Following the first F1 race of 2020 it did not look like a year which was going to end with Alexander Albon losing his Red Bull drive.
He started his second year as a grand prix driver, and first full campaign at Red Bull, by coming close to victory in the Austrian Grand Prix. But just five months later he learned he would not be on the grid for the 2021 F1 season.
As Albon’s increasingly difficult season unfolded, Red Bull wrestled with the decision whether to replace him. Last year the same team had been quick to cut Pierre Gasly loose. Albon kept his seat until the end of the year.
But with each passing race team principal Christian Horner found it harder to accentuate the positives in his driver’s performances, and it gradually seemed his days were numbered. Even so, it wasn’t until after the final race that Albon was finally eased aside. Here’s how his season unfolded through the eyes of his team.
Austrian Grand Prix
Albon started 4th, finished 13th; Verstappen started 2nd, did not finish
When the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix restarted with 11 laps to run, Albon had an outside chance of victory. The two Mercedes drivers were on old rubber, but Red Bull had taken advantage of the opportunity to fit fresh rubber on his car.
He pounced on Lewis Hamilton at the restart and tried to pass the Mercedes driver around the outside of turn four. But the pair tangled, knocking Albon into a spin. Remarkably, it was the second time in three races Hamilton had knocked Albon out of a podium position, and as in the penultimate race of 2019 the world champion was penalised for the collision.
Alex had won the corner. It was on the exit of the corner. Why Lewis needed to stick the wheel in there I have no idea. So obviously it’s frustrating for Alex that this is the second time in three races that this has happened to him. It was unfortunate because I think he would have had a chance to win the race today.
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Styrian Grand Prix
Albon started 6th, finished 4th; Verstappen started 2nd, finished 3rd
Back at the Red Bull Ring for the second round, Albon backed his team mate up in fourth place.
The first half he was struggling and then the second half I thought he drove well and his pace was good. So we need to understand that with him and hopefully help him get more comfortable with the car on the heavy fuel because his pace in the second half of the race was strong.
Hungarian Grand Prix
Albon started 13th, finished 5th; Verstappen started 7th, finished 2nd
Both Red Bull drivers qualified disappointingly at the Hungaroring, though Albon failed to reach Q3 for the first time.
I’m very pleased. It’s been a difficult weekend for Alex, the car spec’s been changing a lot from session to session. And when you haven’t got the experience, as he doesn’t, then that’s harder to deal with.
So I think actually in the race, he managed to find his rhythm and the pace was very, very good, comparable with Max. His overtaking was strong and against the Ferraris and whoever else he was passing out there, I thought he did a super job.
If you look at his pace in clear air it was pretty decent. So I think we’re very, very satisfied with Alex’s performance.
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British Grand Prix
Albon started 12th, finished 8th; Verstappen started 3rd, finished 2nd
Red Bull appointed the experienced Simon Rennie as Albon’s race engineer. “He’s very good at extracting the most and encouraging the driver,” Horner explained. “And I think that’s a benefit for Alex for the rest of the season. So I’m happy. That partnership, I think, will work pretty well.”
However their first weekend together was not one to remember. After going out in Q2 for the second race in a row, Albon picked up a penalty when he knocked Kevin Magnussen out of the race while trying to pass the Haas driver for 12th.
For me that was a racing incident. If you look at it from the beginning, Kevin made a mistake, he got out wide, Alex put his nose in there and then he sort of backed out of it a little bit. It was one of those things. I wasn’t too surprised with the penalty, it could have gone either way.
But I thought his recovery from there was excellent. We’ve seen it on numerous occasions, his ability to come back through the field, and his pace in the race was very good. We just need to have a straightforward, boring weekend for him. But I thought today, once again, he’s driven a very strong grand prix.
70th Anniversary Grand Prix
Albon started 9th, finished 5th; Verstappen started 4th, finished 1st
Verstappen scored his first victory of the season, while Albon was almost 40 seconds in arrears at the chequered flag, though at least he made it into Q3.
Alex has actually raced phenomenally well this season. I think that, again, should just give him added confidence. We just need to make sure he’s starting further up the grid.
Spanish Grand Prix
Albon started 6th, finished 8th; Verstappen started 3rd, finished 2nd
While Verstappen split the Mercedes drivers Albon lost ground, cycling through all three tyre compounds in an attempt to find grip and finishing a lap behind.
Alex made a good start but got boxed in at the first corner behind Valtteri [Bottas] and he then seemed to struggle with degradation on all tyre compounds. Eighth was the outcome of that.
Now we’ll need to go through all the information from the race to try and understand what created that degradation on the three compounds of tyre.
Belgian Grand Prix
Albon started 5th, finished 6th; Verstappen started 3rd, finished 3rd
Albon had to pass Gasly – the driver he replaced at Red Bull last year – for fifth, but lost the position to Esteban Ocon on the final lap. Gasly’s consistently strong performances for AlphaTauri were not going unnoticed.
We felt [the medium tyre] would be the best chance to have against the Renaults, we managed to get one of the Renaults at the pit stop, the guys did a faster pit stop than Renault and we felt that that would be the best tyre to be able to attack them. But unfortunately, the tyre got into a similar amount of deg[radation] as the hard tyre. So Alex just wasn’t able to hang onto that fifth place at the end. But I think, nonetheless, he did a good job defending hard throughout the grand prix.
[…] Alex’s performances on Sundays have been very strong. He drove another good race today: His defending, his overtaking, his attacking is always strong and I think we’re going in the right direction. So I think it’s good to see Pierre getting back up to speed which is why he’s still on the programme. But we’re happy with the way things are.
Italian Grand Prix
Albon started 9th, finished 15th; Verstappen started 5th, did not finish
Another power unit glitch claimed Verstappen on a day when problems for Mercedes meant a win was there for the taking. Crushingly for Albon, it was Gasly who capitalised, while he failed to score.
Alex suffered damage from contact at turn one which he also incurred an arguably harsh five second time penalty for, putting him to the back of the field before the Safety Car restart.
The damage to Alex’s floor from the early race contact was significant and he was losing around a second a lap throughout the race, resulting in him finishing 15th.
Tuscan Grand Prix
Albon started 4th, finished 3rd; Verstappen started 3rd, did not finish
Despite an increasingly difficult season, Albon was clearly owed a podium by his earlier misfortunes, and a race of high attrition at Mugello put that right. He passed Daniel Ricciardo on his way to third place behind the Mercedes pair, Verstappen having been claimed by the chaos on lap one.
A bittersweet day but it’s fantastic to see Alex take his first F1 podium. He’s done a great job all weekend and he had to pass some tough competitors to fight his way back through the field after a couple of difficult starts.
All credit to him because he hasn’t let the negativity or external criticism get him down, he’s picked himself up and put in a first-class performance. I think this podium will give him a boost of confidence and self-belief and I’m sure he will only get stronger from here.
Russian Grand Prix
Albon started 15th, finished 10th; Verstappen started 2nd, finished 2nd
While Verstappen took advantage of a penalty for Hamilton to split the Mercedes again, Albon collected a penalty of his own and finished a minute and a half behind his team mate. Questions over his future at the team were growing louder.
Alex is particularly sensitive to some of the characteristics of the car. And he’s struggling with that and they’re accentuated at this type of circuit with short corners and big braking zones.
Obviously there’s plenty to look at for him. In his second half of the race he recovered reasonably well but obviously it’s been a tough weekend for him. It’s a shame after the podium two weeks ago that this one has probably been one of the hardest of the year for him.
Eifel Grand Prix
Albon started 5th, did not finish; Verstappen started 3rd, finished 2nd
A forlorn radio message captured another low point in Albon’s season. He crossed swords with the AlphaTauri pair – both ex-Red Bull drivers – exclaiming “these guys race me so hard”.
Albon’s unnecessary chop across Daniil Kvyat caused contact and earned him a penalty. A first-lap lock-up had already spoiled his tyres, and his team called him in after spotting a problem with his power unit.
We had a big lock-up into turn three on the opening lap and our concern was that he’d gone pretty much through to the canvas and we were seeing vibrations increasing to the point that it was past our threshold. So from a safety point of view we had to pit him at that point.
He then started to make good progress back through the field but was very unlucky in that he picked up some debris that pierced a radiator on the cooling circuit and we just saw our temperatures starting to go sky-high. So before losing an engine we had no choice but to stop the car.
It was a shame in the race, I think he would have been racing Perez and Ricciardo even with that flat spot and the early stop. So it’s a shame for him not to see that come to fruition today because he’s had a pretty sensible weekend.
He was almost on the second row of the grid yesterday, a few hundredths of a second off that, he was a lot closer to his team mate than he was in Russia. So I think it’s a shame that he didn’t get a result out of today because I think there was more to come.
Portuguese Grand Prix
Albon started 6th, finished 12th; Verstappen started 3rd, finished 3rd
Both Red Bull drivers struggled on the slippery track at the start, but Albon was unable to recover to the points while Verstappen took his ninth podium from as many finishes.
By now it was known experienced racers Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were on the market for 2021. Before the weekend began Horner had indicated Albon had two races to prove he deserved to stay in the car.
Obviously, it’s been a difficult race for him, so we need to look at all of the data, all of the information, try and understand why his tyre wear, for example, was significantly higher. So plenty to look at, plenty to understand and obviously he’ll need to bounce back in less than a week’s time.
The reality is there’s not so many races left in the season and it’s getting to that time of year where we need to start thinking about next year. Within the next few weeks we’re going to have to make a decision. So obviously, we know what all the options are.
You’ve got to look at all of the options. I don’t think we’d be doing our job if we didn’t look at the situation within Formula 1 that are obviously drivers that have got significant experience and ability – it’s a very unusual situation – that could be available.
Our first and foremost priority is to give Alex the opportunity to lay claim to that seat. Let’s not forget when he jumped in the car last year, he out-scored and out-performed Pierre significantly in the balance of 2019. So if we were to swap them back, why would it be any different?
Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix
Albon started 6th, finished 15th; Verstappen started 3rd, did not finish
After a tyre failure eliminated Verstappen, Red Bull’s frustration deepened as they called Albon into the pits too late during a Safety Car period, and he was forced to restart on old rubber. He was swamped by rivals and spun, ending the day point-less.
For Alex, it’s a difficult one because he was in a race with Charles [Leclerc] and Daniel all afternoon, stuck in a bit of a train, and then at the restart he tried to cover the cars behind who’d just had a free stop for new tyres under the Safety Car, and he lost it at the second chicane.
Turkish Grand Prix
Albon started 4th, finished 7th; Verstappen started 2nd, finished 6th
Both Red Bull drivers – and quite a few of their rivals – spun in the incredibly slippery conditions at Istanbul. Having had each of their RB16s ahead of Hamilton for much of the early stages, Red Bull couldn’t keep him from another victory.
[Alex] was quicker than the two Racing Points ahead before also experiencing tyre issues and a spin which saw us pit him earlier than we would have liked and from there on both drivers were well down the order.
Bahrain Grand Prix
Albon started 4th, finished 3rd; Verstappen started 3rd, finished 2nd
With still no word on his destination for 2021, the final triple-header got off to an inauspicious start as Albon crashed in practice, causing what Horner called “a significant amount of damage.”
The race went better. Albon held a solid fourth, which became a second podium finish of the season when Perez – by now considered the favourite to replace him – retired with a point unit failure just four laps from home.
Alex drove a good race today. Sergio was unlucky. Alex benefited from his misfortune. That’s what we were needing to see from Alex. I think his recovery from Friday was strong. Obviously after the off that he had, he qualified fourth, he was there to capitalise on Sergio’s misfortune, he’s finished on the podium. It’s our first double podium since Japan 2017, it’s our first podium in Bahrain since 2013. So I think today’s been a good day for Alex.
I think no decision should be made until after the final race. With Alex we’re giving him every opportunity, we want him to succeed, I think we’ve been clear with that all along and days like today do help him with this. We’ve still got two further races and Sergio is doing the best job that he can to ensure that he remains under consideration. And today was Alex’s good fortune with that podium, Alex had a good day today and there’s still two further races to go.
Sakhir Grand Prix
Albon started 12th, finished 6th; Verstappen started 3rd, did not finish
Having failed to make the cut for Q3 again, Albon salvaged points on Sunday, but like Monza this was an opportunity missed as Mercedes hit trouble and his team mate was out on lap one. And the biggest beneficiary was the driver eyeing his seat, Perez, who took an shock win for Racing Point.
Alex survived contact in the opening lap but struggled for pace in the initial stint. He pitted for the hard tyre which he seemed more comfortable on and we then took a bit of a risk under the last Safety Car to put the soft tyre on which he used to good effect to move up to sixth.
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Albon started 5th, finished 4th; Verstappen started 1st, finished 1st
The season finale was arguably Albon’s best drive of the year. He stayed within range of the (unusually subdued) Mercedes drivers, limiting their tactical options, as Verstappen chalked up his second win of the season.
We’ve always said that we’ll go to the end of the year and then make our decision at the end of the season. Alex had probably his strongest race weekend actually this weekend, which is encouraging for him. But we now have a full picture of the season. And we’ll make that decision in the coming days.
We have a huge amount of data now, we have all the knowledge across the various circuits that we’ve done and we’ll sit down and obviously go through that and come to the right conclusion.
With more drives like this, Albon might well have kept his place at the team. However five days later Red Bull confirmed he would step back to the role of test and reserve driver for 2021, and Perez would replace him.
The team drew considerable criticism for ousting Gasly after just 12 races last season. This time no one could argue their outgoing driver hadn’t had a fair crack of the whip.
Whether Albon, who only drove an F1 car for the first time in February last year, had been promoted to the top team too hastily to begin with, is another matter.
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