detail with his team what had gone wrong and how to improve. In that ’17 year he scored his first F2 podium finish driving with a broken collarbone. He’s especially good at adapting. His technical feedback is strong.

And being phlegmatic, leaving the politics to others and getting on with the core task at hand may not be the worst approach. Plus if the talent shines through, the talent that plenty think is there, that will go considerable distance to make all other problems go away.