Formula 1: One driver’s unlikely journey to return to F1

Alex Albon, Williams, Formula 1 (Photo by TPN/Getty Images)
Alex Albon, Williams, Formula 1 (Photo by TPN/Getty Images) /

Alex Albon lost his ride with Red Bull after the 2020 Formula 1 season, but after a year out of the sport, he finds himself back with Williams.

Through the first four races of the 2022 Formula 1 season, Alex Albon has scored the lone point for Williams, and he did so with an incredible race in Melbourne that saw him make his tires last the entire race, prior to a mandatory last-lap pit stop. He drove from 20th (last) place to finish in 10th in a car which many believed may struggle to score at all this year.

But just last year, there were questions as to whether Albon would ever get the opportunity to compete in Formula 1 again.

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The 26-year-old Thai-British driver made his Formula 1 debut in 2019 with Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri), the Red Bull sister team, and just 12 races into the season, he was promoted to Red Bull to replace the demoted Pierre Gasly.

Albon stayed with Red Bull for 2020, but he lost his ride to Sergio Perez, who was left without a ride when he was replaced by Sebastian Vettel at Racing Point (now Aston Martin) for 2021.

When Albon found out he would not be in the sport in 2021, he was naturally upset by it.

“It was both [demoralizing and motivating], very quickly after one another,” Albon told Beyond the Flag. “So I felt like, to begin with, I was a little bit – I was down, of course. There’s kind of a bit that goes on after I got told the news where you’re kind of, you feel sorry for yourself in some respect. You’ve worked to be an F1 driver your whole life, of course, for me since I was five years old. For it to end so quickly, it’s tough.”

But he chose to allow it to motivate him more so than he let it get him down.

“But I would say within 20 minutes, 30 minutes of feeling that way, it was almost like, right, well, there are two ways to go about it,” he continued. “You can sit in your sorrows, or you can try to get back into it. I obviously took the latter way, and yeah, it worked out very well for me.”

It’s hard to return to Formula 1 after losing your ride, but Albon was able to pull it off. Valtteri Bottas moved from Mercedes to Alfa Romeo to replace the retiring Kimi Raikkonen, and George Russell made the long-speculated move from Williams to Mercedes to replace him. As a result, Williams had a seat open, and that seat went to Albon.

“I made sure I did as much as I could with the team at Red Bull,” he said. “Obviously, they still gave me a chance to stay on as a reserve driver. I had to showcase my skills in a different way, on the sidelines.”

Albon felt that staying with Red Bull as a reserve driver in 2021 played a key role in his return to the sport for 2022.

“Definitely,” he said. “You have to kind of stay in the circle of F1 to have a chance. I think fortunately for me, it went well because especially when you looked at 2020 to 2021 for Red Bull themselves, they made a big step forward, and a lot of that work was done in the simulator. I don’t want to take the credit for it, but I hope maybe 1% or 2% of it was partly down to me!

“And people saw that, and Williams saw that as well, and it felt like, in a way, it increased my stock as a driver because I felt like I had more value than just driving. I knew how to develop the car, I knew how to communicate with the engineers and the people at the factory, which often doesn’t really get overlooked too much in the world as a race driver.”

But he admitted that it was quite awkward on Sundays last year as he watched 20 drivers compete in a sport he had once been a part of.

“Yeah, it was,” he explained. “It was very tough. The first few races especially, you’re kind of down on the sidelines, you’re twiddling your thumbs, and you’re not really doing anything, I’d say. It was just like, you want to drive as much as you can. Just seeing the cars going around, and I was in the garage or in hospitality, it was frustrating. But actually I would say that it fueled me more and it made me more hungry and made me realize how much I wanted it.”

That’s exactly what he did.

And while a year out of the sport rarely leads to a return, this very scenario played out a few years ago, when Esteban Ocon lost his ride with Racing Point after the 2018 season. He spent the 2019 season as the Mercedes reserve driver before joining Renault (now Alpine) for the 2020 season.

Albon did have some discussions with Ocon, who is still with Alpine, about his situation, but not many.

“Not too much,” he said. “But we did have a chat from time to time, especially last year. He knew how it felt. He definitely empathized in that situation for me.”

But Albon’s focus was always about taking that next step to return, and that led to additional talks with Russell about the seat he was vacating at Williams.

“And on that side of it, it was more just seeing the driver market,” he continued. “There was a bit of movement happening with George going toward Mercedes, and that was it really. I honestly spoke more with someone like George, because I saw the opportunities there at Williams.”

He spoked about the dynamic at Williams and how it differs from the dynamic at Toro Rosso and the dynamic at Red Bull, noting that he is more of a “lead driver” at his new team than he ever was in the past.

“The dynamic I would say, the main thing that’s different is that I’m more of a leader within the team,” he said. “I have a more important role to play in terms of the development of the car. And of course, we’re heading into new regulations and new tires, so the experience – I’m more reliant on my experience to guide the team where to go.”

Teammate Nicholas Latifi arrived at the team in 2020 and was largely considered their number two driver behind Russell in 2020 and 2021.

“I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I’ve driven the Red Bull car, and obviously that’s a quick car to drive,” Albon continued. “So I can use that knowledge that I’ve had driving that car. There are some things in the Williams car that are very good, but there are other things that I know we can improve on. Without that experience with Red Bull, I think it would be harder for me to know the areas that we need to improve on.”

Albon is set to take part in the inaugural Miami Grand Prix at Miami International Autodrome this weekend, and he couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity to compete in this historic event.

“It feels like F1 has had a pretty good last few years, and there’s been a clear surge in viewers and interest in F1, especially in America,” he stated. “It feels like Miami is kind of this epitome of the direction of Formula 1 right now. There’s so much interest.

“Everyone has a custom car, a custom helmet for the weekend, myself included. It’s just an amazing event that’s being put on display. It just feels pretty special to be a part of this boon right now that’s happening with Formula 1 in America.”

The 19-turn, 3.363-mile (5.412-kilometer) temporary street circuit around Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida is scheduled to host its first 57-lap race on Sunday afternoon. But even on Thursday when Albon spoke to us about the event, things were already crazy.

“Obviously this weekend is a pretty special one! It’s chaos right now, and it’s only Thursday, so I can’t imagine what it will be like on the weekend.”

The 2022 season is unique in that it is the first season in which full-capacity crowds are allowed to attend races since 2019, following two consecutive seasons of crowd levels being limited by COVID-19-related restrictions. Miami has certainly taken advantage already, and it is poised to do more of the same throughout the weekend.

Of all the tracks remaining on the schedule beyond this weekend, Albon is looking forward to going back to Suzuka.

“And then I think Suzuka is the next big one,” he said. “We haven’t been there for a long time now. I don’t know if you know much about the fans there, but they are properly into their racing, and they are extremely passionate people. But they are very respectful too. It’s quite a special place to be. I think that race is going to be really exciting.”

Suzuka was axed from the calendar in 2020 and 2021 due to restrictions. It last hosted the Japanese Grand Prix in October 2019, when Albon secured what was then a career-high fourth place finish.

Much has happened in Albon’s Formula 1 career since that race, which was just his fifth with Red Bull. And he has a lot to be proud of.

“My first podium in F1 has always been special, in Mugello [2020],” he discussed. “We had to do a few overtakes, and we got there, which felt amazing.”

But he isn’t taking any part of the journey for granted, and he still considers his first race among his career highlights.

“And then other than that, my first race,” he admitted. “Your first race is always a big moment in your career. I remember how nervous I was the night before and during the start. And yeah, it was the start of my career in F1, so I will always carry a deep memory with me.”

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As crazy as the journey has been, he will never surely forget where he started.