Albon on his successful return at Williams and learning to be “more selfish” · RaceFans

If you’ve never been fortunate enough to meet Alexander Albon in person – and if you ever do, please be considerate if you approach him – it’s easy to be struck by how unassuming he is for a Formula 1 driver.

In a sport where egos run rampant and furious expletives regularly fill the radio waves, Albon stands out as a uniquely calm and considered character among his peers.

Intelligent, thoughtful and deeply introspective, Albon is quicker to wit than to anger. Who else in the paddock would not think twice to parody Formula 1’s most delicious summer scandal in order to announce his own contract developments while making it genuinely funny, not forced?

But despite his new Williams team having no hesitation in signing him up for a multi-year extension after half a year of his services, the 26-year-old does have his critics. After being unceremoniously dropped by Red Bull and spending a year on the sidelines in 2021, team advisor Helmut Marko openly questioned whether the Anglo-Thai driver was “too nice” to succeed in Formula 1 as recently as one month ago.

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So when RaceFans sat down on a hot summer’s day inside Williams’ impressive new motorhome for an exclusive catch-up with Albon, it only seemed fair to let him respond: Is he too nice?

“I am who I am,” he states, simply. “I can understand what he means by it, I think…”

Albon spent a year on the sidelines for Red Bull in 2021

It’s easy to forget just how rapid a rise to Red Bull Albon experienced. Prompted as much by Pierre Gasly’s struggles as his own successes, the fact he was able to acquit himself competently in a race-winning car after driving only 729 racing laps in his fledgling Formula 1 career was an impressive achievement in itself. But as he would quickly learn, F1 is not the most nurturing professional environment for newcomers – and especially not at the front of the field.

“I think there’s this feeling, in the beginning of my career – especially in Formula 1 – that I got fast-tracked very, very quickly into the top team,” he explains. “Basically, without really a support structure behind me.

“It was kind of myself, my trainer and my family. It’s a tricky position. Everything’s so glamorous. You come in and… I don’t want to say you become a ‘yes’ man, but in that sense that I’m a rookie and I’m kind of learning and it’s all becoming new. Let’s say you’ve got media duties: ‘Yes, of course, no problem.’ Or, let’s say, ‘you’ve got to try this on the car’: No problem. You want to do the right thing. Be keen. I guess what it taught me was more to be selfish, in that sense.”

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The fact Albon is even back on the grid at all in 2022 means he has the rare privilege of being one of only a handful of drivers who rejoins the grid after losing his race seat and missing at least a full season. After all, just ask the likes of Antonio Giovinazzi, Stoffel Vandoorne, Brendon Hartley, Pascal Wehrlein, Jean-Eric Vergne and the countless others just how hard it is to get back to F1 once you’ve lost your full-time race seat.

Albon says he never doubted he would return to the grid

Fortunately for Albon, he had the benefit of Red Bull actively lobbying on his behalf to secure him a race drive for the new era of F1 beginning in 2022, while he kept himself occupied with reserve driver duties at Milton Keynes and racing in DTM. Albon says he never questioned that an opportunity eventually presented itself.

“It didn’t even come to my mind if I was going to get back,” he says. “The only thing I was thinking about was ‘how do I get back?’ – I wasn’t even thinking if I will, it was only ‘what have I got to do right now to get back into a seat?’. That was pretty much a week after I got told I was out.

While unable to help Red Bull secure the drivers’ world championship with Max Verstappen in 2021 out on the track, Albon’s contribution behind the scenes was substantial. Both Verstappen and team principal Christian Horner did not need pressing to recognize the vital part Albon had played in capturing the title.

“There was definitely the team game that I knew I should play and have to play and it would only benefit me to do that,” Albon explains. “Really give 110% in my duty as a reserve driver.

“I knew I had to show my worth off the track, because I can’t prove myself. I’m not actually physically driving a car, so I have to show what I can do outside of that. That was really getting deep and working with the guys in the race team, but also at the factory and all that kind of thing.”

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A year outside the pressure cooker environment of the cockpit allowed Albon to work on building that strong mental foundation that he had perhaps lacked and been unable to build after being thrown too keenly into the Red Bull.

Learning to be “more selfish” was vital

“People think when I spent the year out, it was ‘how do I improve on race pace or qualifying pace’, or ‘how do I feel comfortable in the car?’,” he says.

“A lot of it was just, ‘what do I need?’. As in, ‘right, I need a support group. I need to be more selfish in these areas and I need to put more focus on these people or this kind of section’ or whatever it may be. I guess it’s doing everything for performance – really finding the areas where most probably I was wasting my energy doing different things.

“I don’t want to say ‘not be too nice’, but not be too accommodating, in that sense. I felt like this year, I’m very driven and very focused and I guess the year away made me very hungry as well to show people what I could do. I felt like I want to give myself the best case, best opportunity, best platform to be able to really just go about it in the way that I felt like I should have done back in 2020.”

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Albon’s reward for his hard work was a chance to rejoin the grid with Williams for 2022, filling the seat vacated by good friend George Russell. The regular points finishes and Q3 appearances may have stopped, but Albon says he’s enjoying the challenge of trying to bring a team starved of much success in modern times further up the grid once more.

Williams extended Albon’s contract this week

“It’s going really well,” said Albon, speaking shortly before his new deal was announced. “I think, honestly speaking, it’s a little bit unknown going into the year with having the year out and being in a new team, new environment, new cars as well. You always have that sense of, I guess, anxiety in some respects just because you don’t know what to expect.

“I believe in myself, but there’s always that, ‘okay, how’s it going to go?’. You want it to start strong. You give yourself a little bit of time to get up to speed, but it was a nice feeling to be able to just straight away feel like I was in the rhythm. Even from the first time I drove the car in Barcelona, ​​I felt like, ‘okay, I don’t feel like I’ve lost a day’. I felt like I was straight back into it. I think in Bahrain we got into Q2 straight away and it almost kind of started the momentum early and I feel like this year is going really, really well. Now, of course, we’re not really where we want to be right now, but personally speaking, I’m really happy with how it’s going.”

And with half a year with his new team behind him and a contract extension in his back pocket, how does the team culture at Williams, near the back of the grid, compared with Red Bull, seemingly cruising on their way to both championships this season ?

“The main thing is expectations,” he says.

“There’s a difference: In the Red Bull, if you’re not winning, that’s not good. At Williams, we have to be realistic in ourselves and look at points being a great thing. Away from that, there’s honestly not much difference.

“Formula 1 teams, they all operate in a very similar way. The structures are very similar. Of course, culturally there’s a little bit of difference nationality-wise, but I often say it’s no different from going to like a different school as a kid. It’s just new faces, but in the end, you’re still doing your subjects, you’re still doing the same things.

“Of course, there’s the resources and how big Red Bull is. Williams still has a lot of people who work in the factory, but there’s a bit more of this feeling that it’s not corporate-owned like Red Bull. It’s a little bit more intimate and personal in that sense.”

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Highlights of his first 13 races at Grove include his remarkable drive to secure his first point of the season in Australia, then adding two more to the tally in Miami. But the worst moment came at Silverstone, where he suffered the worst effects of the horrific start line shunt that sent Zhou Guanyu barrel-rolling into the barriers. While Zhou was quickly cleared by medical teams, Albon was sent to hospital after hitting an unprotected inside barrier.

Albon has scored all three of Williams’ points in 2022

“It was okay – we’ve had bigger crashes in the past,” he states matter-of-factly.

“It’s more just with back stuff – everyone takes a bit more caution towards it. And it’s weird. It’s one of those things where crashes can look spectacular and you can walk out fine and other ones – I think like my one – look relatively soft.

“The way I hit it – and I think just it being concrete as well – meant that it hurt more than I realized. So that was it really. But I was fine. A bit sore the following week.”

Albon’s attitude to being hospitalized as if it’s simply just an accepted part of his professional life sums up the manner that he approaches being a racing driver in general. Although he still has room to hone his skills as a driver in the years ahead, he will head into the second half of 2022 more resilient and more mentally determined than he had ever been at Red Bull.

“I think it’s a very simple thing of ‘never give up’ – I think it’s very true,” Albon says. “Don’t let it knock you down.

Silverstone crash “hurt more than I realized”

“I was very harsh on myself in 2020. I still, to this day, now look back at it and I think it wasn’t even a bad year, honestly. Truthfully, if you look at how I did even compared to the year after – seeing the results and whatever – I was like ‘you’ve got to actually give yourself credit’ in a lot of situations like that. I felt like I just needed time.”

What lies ahead in the future for the Albon and Williams partnership cannot be known. But, at least, Albon can be safe in the knowledge that he will not have to spend another year out of the sport that he so clearly loves.

“I did have all these kind of plans in place in case I didn’t get into F1,” he smiles, “but I have to say, I’m very relieved that it all paid off.”

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