November 30, 2022

How ‘fighter’ Albon became an F1 feel-good tale

Alex Albon
Alex Albon retired from last week’s Singapore Grand Prix after returning from a medical emergency that saw him miss the race in Italy last month

Alex Albon knows what it’s like to think he’s at the end of the road.

“You’re right on that mental edge of panic and worry,” he says. “I sat on that worry for so long that you start to not care. You can’t panic forever. You can’t worry about it forever.

“And I think: ‘Well, I’ve only got to give it my all. I’ve only got to put everything on the table.'”

Albon – a likeable 26-year-old, born in London, brought up in England, but racing as a Thai – has been one of Formula 1’s feel-good stories of 2022.

In an exclusive interview with BBC Sport, he’s discussing the rollercoaster ride that has carried him to Williams, where he has emerged as one of the low-key stars of the year.

Dropped by Red Bull at the end of 2020, Albon set about reconstructing his career. A year as their test driver led to a seat at Williams for this season. After a series of starring performances, Albon has signed a new multi-year contract.

His story is one of resilience – of numerous knocks through his life from which he has drawn on remarkable reserves of self-belief to bounce back each time.

He even describes the recent medical emergency in which he suffered respiratory failure after an appendectomy over the weekend of the Italian Grand Prix as “not a big deal”.

“In terms of setbacks, it’s a small one really,” he says. “I’ve had very good doctors around me, who were in Italy, to get me back into a good place. I feel very fortunate.”

‘Is this the end? After two years?’

Two years ago, it looked as though Albon’s career was coming to an end before it had really got going.

Albon was a close rival of Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and George Russell in karting. But by the end of 2018, as their F1 careers were taking off, he had pretty much given up on the idea of making it at the top of the sport, until Red Bull found themselves without a driver for their junior team.

Their motorsport adviser Helmut Marko, who had dropped Albon from their driver programme after a difficult season in 2012, offered him a seat for 2019. Albon negotiated a way out of his contract with Nissan in the all-electric Formula E series and joined Toro Rosso.

His first half-season was impressive, culminating in an eye-catching drive in the wet German Grand Prix. With Pierre Gasly struggling following his promotion to the senior team, Red Bull swapped them around. Within six months, Albon had gone from ignored by F1 to a seat in one of the best cars on the grid.

The rest of that season went pretty well, and he was kept on for 2020, but he struggled to get close to team-mate Verstappen and by the end of the year Red Bull had decided to remove him from the seat. They liked and respected him, so kept him on as reserve driver.

Alex Albon on the podium in Bahrain
Albon secured his first Formula 1 podium while driving for Red Bull in 2020 at the Bahrain Grand Prix

The decision was tough to take.

“I would be lying if I told you I didn’t expect it,” Albon says. “I felt like I didn’t perform that season. I knew there was a strong chance of it happening.

“I had dreamed of being in F1 since I was four years old, almost completely obsessed with it. You inevitably hit this heartbreak where it is like, almost: ‘OK, is this the end? And you’ve only spent two years in it.’

“It’s a brutal business – and how quickly everything came about. It was a true fast-track from Toro Rosso into one of the very top teams in the sport and then out. And it was like: ‘Wow, OK.’ It did hit me hard, as it would anyone.”

Albon’s voice falters as he talks, and his eyes well up a little.

“I remember the meeting,” he says. “I remember everything as clear as day. And I have to say, first, I have a very strong network of people. My family. My friends. And people around me that you see today.

“Very, very quickly – almost within a day – there was no other thought other than: ‘I’m going to get back on the grid.’ I only saw a Plan A.

“Very quickly, I was back to work. I was in the simulator very early in January. ‘OK, what’s my job, how am I going to get back into F1?’ And I kind of had a goal and a plan to do that.

“I would say I want F1 more than any other driver. Everyone will say that. But I genuinely believe it. And I knew I had to really do what it takes, in a way that was quite strange because I can’t actually prove myself. It was almost like, what can you do without driving the car?”

A very personal blow

This was far from the first setback of Albon’s career. For many years, he had struggled to keep things on track.

Born to a British father – former racing driver Nigel Albon – and a Thai mother, he’d been a Red Bull-backed driver early in his career, but lost their support after an indifferent season in Formula Renault in 2012, caused by a major personal upheaval.

His mum Kankamol – with whom he is particularly close – was jailed for fraud, leaving a 15-year-old Albon to look after his younger brother and three sisters.

He still doesn’t like to talk about it. But in the first series of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series, he admitted it was “by far the hardest year I’ve had in my life”, recalling how he “saw her get locked up and taken away”.

Albon says now the difficult road “helped” when it came to rebuilding his career.

“It’s just because I’ve gone through it,” he says. “I’ve had it before, personal stuff, as well as I had it in Formula Renault, where I wasn’t going to race the year after and we scrambled along and pretty much got a budget together within, like, two weeks of the first race.

“It seems like it’s worked out every single time. It sounds like I’m a gambling man, but, no, it’s just true ambition, and if you put your mind to it, it’s very cliched, but you can achieve your goals.”

In person, Albon is modest and unassuming. It’s hard to square such an apparently gentle character with the steel he must have required to get where he has.

“The general public get me wrong,” he says. “They think I’m this happy-go-lucky kid constantly, and that I’m not hungry; maybe too nice.

“They will never see the fiery side because they don’t have a headset. They don’t listen to me when I’m driving. I am naturally quite happy. I do love what I do. It’s the reason why I wanted to be in F1 so much. And I felt like I’ve learnt to enjoy and relax about it. But you definitely need a fiery side if you want to be in F1.”

I tell him that what got him to this point seems more like steel than fire, and he says: “It’s both. It’s the resilience and at the same time it’s determination.

“As a driver, you almost need to be a fighter. When you have a helmet on, you’re fighting other drivers. And I am fired up. I really am not a nice person when I have my helmet on. Speak to the engineers here and they’ll tell you that.”

‘Russell played a part, for sure’

Alex Albon and George Russell
George Russell (right) and Albon have been good friends off the track since their karting days

How does someone go about reviving an F1 career without actually being able to race?

Albon’s answer was to throw himself into work behind the scenes with Red Bull. There were weeks, he says, when he would spend six days out of seven in their simulator.

He prepared a data sheet that proved, he said, his results at Red Bull were better than the general perception and “well in line with the people who I took over from or replaced me”.

Albon said they showed the 2020 car “wasn’t that easy”.

At the Austrian Grand Prix in July 2021, he met Williams chief executive officer Jost Capito and gave him the data as he made a pitch for the drive. The sheet, he told Capito, “showed not just what I can bring but also on a pure performance side, I’m a good driver and you should take me”.

Williams knew they would need a replacement for Russell, who was being promoted to Mercedes for 2022. In the background, Russell was making Albon’s case to the team.

“He played a part for sure,” Albon says of his close friend. “He got my name on the map.

“I’ve raced against George for a lot of my career and I’m in a very thankful position where he does respect or believe in my ability. He did mention my name a few times to Jost and the board; I joked about it but it is true, almost a bit too much, to the point where they said they wouldn’t listen to him!”

Marko and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner also weighed in for Albon.

“I know that they both also convinced Jost to take me,” he says. “I’m sure – I know – that they also told Jost the job that I was doing.

“That bit is very important. I knew that whatever I did last year, I had to also have Christian and Helmut really value what I do.

“Because I couldn’t drive the car, a lot of this paddock is gossip, and it’s talking and it’s trust, and I need to make sure that they truly believe in me and will support me. Because if there wasn’t any space in the Red Bull team, I’m still going to rely on them to have a good word for me to wherever I go or whatever I do.”

‘I spent a lot of time in a dark room’

Albon has repaid Capito and Williams for their faith.

They have the slowest car on the grid, but Albon scored a point in only his third race for the team with a remarkable drive in Melbourne, in which he drove almost the entire grand prix on one set of tyres, only stopping for the mandatory change on the final lap.

He added points in Miami two races later, with another resolute performance, and then in Belgium at the end of August.

His performances have been so good it’s almost as if Williams have lost Russell and replaced him with the same driver. Albon’s advantage over team-mate Nicholas Latifi is almost identical to the one Russell had.

Albon says his focus right from the start at Williams was getting himself back to being the driver he always believed he could be.

“I had a vision of the areas I wanted to work on from back in 2020,” he says. “I was like, ‘OK, I want to fix my areas almost first and really understand. I’ve got to get comfortable with the team and all that kind of thing.’

“That’s almost slightly separate to the performance of the car and where it was at. I’ve got to look at myself and really… I wouldn’t even call it shake off the rust, but really focus on my development.”

Alex Albon on track in Melbourne
Albon (left) started last on the grid when he picked up his first point for Williams in Melbourne in April

This process started with Red Bull in 2021.

He says: “I spent a lot of time in a simulator in a dark room last year and had a lot of time to look at what I was doing the previous year in terms of looking at data and also looking at Max and seeing what makes him quick and why is it quick?

“I understood the nitty-gritty stuff. I understood vehicle development and working closely with the guys for this year’s Red Bull car, and what have you. But I also felt like I was lacking a little bit of confidence in that 2020 car. And confidence is one of the very biggest things. You can’t teach that. You can’t work on it. You just have to gel with the car.

“You see it with drivers up and down the grid, where they’ll go to one team and they’ll struggle and they will go to another team and suddenly it swings. There’s so many examples I could give you of drivers who have struggled in one team and then excelled in another.”

Avoiding these pitfalls, he says, is about understanding what is required for both car and driver to be fast.

“My time at Red Bull made me understand that sometimes not a comfortable car was a quicker car and understanding that relationship between the balance of confidence and outright performance,” Albon says.

“I guess it’s really the knowledge of understanding a car’s characteristic, and what does the car need to go quicker? Because that changes completely from team to team.”

‘The F1 environment is such a beast’

Outside the car, Albon has revamped his support structure, taking on a manager, and forming a new relationship with a performance coach.

With them, he says he can “talk about offloading marketing stuff as much as I can”.

Williams have turned Albon’s distaste for marketing activities into a bit of a running joke on their social media channels. He smiles and agrees, but adds: “It’s a genuine thing. There is a lot of noise in F1 and I think I most probably got caught up in it a bit too much in 2020. There was a lot of firing going on and I was trying to avoid all the bullets.

“Red Bull were very good to me and were trying to help me and support me, but having that circle around me has allowed me to really focus on the driving side – the thing that I really like.

“I’m much more of a guy who is comfortable with the engineers than in front of a TV camera and that kind of thing.

“It was understanding that side of things, and making sure I had almost a strategy going into this year. ‘OK, this is how I know I operate best. This is where I understand the car, but this is also how I need to understand the team and figure out how I perform at my best as well.’

“A big part of that, which doesn’t really get talked about, is the handling of the Formula 1 environment in itself. It’s such a beast, in the way that you guys do your jobs.”

Albon brings up the recent controversy over the dispute between McLaren and Alpine over Oscar Piastri, which involved Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren contract being terminated a year early to make way for a driver who has not even raced in F1 yet.

“With stuff like Daniel and Oscar, to be able to drive with so much talk going around, it’s not an easy thing to do,” he says. “I think as a rookie, even in 2020, I wish I could tell myself the stuff I know now. But you can’t, so hindsight is a wonderful thing.”

In the end, all this introspection and hard work has paid off.

“I can only say that I feel comfortable,” Albon says. “I feel confident in the car. I feel confident with myself in the team and I know for a fact that I’m driving better than I did in 2020.

“If I look at it almost selfishly, independently, I feel like the year has gone as good as I could have hoped for.”

He hopes, he says, he has proved a point.

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