The Alex Albon analysis: Mark Hughes on Red Bull's rising star
How in the space of 19 grands prix - and just seven at Red Bull – Alex Albon has cemented his place in one of F1’s big six seats for 2020
Last Updated: 14/11/19 2:14pm
The news that Alex Albon has retained his Red Bull seat for 2020 was not unexpected.
It is not so much that he has finished in the top six in every race since taking over the drive alongside Max Verstappen half-way through his rookie season - that's the bare minimum that would be expected in one of the top three teams. It's more about the clear potential he has shown for greater things.
His pace and his consistency are a great foundation upon which he could establish himself as an absolute top liner.
How Albon earned his full-time chance
Although the Red Bull junior driver scheme can be a harsh training ground - as Pierre Gasly found out when he was demoted just half-a-season after being promoted - that very quality does create opportunities.
Daniel Ricciardo's defection to Renault for this year (allowing Gasly to be promoted) is the only reason Albon even found himself in F1 at all. It was in how he maximised the Toro Rosso opportunity that then created a further opportunity in the big team.
When Albon was given the drive from Belgium for the rest of this season, it was emphasised this only placed him in a position to be considered for a full-time place there in 2020; it was by no means a done deal. Given the left-field nature of the idea of Sebastian Vettel rejoining or the recruitment of Fernando Alonso (unlikely even without a Honda veto), Albon's most realistic competition for the 2020 Red Bull seat was from Gasly, the man he replaced.
Although the Frenchman's very solid performance at Toro Rosso after his demotion has shored up the reputation damaged with the bruising Red Bull episode, it's Albon's stand-out moments that have made him the easy choice.
His debut at Spa from near the back of the grid (because of an engine penalty) up to fifth was noteworthy for its attacking style and inventive overtaking. His double bluff pass on Ricciardo's Renault and last-lap overtake on the notoriously tough defender Sergio Perez, with one wheel on the grass at over 200mph, immediately caught the attention in a way Gasly had failed to do in his dozen races with the team.
But the real eye-opener was his matching - to the thousandth of a second - Verstappen's qualifying time at Suzuka on his first ever visit to this most demanding of old-school tracks.
In fact it's probably significant his two stand-out performances have come at the two most noted drivers tracks on the calendar. His raw ability is immense and although he's not always been able to put all the pieces of an F1 weekend together smoothly - there were practice incidents in Sochi and Mexico - and his technical experience still has gaps, when the challenge becomes about speed through the fast corners, ie bravery and feel, he's invariably right there.
His most outstanding performances in the Toro Rosso were in qualifying through Silverstone's fast curves (where he was very significantly faster than Kvyat) and in the rain of race day at Hockenheim where in his first ever wet drive of an F1 car, he glided smoothly up to an early fourth and would have stood on the podium had it not been for a couple of late strategy gambles from those behind him with nothing to lose.
Being measured against the phenomenon Verstappen, enjoying his fifth season in F1 and comfortably established in the team, is an incredibly tough gig.
Going in there halfway through the year in your rookie season just makes it even tougher. What should also not be forgotten is that after his first two Red Bull races at Spa and Monza, almost every circuit Albon has visited has been new to him - Singapore, Suzuka, Mexico and Austin, with Sochi the exception.
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His feel for the car has impressed the Red Bull engineers enormously even though he feels he still needs to improve the consistency of anticipating the effects of set-up changes. But he was able, they say, to immediately identify an inherent issue with the RB15 that Gasly never could and to find a way around it.
Looking at the qualifying comparisons relative to Verstappen (below) we can see Albon has averaged a couple of tenths faster than Gasly despite his lesser experience and lack of familiarity with the tracks.
Verstappen's advantage was 0.67 per cent in those events where a comparison was possible. That compares to just 0.47 per cent advantage over Albon to date.
2019 Red Bull Qualifying comparison - Table 1
|Race||Verstappen||Gasly||Grid||% of Vers time|
|Bahrain||89.109s (Q2)||89.526s (Q2)||5/13||100.468|
When making such comparisons, it should be recalled that even in Verstappen's first Red Bull season he was down on qualifying to Ricciardo, roughly equal in their second season together and ahead in their third. That's the value of experience and in judging a rookie's potential, it's the peaks that are more important than the average.
Albon's peaks have been high indeed - and that's what makes him such an exciting prospect.
2019 Red Bull Qualifying comparison - Table 2
|Race||Verstappen||Albon||Grid||% of Vers time|
|Mexico||74.758s||75.336s||1 (4 with penalty)/5||100.773s|
*Gasly knocked out in Q1
**Gasly missed weigh-in. No serious time
*** Verstappen caught by red flags in Q2
**** No comparison possible: Albon engine penalties
***** No comparison possible: Verstappen engine penalties
****** No comparison possible: Albon crashed in Q1