Alex Albon’s misfired 2020 Formula 1 season paved the way for his exit from the sport. It then kept the door ajar for the highly-rated Sergio Perez to inject new life into his career.
In a results business such as F1, Albon was more often than not well off the performance level expected of him.
After being drafted into the top-tier Red Bull outfit midway through last season, Albon delivered a standout debut drive to storm from 17th to fifth in Belgium.
This year, however, the Thai racer has been unable to live up to similar standards. Whichever metric used to analyse the performance of Albon, it is clear why Red Bull opted to drop him from their 2021 line-up.
When measured up against his teammate Max Verstappen, Albon was on average 0.686s slower in qualifying. On a Saturday, Verstappen averaged a top-three grid result. At the same time, his teammate barely scraped into the top-ten with an average of seventh.
Red Bull likely didn’t expect Albon to topple Verstappen in qualifying performances. Still, no doubt they would have anticipated the two being much closer together.
In his brief spell with the team last year, Albon was only on average 0.433s adrift of Verstappen. That included a notable Japanese GP performance where he matched Verstappen to within a thousandth of a second.
But across the 17 grands prix this season, ten of them had Albon qualify over half-a-second slower than Verstappen.
The Russian Grand Prix was a shallow moment for Albon and Red Bull. Practice had suggested the team possibly had the edge over Mercedes in race trim. When Lewis Hamilton was slammed with a pair of time penalties, Red Bull should have been able to command the race up front.
However, Albon had qualified 1.141 seconds behind Verstappen and lined up 15th after a penalty. Consequently, Mercedes were able to cover off the sole challenge from Verstappen and go on to add another win to the tally.
Particularly hurtful was the fact Albon had swapped his race engineer midway through the season in search of someone with more experience to accelerate his progress.
His first weekend with a new engineer – the British GP – saw him eliminated in Q2 before finishing a disappointing eighth after earning a five-second penalty for a collision. His teammate would finish second after setting the fastest lap, and one week later on the same circuit, he would end up winning the race.
Sunday’s proved to be an ever-deeper thorn in Albon’s side. In races the two could be compared, Verstappen outmatched Albon 11-nil.
Albon’s exasperated radio messages across the season highlighted his inability to cope with the expectations of racing towards the front. He was often left clueless as to why he was routinely unable to deliver reliable results.
In the Eifel Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, he complained he was “raced too hard” by Daniil Kvayt in the AlphaTauri – a car he should easily be able to dispatch of in any given conditions.
Red Bull has yet fielded a teammate capable of challenging Verstappen since the exit of Daniel Ricciardo at the end of 2018.
Team Principal Christian Horner said it was vital that the team find a driver who can regularly support Verstappen in the fight to Mercedes – something Albon could not achieve.
“I think it’s vital if you want to mount a serious challenge in either of the championships, that you need both cars performing at a level,” Horner said.
“We saw that very clearly in Abu Dhabi, for example. So you need that consistency, in order to take on the likes of Mercedes in either the drivers’ or teams’ championship.”
This year’s Styrian Grand Prix saw Red Bull helplessly throw away a second place for Verstappen after they were unable to cover off a late pit stop by Valtteri Bottas. Albon was some 20-plus seconds adrift of his teammate that thus unable to hold up the hard-charging Mercedes.
In the Sakhir Grand Prix, a race where Verstappen and both Mercedes cars ran into trouble, Albon should have been able to win the race. Despite running effectively the same strategy as the rest of the field at the end of the race, Albon could only muster sixth as Perez went on to claim a maiden victory.
Next year he remains with the team, albeit as a reserve and test driver. But with Red Bull now loaded with the explosive pairing of Verstappen and Perez, any hope of a return to the grid for Albon remains bleak.