Born in London but racing under the flag of Thailand, Alexander Albon’s first word was in fact Italian: ‘Ferrari’.
His father, Nigel Albon, was a production and touring car racing driver and it should be of little surprise that Alexander grew up idolising Michael Schumacher and dreaming of one day making it into Formula 1.
After winning European and World karting championship titles as a youngster, he found the graduation to open-wheel racing a tougher prospect. Red Bull’s Helmut Marko sensed promise and signed him on to the drink company’s young driver programme.
Success came when he graduated to Formula 2 and after a strong rookie campaign in 2017 he was unable to secure funding to stay in the series in 2018.
The DAMS team offered him the chance to essentially race for free, and their faith in him was fulfilled. A consistent championship contender against George Russell and Lando Norris, he claimed four superb wins and took the title fight down to the wire before losing out in the Abu Dhabi finale when his clutch failed on the grid.
DAMS moved him into its Formula E Championship programme, but with the interest from Red Bull proving too strong – it needing a driver to complete its Toro Rosso line-up the loss of Pierre Gasly to Red Bull Racing and its decision to part ways with Brendon Hartley.
The French outfit graciously released Albon to join the Formula 1 World Championship and allow him to realise a childhood dream.
We met Albon after Friday’s practice sessions at the Australian Grand Prix. Calm and collected with an infectious smile, he is immensely respected by his fellow F2 graduates Russell and Norris. How we he fare on the big stage?
|Alexander Albon||Thai||23 March 1996, London (GBR)|
|EARLY RACING CAREER|
|2005-11||Karting, Multiple Championship winner
|2012||Formula Renault 2.0 Alps, EPIC Racing, 14 races, 26 points, 17th overall
Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, EPIC Racing, 14 races, 0 points, 38th overall
|2013||Formula Renault 2.0 NEC, KTR, 6 races, 1 podium, 61 points, 22nd overall
Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, KTR, 14 races, 1 pole, 22 points, 16th overall
|2014||Formula Renault 2.0 NEC, KTR, 6 races, 1 win, 2 podiums, 80 points, 17th overall
Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, KTR, 14 races, 3 podiums, 117 points, 3rd overall
|2015||FIA European F3 Championship, Signature, 33 races, 2 poles, 5 podiums, 187 points, 7th overall|
|2016||GP3 Series, ART Grand Prix, 18 races, 4 wins, 7 podiums, 177 points, 2nd overall|
|FIA FORMULA 2 CHAMPIONSHIP CAREER|
|2017||Art Grand Prix, 20 races, 2 podiums, 86 points, 10th overall
|2018||DAMS, 24 races, 3 poles, 4 wins, 8 podiums, 212 points, 3rd overall|
|FORMULA ONE CAREER|
|2019||Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda STR14, season in progress
MAKING IT TO F1
Your father was a keen racing driver and your first word as a baby was ‘Ferrari’. Was it destiny that you would go racing?
He definitely had a big influence on me and all dads have the most belief in their son, this “He’s going to be an F1 driver” kind of thing and I was like “Yeah, yeah, we’ll see how it goes”. It’s crazy to think I’m here.
You identify as Anglo-Thai but race under the banner of the latter. The only other driver to have made it to F1 with Thai nationality was Prince Bira – back then it was known as Siam. There’s a rich motorsport history spanning back to before Formula 1 became a World Championship and today you’re you’re carrying the flag while still acknowledging your British roots. Where does the loyalty lie or can you have it both ways?
My mum’s Thai and my dad’s British, of course the British media want me to be on their side of the pond and on the Thai side it’s the same. You can’t be a dual national with your racing licence and I chose Thailand.
I see myself as a Thai, I see myself as a Brit. Many people see it as one or the other, but for me it’s very much a mix. In the end, with Prince Bira’s legacy as well, his upbringing was similar to mine; he studied [in the UK] at Cambridge. I didn’t [study at Cambridge], but Bira spent the rest of his life in the UK, except he has a few more Olympic medals than I do!
On reflection, with your performances last year in Formula 2, the work with DAMS and the support they put in for you to release you from your Formula E contract to go to F1, how can you look back at the last 12 months?
I remember it was last year, from January, February, March and April, not knowing if I was going to race in every race, booking flights on a Tuesday or Wednesday and then flying over, saying “Yes, you’ve got the next race weekend”, and then move on to the next one.
It was really sketchy in that sense, it actually got to a point where you’re so over it in that sense, so much anxiety to it but you get used to it. It was kind of weird. It’s this “I don’t care, I’m going to prove myself” kind of attitude.
It went from that and getting that opportunity in Formula E with DAMS to getting a different kind of opportunity in Formula One. DAMS were incredibly kind and trusted in me to a point where I am extremely indebted to them. It was a crazy year. It’s weird; we laugh about it now with my Mum and Dad.
HITTING THE BIG LEAGUE
Is it a bit of a ‘pinch me’ moment to have made it to Formula 1?
Yeah, it’s feeling more natural now. It’s more so on Wednesday and Thursday when we were doing that [season launch] show in Melbourne, that’s king of an “Oh my God, here we are”. Once your helmet is on, it’s kind of like any other day and it all feels very normal. It’s nice, you can focus on the driving; it’s just like any other car just with big wings and a powerful engine!
Has that been the biggest change, going from Formula 2 to here, the crowd and media intensity?
It’s a big jump and it is something to get used to. I’m not quite used to it yet but Jenny [pointing to his dedicated media team member at Toro Rosso] pulls me around everywhere, tells me where to go!
It’s that and purely the car itself. A lot of people are involved in a Formula One team, extracting information beneficial to you and applying it, getting the team to maximise their performance. The driver is such a key influence in the team and anything can be adjusted; you really are a performance tool. Not just in your driving but in your feedback. If you want something in a corner, you’ll get it. It’s a different world.
Your first day at the Australian Grand might be described as a tough baptism after your crash in FP1. How do you reflect on it?
I don’t think it went too badly, really. Obviously the FP1 crash looks back in reflection, just because of having the off, but I think it was OK. The pace was good, before the spin; may I got a bit overconfident with the car. Otherwise, FP1 went well.
In FP2, I took it a bit slower just because of the spin itself, and took a bit of time to build up to it but again. Pace-wise, it wasn’t too bad. It was OK, in the race runs as well. I’m lacking a little bit on my side but overall we’re looking quite strong with the car. That midfield looks extremely tight. We’ve got to do our homework basically and whoever does their best homework will come out in that upper side of it.
What are your impressions of the Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit?
Unforgiving! That’s what I’ve learnt so far. It’s really, really bumpy and obviously coming from pre-season testing in Barcelona it’s a big difference. Otherwise I enjoy it.
My dad actually raced here in Ferraris in the 1990s, 20-odd years ago in the F355 Challenge. He was a big fan, he loved it so was trying to give me some tips which I took on board.
It is really bumpy and old school, we’re used to run-offs everywhere, which sounds bad, but that is the case these days. Track usage and everything like that is a topic you don’t hear about too much nowadays just because there’s not really a limit to it but here, you’re battling with how much track and kerb you can use. There’s so many different lines everywhere. You see the Red Bulls using a massive amount of track. It’s interesting, trying to find out which one suits the best kind of line for each corner.
What targets are you setting yourself?
I don’t really look at the “I want to be in the top ten in my first race”, or by Abu Dhabi that “I want to be in the top ten in the championship”.
On my side, it’s about “Okay, what do I need to do for FP1? What do I need to work on for FP2?” – that kind of thing. It kind of goes session by session, the result is the result, however I do qualifying and however I race, that’s what I look at.
It’s short-term in its focus because I believe if you look too far in front, you can put unnecessary pressure on yourself and in F1, that’s definitely not the kind of thing you want to be doing; there’s enough of it as is! That is how I see it, so there’s not really any expectation. It’s just making sure I do the best job I can do.
What circuit are you most looking forward to race on?
Suzuka. I was in Japan last week, Max [Verstappen] and Pierre [Gasly] had a demo run to do for Honda and the fans were insane. I’ve never seen fans like that. Passionate beyond belief. But then, it’s not just that. The track looks incredible; it’s kind of like Melbourne with no run-off areas, its high speeds. It looks like a proper old school circuit. It looks intense and I can’t wait to drive it.
Images via Ignite Image (© MotorsportM8)