The seemingly never-ending Max Verstappen teammate's saga had a new victim last year. The British-based racing team has announced in mid-December their decision to sign Sergio Perez as Max Verstappen’s partner for the 2021 season while demoting Albon to a reserve role, which will also include a focus on development duties for Formula 1’s 2022 rules changes. This decision marks the fourth different driver at Verstappen’s side in the last four years. Perhaps, it is not Alexander Albon the one to blame.
As we all know, Formula 1 is a business and a mind game, if you can’t put up with the pressure, you can’t hope to compete against the greatest talents in the world.
Only a few drivers have the possibility to pursue a career in Formula 1: The sport has unbelievably high participation costs, paying-drivers are always behind the corner, and when you don’t have huge sponsors ready to back you off, every race could be your last.
Landing in the premier series in 2019 as a Toro Rosso driver, Alex Albon was a points-scorer by his second race and had already established himself as an equal to his at-the-time teammate Daniil Kvyat.
In his debut season, Albon made an important early-impact while Pierre Gasly, who was promoted from the Italian-based team to Red Bull, was severely struggling, costing Red Bull valuable points.
Albon’s stellar performances in the first 12-races of his rookie season convinced Red Bull’s leader to drop the Frenchman and switch the two drivers mid-season.
Now, one and a half seasons later, the tables have turned. Again.
After being dropped from its Formula 1 line-up and being replaced by Sergio Perez for the 2021 season, it has been announced that Alexander Albon will be competing in the DTM. The Anglo-Thai driver will be participating in selected DTM races, whenever his Formula 1 duties as a test, replacement and simulator driver allow.
"The DTM with a high-class field and GT3 sports cars is an interesting platform and a real challenge, both for successful race drivers like Alex Albon as for our Red Bull junior driver Liam Lawson," said Red Bull’s motorsport boss Helmut Marko.
But, who is it to blame?
After his promotion to the first team in the middle of the 2019 F1 season, Albon had a fairly disappointing first full-season at Red Bull Racing alongside his teammate Max Verstappen.
The 2020’s F1 season was a true rollercoaster of emotions for Alex Albon. Although the British-Thai driver scored his first F1 podium, after a chaotic drive at Mugello; as the car improved and Verstappen seemed the only true contender to Mercedes’ one-two domain, Albon failed to progress.
Indeed, his season went on with a series of one-point races, a three-race pointless run and several errors, leading to a meager seventh place in the standings.
After being given an ultimatum by Helmut Marko and Christian Horner, head of Red Bull's driver development program and Red Bull’s team principal, respectively; Albon felt he had made a final-round breakthrough when he reached his closest qualifying performance to Verstappen of 2020 in Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, as we know, this was not enough to convince Red Bull to keep him on.
It all sounds like a déjà vu.
Alex Albon is just the last name of many sacrificial victims at the Milton Keynes-based team. Every F1 team with a junior academy accounts for a similar graveyard of abandoned prospects, who either left because a lack of financial backing or were forced out of the program for this or that reason. Yet, none can compare in scale (and damage) to Red Bull. Indeed, Red Bull's driver development system is the most ambitious in the world, but it is far from being meritocratic.
However, the problem might not be in the drivers: All of them, starting from Daniel Ricciardo, passing from Kvyat, to Gasly and lastly, Albon have proven their worth multiple times throughout the season, as well as, during their junior careers.
The issue here lies much deeper – it is rooted in Red Bull’s unrestrained support for Max Verstappen (and for Sebastian Vettel before him). Their unapologetic dedication is justifiable – as the 23-years-old Dutch driver does have World Champion potential. Nevertheless, this doesn’t give Red Bull the right to always blame it on the ‘second’ drivers, if they seem not to be able to manufacture a car capable of challenging Mercedes’ stranglehold on the championship.
From 2010 to 2013, when Sebastian Vettel was at the top of the world, Red Bull was the car to beat; hence, this type of behaviour didn’t represent such a big issue; however, at the moment, Red Bull is far from representing a real threat to Mercedes’ dominance and focusing all their efforts on a single man is actually halving their chances of winning races and challenging the leaders.
At the same time, the poor administration of their junior program, which they seem to have lost interest in, is causing nothing but detrimental consequences for their talents. Any potentially successful driver, being him Pierre Gasly, Alex Albon, or the new rising-star Yuki Tsunoda, who just signed for AlphaTauri, are left fighting one against the other for reaching, at best, the role of Max Verstappen’s accompaniment.
Being a successful F1 driver is not just about being in the right team, having the right car and, of course, having the right amount of talent. It is equally as important to be there at the right time. Clearly, this wasn’t Alex Albon’s time.
Hopefully, though, this won’t be the last chapter of his story in highest series, but only the stormy end of book one.