Red Bull’s Alex Albon Problem

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Image: © Red Bull Media House

In a season when Red Bull had hoped to mount a serious title challenge against Mercedes, their disappointment thus far will be twofold. They have again developed a decent car, relative to most of their competitors, but are still some way behind the reigning champions. And so far, they only have one driver performing at the high level they expect. We may be a short way through the 2020 season, but already Alexander Albon’s future is in doubt. In the ruthless Red Bull camp, what options do the team have this year?

I’ll be upfront; I’m a fan of Alex Albon. The Thai driver has shown that he can be quick, and he’s demonstrated his confidence when overtaking. Formula 1 has no room for the mediocre (unless they come with a pay packet), and I believe Albon has shown enough promise to justify his place amongst the twenty top drivers that F1 homes. However, the expectation levels between the bottom quarter of those twenty, and the top is vast. That’s why the questions about being good enough are getting asked.

Here’s the simple answer to “Is Albon good enough for Red Bull?”.

No. No, he isn’t.

But there are several invisible asterisks next to that no. It may look a simple answer, but it’s not a simple question. Few men can get a top drive in their first year or two in F1 and become winners. But that appears to be the minimum requirement now. Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen, and Charles Leclerc all achieved that feat. Red Bull now expects the same from their new drivers. But they make things difficult for themselves.

Red Bull is unique in the sport with their driver recruitment philosophy. Aside from their early years, they’ve filled their two seats with graduates from their junior Toro Rosso outfit (now AlphaTauri). While other teams can hire any promising driver, as Ferrari has done with Carlos Sainz, Red Bull restrict themselves to only two candidates. The approach has historically borne fruit-Vettel, Ricciardo, and Verstappen. All headline names in F1. But now, that run looks to have stalled. Danil Kvyat, Pierre Gasly, and now Alex Albon are all promising drivers, but they’re just not in that top ‘champion material’ tier.

However, I’ll add that it doesn’t mean that Albon or his AlphaTauri predecessors are incapable of winning races. It means they’d need longer than the 18-month lifespan Red Bull seems to allow for growth. So those invisible asterisks appending the “no” answer from earlier could be swapped with “not yet.” Albon may one day be the race-winning driver Red Bull wants him to be, but he’ll need time to develop. Based on their history, that looks like time they won’t allow Albon to have. But do they have a choice?

Another asterisk. “Is Albon good enough for Red Bull?”. No-but he’s no worse than the alternatives. Kvyat and Gasly look to be the only drivers in contention to take Albon’s seat. Red Bull tried them on for size and decided against both. Last year, when it was Gasly under fire, team principal Christian Horner overlooked the experienced Kvyat and promoted Albon instead. Why would that change now? If the team goes back to their discarded drivers pile, does that send the right message out? Or does it reek of no better ideas like Haas returning to their Australia-spec car last year?

The leftfield option is perhaps the most exciting one, but also least likely to unfold. If Red Bull’s self-imposed restriction is that they only race Toro Rosso alumni, then there is a successful out of contract driver available for 2021 that fits the bill. Would Sebastian Vettel return to Red Bull? In a heartbeat. The four-time champion believes he’s capable of more. Red Bull’s only titles have been thanks to the German. Although times do change, Vettel spent six years with the Milton Keynes team and would easily fit back in. However, Horner has repeatedly played down the suggestion. But he also said they had no intention of demoting Gasly and look where that got us.

Maybe Red Bull needs to look inward instead? Do they need to change their patience levels and deal with a driver who is learning his craft? While Russell and Norris can have a weak race written off as experience-building away from the spotlight, Albon’s are under the media microscope. Admittedly, his qualifying performances in 2020 have been dire. Alex hasn’t attained the bare minimum of qualifying behind only Verstappen and the two Mercedes’ yet. But he’s always made up places on Sunday (punts into the gravel by Hamilton exempted).

If Red Bull believes that Verstappen is their antithesis to Lewis Hamilton, then they need a Bottas of their own. As Mercedes march forwards towards their seventh constructor’s title in as many years, they achieved all of them with only three drivers. Red Bull are yet to answer back despite trialing six. Is it a coincidence the four titles they won in 2010–2013 were with the same two men? Probably.

But the only teammate they are still to try out alongside Max Verstappen is consistency. With a limited driver pool to choose from, now’s time for Red Bull to try something radical and show the same commitment they have in Verstappen with their second driver, be it Albon, Gasly, Kvyat, or someone else entirely.

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A tall man, living around the world, watching fast cars

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