There are wise people out there who state that you can always learn something from everyone’s lives. One thing is for sure: the adage is right for the careers of racing drivers. And if there is one of them who admits to really have learnt the game through the years, he has to be Alex Albon. Not only because of a life fighting to show what he’s worth, but also for the bike accident that held him back at the start of the 2017 GP3 season: “I’m ok now,” he confirms. Not even a plate inside his body, no sign of the physical stress he might have gone through. “To be honest, I’d say that after Hungary was maybe by the time when I was pretty recovered. It was OK through the end of last year.”
With respect to his eventful career, to start with, the Thai driver is not alone in the club of racers dropped by the Red Bull program, but he’s not like many other of the members. Although he admits that Helmut Marko was hard (“he has a… let’s say… ‘persona’”), he opts to put the main weight of the blame on himself: “When I moved to single seaters, it was a really tough time personally for me, because I didn’t have a clear team-mate, we were very limited on budget…” So the weight rested on his shoulders, indeed. “There’s not really too much to say about it, because I didn’t perform, and when you don’t perform you get dropped from the team. It was a really tough time for me personally.”
Notwithstanding the hard time, he enjoyed being part of the Epic team, a sort of phoenix bird born from the remaining assets of Epsilon Euskadi in 2012. Did he like Azkoitia the Basque Country? “I really liked people and I met some really interesting guys, but I don’t see too many of them now.” The mutual sympathy is a logical consequence of the state of things back then: “Of course, they were in the same situation as me, very tough for them as well. We did the best we could through the year and in the end it was character-building and positive for me, to grow and be the first driver.”
And what was it like to work with Imanol The Boss?
Of course I had some experience by then… but it was my first year in 2.0-litres, so it was all about learning, learning and learning. Back then I didn’t have a lot of confidence with my driving. I think that Imanol would agree with that, but everyone was happy helping me and I improved through the year. You have to bear in mind that I had just come from karting to single-seaters.
At which point in time did you feel that you at last understood single-seaters?
I’d say that it was at the end of 2013, so that was the end of my second year of racing, with KTR. A really, really good team. They trusted me a lot, I really got so well with them. I got 20 points I think [22 pts. in Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, to be precise]. During the year, to be P13 was ok, but I was always just around the top 10. The year after, during the Winter, I sat to really understand the car. At that point I really got confident with the car, and suddenly in 2014 I improved a lot. At that point we were fighting in Formula Renault. Nyck was very quick that year … but we almost beat him in the last round.
When we meet Alex at Friday evening, he just comes from taking pole position for the feature race. Our first question was going to be about his future… But now, does it feel more secure today? “Not really… I don’t even really know. I remain focused. It’s great to be in pole position for myself as well, but it should be ok. I don’t really know. I’m not worried for my future but nothing is decided yet.”
Not that he hadn’t got any previous merit. You only need to look at Baku’s Saturday. Here’s his take on that eventful day: “It was good to be very quick that weekend and obviously I’m very happy with my first win in Formula 2. In addition, it was a feature race win, an interesting one… To be honest,we had a bad pitstop… but Baku being Baku, as soon as we had that Safety Car, I knew that there was a chance for me there, and I’m delighted about how it went out.”
Then, afterwards in the weekend… bang!! DAMS confirms that Albon is going to retain his seat for the rest of the season. And suddenly, after an erratic performance on Saturday, Alex takes a solid P2 in the sprint: “I wouldn’t say that it gave me extra confidence going into the race. At the start my confidence was very low, but we did our homework last night and we made a big improvement.” It’s not common to find a driver who speaks about his confidence levels with such honesty… A weakness or a strength? Time will tell during 2018.
On the other hand, to carry on with his career, Alex has the chance to get lots of support from a whole emerging country… Isn’t the case? Is it easy to get support from Thailand in terms of financial backing?
It’s not as easy as people think. Yes, for me it’s a lot easier than in the UK, where it’s very difficult. But in terms of Thailand, I don’t know how to put it… F2 is extremely expensive and, for a country like Thailand it’s not very easy for them to realise how much money F2 is. You really can’t do a lot with too many pounds. And the costs have arised with the new car, so it’s not easy for them. I’m very lucky to have AST sponsoring me. But yeah, Thailand is getting a lot bigger. And there’s more and more drivers coming through to do good things in Europe.
Finally, we ask Alex Albon to describe some of their main rivals in a few words. George Russell? “Very driven. When he wants something, he gets it done. He is very focused. He isn’t stopped by anyone.” He gets on well with him nowadays, getting to know him even better than when they were GP3 team-mates: “We live together almost, five minutes from each other. So I get on a lot now with him.” Lando Norris? “The young superstar. I’d say that he is deadly, fantastically fast.” Then we turn Latin and decide to ask him about Sette Camara, arguably one of the surprises of the first pair of F2 weekend (the other being probably Alex himself): “I’d say that he’s improving, he’s getting really quick and he’s fighting for the championship at this point.”
Did you expect that the dominance of ART in GP3/F2 was going to stop apparently and that they were going to face more competition this year?
To be honest, last year, we really struggled in ART with the old cars, because rival teams were improving more and more, and we were just struggling to keep up pace. With respect to F2, with this year’s new car, I do believe that they’re going to come back to the fight where they belong, with such great drivers. And yeah, I can see that they can come back to be one of the top three teams right now.
Which one do you think that is going to be the key of the F2 championship year?
Proficiency, to be honest, because it is a new car. You’ve seen already that only two people have finished in the points at every race so far. You see how the starts have played out… Maybe the temperatures compromise your pace, or even reliability does, because you need to be consistently in the top, in the points.
On Friday, we finished the conversation with an admission of his concern with high degradation at Barcelona. Sadly, the two main worries that Albon contemplated for the feature race (the second one being “just to get off the line and have a good opening lap”) were going to materialize. But some set up changes between Saturday and Sunday helped DAMS to manage the graining and get Alex into P2. Whether it was down to the gained confidence, the new contract, the changes in the balance or a character-building career with a steep learning curve, is an amazing debate about an amazing personality.