Alex Albon set for Red Bull F1 debut at Belgian GP: How will he cope?
A fantastic opportunity, but a huge challenge; Looking at the tests coming Albon's way as he prepares for Red Bull debut at Belgian GP, and a direct battle with Verstappen for the rest of F1 2019
By Matt Morlidge and James Galloway
Last Updated: 29/08/19 5:33pm
Alex Albon will make his Red Bull debut at the Belgian GP this weekend after replacing Pierre Gasly. But what F1 2019 expectations will be placed upon the young British-born driver, and how will he deal with Max Verstappen?
It's time for Albon to take centre stage...
What does Albon need to do?
Going up against Verstappen is a daunting prospect for any F1 driver, let alone a rookie. But while Albon will be under a certain amount of pressure to succeed at Red Bull, his task is far less intimidating than it could have been.
And that's because of how badly Gasly was beaten by Verstappen.
When's the Belgian GP on Sky?
The F1 season resumes at Spa - here's how you can watch every session on Sky Sports F1.
The qualifying head-to-head was 11-1 in Verstappen's favour before Gasly was axed, and that one 'victory' for the Frenchman came when his team-mate was unluckily knocked out in Q2 in Canada. Discounting that race, as well as Azerbaijan where Gasly didn't take part in the full session, the average gap between the two drivers was 0.529s.
Gasly rarely got close to Verstappen in the races, either. He only finished ahead of Verstappen once (when the Dutchman was shunted into by Sebastian Vettel at Silverstone), never beat a Mercedes or Ferrari on pure pace and, critically for Red Bull in their quest for points, missed out on a top-six finish - the bare minimum for a top team - six times.
As Red Bull boss Christian Horner put it after Gasly finished sixth, behind a McLaren, in his last race for the team in Hungary: "It's vital for us if we are to stand any chance of catching Ferrari that we have him finishing further ahead.
"We shouldn't be racing Saubers [Alfa Romeos] and McLarens, we need him to be racing Ferraris and Mercedes."
Gasly's 2019 results: Can Albon do better?
|Grand Prix||Qualfiying||Gap to Verstappen||Race|
|AVERAGE GAP: +0.521s*|
|*discounting AZ and CAN|
By frequently failing to beat the midfield, Gasly gave up at least 30 points over the first half of the season and Red Bull are currently third in the constructors' standings, 44 points behind Ferrari despite Verstappen's two race victories and unwavering consistency.
So the job for Albon won't be to challenge for wins, nor even compete with Verstappen, immediately - though both those scenarios would be happily welcomed by Red Bull. It will be to get closer to Verstappen than Gasly managed, even by a couple of tenths in qualifying, and then to out-pace the midfield and challenge Ferrari in the races.
That, of course, won't be easy. Albon is inexperienced in the sport, having only driven an F1 car for the first time earlier this year, didn't get the better of Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso, and steps into a ruthless Red Bull cauldron, knowing that a seat for F1 2020 is up for grabs if he impresses Horner and driver mentor Helmut Marko.
But Gasly's performances have lowered the bar of expectations - now it's up to Albon to clear it, starting at the Belgian GP.
"In terms of the approach and expectations, I'm kind of just treating it like I would at Toro Rosso - just treating each race as it comes," Albon told Sky F1 in Belgium.
"Of course you can put pressure on yourself by thinking about the future and everything. I'm trying to get rid of that."
How has Albon performed in F1 so far?
Although a multiple race winner in both F2 and what was GP3 over the last few years, Albon still undoubtedly started the season as the rookie who the wider world knew least about.
But he has quickly succeeded in making an impression.
"I suspected he might be a surprise of the season and in many respects he has," says Sky F1's Johnny Herbert, who sits down for an exclusive interview with Red Bull's new driver in Belgium.
"With the limited time F1 drivers have to test these days, rookies have to learn things very quickly - and he has done it very well.
"He's still growing and he still has a lot to learn - but he clearly is learning.
"For example, he'd never driven an F1 car in the wet before Germany but achieved a strong result on a track which has always been very slippery in such conditions.
"You've got to have your mind on the job in every second of every lap, and he proved he could do that."
The comparison between his Toro Rosso team-mate, the returning Daniil Kvyat, was always going to be an intriguing one. That's particularly once it became clear that the Russian was back in F1 after his year out of the limelight in a back-up role at Ferrari as a more rounded, but still fast, driver.
"Kvyat got that podium in Germany and scored more points up to Hungary, but would you have expected that? Probably you would. But were they close in performance? You bet they were," says Herbert.
"Alex has proved a lot and, with Pierre in the situation he was in, Red Bull clearly felt there was an opportunity to give him a shot."
Albon is is set to start at the back of the grid in Belgium due to a grid penalty, which presents the first challenge of the many to come his way at a top team.
"Coming into a big team quite early it is a bit - I don't want to say daunting - but it is early," he admitted. "But I'm here now, I've got to make the most of it. I'm excited."
How will Albon shape up against Verstappen?
Verstappen's consistent and relentless form over the past 12 months - 21 top-five race finishes since Spa last year - sets the highest of bars for Albon to try and match.
But, while at times under the radar, the 23-year-old has too shown he can deliver reliably in his first half-season of F1.
"We all know what Max can do consistently in the car, but Alex has had a pretty solid season in the Toro Rosso. He was always there or thereabouts against Kvyat," says Herbert.
"He hasn't had one good race and then one where you were left wondering 'where's he gone?' He has been very consistent and that may pay dividends at Red Bull."