The Alexander Albon Case: A Wasted Potential

Article dedicated to the reader Lucilene Mota, who asked for an analysis of Alexander Albon. Special thanks to Adriana Perantoni for the sources of Noemí de Miguel and the information about Antonio Pérez.

 

On December 18th, 2020, Red Bull Racing announced Sergio Pérez to race alongside Max Verstappen in 2021. Therefore, the British-Thai driver Alexander Albon got relegated to a reserve driver. Some controversies follow the circumstances of this situation at Red Bull. Some examples are their inability in making a car as good as Verstappenthe exit of Pérez from Racing Point after Sebastian Vettel acquired shares of its future owner, and Albon’s hiring in the middle of the 2019 season to replace Pierre Gasly (what generated a big hope over the new driver);

It notes that Red Bull is impatient to become the new challenger of Mercedes, given the fall in Ferrari’s performance and the rise of Racing Point in 2020. Aware of Verstappen’s ability, who conquered the team’s first wins since 2014, the Austrian team was looking for a teammate who could follow the Dutchman’s speed after the exit of Daniel Ricciardo for Renault with the end of the 2018 season. Albon ended up being a victim of this haste and having a humiliating exit from the constructor’s championship runner-up. This article will explain how it happened and why there was a big injustice with the athlete.

 

1- The 2019 season: the opportunity to shine

 

As explained earlier, Daniel Ricciardo’s departure led Red Bull to look for another talent to race alongside Max Verstappen. The duo had achieved excellent results from 2016 to 2018, which allowed the team to be runner-up and then third place (for two consecutive years) in the constructors’ championship. Replacing a driver who guaranteed victories and podiums for the team would not be easy, but Red Bull had a young name in mind: Pierre Gasly.

 

Pierre Gasly takes fourth place in the 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix. (Photo: Sky Sports) [1]

 

The French driver had excelled in Toro Rosso, having his best result so far, the fourth place in the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2018. They believed that if Gasly could reach such a high position in a car considered average, he would succeed in getting at least podiums in a top team. However, his performance in the first year with Red Bull was below expectations. While Verstappen was an almost constant presence on the podium, Gasly was behind Ferrari drivers (Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc). Not being able to take advantage of the Italian team’s crisis (whose tension between the drivers was aggravating), the Frenchman got fewer points for Red Bull, which lost the chance to win the runners-up championship.

Unhappy with Gasly and Verstappen’s mismatch, consultant Helmut Marko convinced Red Bull officials to replace the Dutchman’s teammate. From the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix onwards, Alexander Albon would take the seat. It was too late for Red Bull to recover the loss, but they saw the new driver as a long-term investment (if he performed well, he would remain on the team the following year). Albon had commendable performances, as in the Russian Grand Prix (in which he started from the pits and finished in fifth place) and in Brazil (having a chance to get the first podium, but was reached by Lewis Hamilton with a few laps to go). Albon finished the championship in eighth place, with 92 points. Considering that he spent the first half of the season at Toro Rosso and only then went to a top team, the result is impressive. For this reason, he was elected by the Autosports Awards as the “Rookie of the Year” in 2019.

 

Alexander Albon being awarded the “Rookie of the Year” award in 2019. (Photo: FIA) [2]

 

2- 2020: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

 

This phrase from Uncle Ben, from “Spider-Man,” sums up the pressure that fell on Alexander Albon in his second season with Red Bull. The driver started the year well, having one more chance to get his first podium at the Austrian Grand Prix. An unfortunate coincidence prevented him from winning: again, a collision with Lewis Hamilton. In the following races, Albon reached the scoring zone, but in places much lower than Max Verstappen’s. The situation was soon similar to that of Pierre Gasly in 2019, but Helmut Marko chose not to fire the Thai in a hurry.

Two factors prevented immediate action by Red Bull. First, the second layoff in two consecutive years without the championship ending would put the team’s reputation in check. The switch from Gasly to Albon no longer seemed as justified in 2020 as it was in 2019, and taking out the Thai was in danger of resulting in yet another unsatisfactory replacement. Soon, Marko would be classified as “impetuous.” Second, AlphaTauri did not have the appropriate names to take Albon’s place. Bringing Gasly back would be “humiliating” for Red Bull (who would have to admit he “made a mistake” with the Frenchman), and Daniil Kvyat already had a ticket by the Austrian team, being fired at the beginning of the 2016 season and replaced by Verstappen. The switch from the Russian to the Dutch driver was the most assertive of Red Bull in recent years in the short, medium, and long term, which did not repeat with the following changes (this is because Verstappen is a separate case).

Helmut Marko (left) and Max Verstappen (right). (Photo: XPB) [3]

 

In the first half of 2020, Albon faced difficulties in training on Friday and Saturday, starting from intermediate places on the grid, which is not expected for a top team driver. Only in the Tuscan Grand Prix, a race marked by accidents that led almost half of the grid to abandon, the Thai got his well-deserved first podium after winning a duel with Daniel Ricciardo for third place. He repeated the result only at the Bahrain Grand Prix, in which Sergio Pérez’s car engine ignited the rear of the vehicle and forced the Mexican to abandon. Despite the podiums, Albon was nowhere near what Ricciardo had been for Red Bull, and Gasly’s victory in the Italian Grand Prix only added to the team’s embarrassment.

Pierre Gasly’s win at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix. (Photo: Matteo Bazzi/AP) [4]

 

The similarity between Albon’s performance in 2020 and Gasly’s in 2019 was just one ingredient in the change of drivers from Red Bull to 2021. Another reason is in the context of another team.

 

3- Changes in Racing Point: Sergio Pérez enters the game

 

In 2020 Racing Point started a landmark chapter in its history. The previous season served as a test for the team’s new plans, bought in the second half of 2018 by a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll after the Force India bankruptcy. Deciding to join the group of top teams, the English team had impressive results thanks to the joint work of the engineering department and its team of drivers, formed by Lance Stroll and Sergio Pérez.

For 2021, the team sought even more investments to continue its triumphant path. One of the agreements reached was with the French company Aston Martin, which will give its name to the team. Everything seemed to go as it was, but now with improvements approaching, a turnaround happened: Ferrari fired Sebastian Vettel for his disappointing performances, and months later, Racing Point announced him as its driver for 2021. His signing would not have been so controversial if were it not for the confusion of information reported to the press: Racing Point oscillated between denial and interest in Vettel, and the narratives of Pérez and the team leader, Otmar Sznafnauer, about whether the Mexican had previously been warned of the situation conflicted with each other. Journalist Adam Cooper later revealed the truth, reporting that Vettel had bought shares in Aston Martin, thereby securing a seat on the team (to better understand this case, read the article by Ricardo Hernandes Meyer here).

 

Otmar Sznafnauer, Racing Point’s team boss (left), and Sebastian Vettel (right). (Photo: XPB) [5]

 

They note Pérez is one of the most consistent drivers in Formula One. He has podiums under challenging races, as in the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The journalist Noemí de Miguel, who reported first hand that Renault was negotiating the signing Fernando Alonso for 2021 (confirmed months later), stated that Red Bull planned to bring Pérez to be Max Verstappen’s teammate. One of the signs of this negotiation was when Antonio Pérez, the driver’s brother, started to follow Red Bull’s profile on Twitter. However, both “Checo” and the Austrian team preferred to keep the talks a secret (perhaps not to affect Albon’s results) and only announced the decision after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

 

Among the profiles Antonio Pérez, Sergio’s brother, follows on Twitter por Antonio Pérez, is Red Bull’s. (Photo: Twitter) [6]

 

We can see that Racing Point’s and Ferrari’s actions also impacted Red Bull, mainly in Albon’s fate. The expectation was that Vettel would have a gap year to reflect on his mistakes and rethink his career, just as it did with Esteban Ocon. However, the German had a master’s strategy: buying shares in the owner company guarantees a place. Indeed the press will not emphasize this because it prefers to generate controversies over Stroll, which has nothing to do with the story (the reason is implicit). Pérez’s need for a seat and Red Bull’s desire to replace Albon without being like what happened to Pierre Gasly led to the Mexican’s hiring and, consequently, the Thai’s replacement.

 

4- Helmut Marko’s haste: the sacrifice of young Red Bull talents

 

The Red Bull consultant had previously told the press that “none of the young people on the team’s training program come close to Max Verstappen.” Such a statement is harmful to athletes, who feel their work devalued. Sport is indeed an area that demands pressure to result in achievements, but this comparison hinders young drivers’ self-confidence and frustrates the team’s plans. Also, Marko seems to put too much pressure on the athletes and not to do the same with the engineering department, unable to produce a car up to Verstappen’s potential despite allegedly working focused on the driver. Recalling that engineers are fundamental in the performance of a team in Formula One, as noted in Williams’s case.

Verstappen, as previously revealed, is an exceptional talent. As a teenager, he achieved victories, podiums, and records in a team that did not have the best car on the grid. It does not mean, however, that other drivers cannot be talented. Demanding a Verstappen clone from his students is an absurd attitude by Marko, as each person has their work style. Not even Max’s father, Jos Verstappen, had such brilliant career results as his son. If instead of demanding a second version of the Dutchman, Red Bull worked to develop both drivers’ potential, the team would have a better performance in the championships. But it seems that this team favors one athlete and wants the other, as observed in the first decade of 2010 with Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.

 

 

Marko even accused Albon of not having self-confidence. With a boss like this, it gets tricky. (Photo: GPBlog) [7]

 

Pierre Gasly’s victory in 2020 proved that each rider has his time to adapt and that excessive charges do not shape an athlete based on another just because the team’s board wishes. Unfortunately, while being an enemy of perfection, haste shows up as one of Marko’s values, which sacrifices Red Bull’s opportunities. The example of Racing Point, which preferred to “take it easy” in 2019 to rock out in 2020, demonstrates that caution should be the main ingredient of good planning, not anxiety.

Another essential point to note is the hiring of Yuki Tsunoda to race for AlphaTauri in 2021. As Daniil Kvyat is no longer able to satisfy the group, and Gasly does a great job, it is natural to fire the Russian to give the Japanese a chance. Although this means an impediment for Albon to return to AlphaTauri, Tsunoda should is not responsible for the Thai’s misfortune, as this is a new talent that will have a chance to present his work. As demonstrated earlier, the purchase of Vettel’s seat at Aston Martin influences Albon’s situation much more than the hiring of the Japanese driver.

 

5- Conclusions

 

Alexander Albon’s case only differs from that of Pierre Gasly in one point: the time Red Bull fired each of them. Both were victims of Helmut Marko’s haste and eagerness to have two riders with the performance of Max Verstappen, which places all the responsibility on young athletes. Both Albon and Gasly have proven their talent and deserve seats in Formula One but have suffered from the Austrian team’s conflict of interest, which wishes for triumph by choosing the wrong ways.

If Sebastian Vettel had not bought Aston Martin’s shares in his successful attempt to stay on track despite his impetuosity, perhaps Red Bull would have to keep Albon for longer. That’s because Racing Point would probably keep its drivers, as Lance Stroll and Sergio Pérez have excellent dynamics as teammates and guarantee remarkable results in the races. As the Mexican is more experienced and then has a more extensive curriculum, he became the ideal candidate for Red Bull to continue its fight against Mercedes, besides satisfying the desire to fire a driver whose “mistake” was “not being” Verstappen.

 

This is how Red Bull thinks: Verstappen is above any driver. [8]

 

Although he said he never suffered racism in his personal or professional life, some fans and journalists remember a case that is at least suspect. At the 2019 Italian Grand Prix, the stewards decided to punish him for an incident with Carlos Sainz Jr., even though it was the Spaniard who threw the opponent off the track. That was one of the actions that led to suspects of racism on the stewards (the others were the unfair decisions with Stroll and Lewis Hamilton), which hurt the three colored drivers on the grid to benefit white athletes. Albon may not have noticed the “coincidences” in the Italian Grand Prix’s decisions, but these cannot be ignored. Also, when speculation began about his departure from Red Bull, much was said about a possible interest by the company’s owners in keeping him from being Thai. Sponsoring companies are indeed interested in compatriot athletes in their respective sports categories, but Albon should not be remembered just for his ethnic origins. His work and effort justified his presence in Formula One.

Alexander Albon is yet another driver condemned for his team’s irresponsibility even though he is innocent. A similar case was that of Sergey Sirotkin, who left Formula One with the stigma of a “pay driver” although he was not to blame for Williams’s crisis (which was proved in the following years to be by its engineers and managers). Those directly responsible for leaving the Red Bull driver are Vettel (for causing Pérez to quit Racing Point when he bought Aston Martin shares) and Marko (for demanding perfection from his drivers quickly). But what can we consider the “culprit” for Albon’s misfortune is Red Bull’s segregationist policy, which prefers to turn one driver into a prince (even though he doesn’t have the resources to do so) and the other into a beggar when he could turn them both into heroes. If they do not change their strategies, the Austrian team is in danger of going through a crisis similar to that of Ferrari, and other “Albons” will be sacrificed in the process.

 

In short. [9]

6- Read also:

 

 

7- Bibliography

 

 

8- Photos

Note: None of the photos used in this article, except the montages, belongs to me. This site has informative intentions, not commercial. The links where I took the photos are indicated below. All copyrights reserved.

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