Dropped from the Red Bull driver academy at the age of sixteen, Alexander Albon resisted the temptation to quit motor racing and fought on to forge a reputation as one of the quickest up-and-coming drivers in the sport.
His route into Formula One might have been a turbulent one, but the 22-year-old now finds himself occupying a Toro Rosso race seat, a place that he might well have thought was previously inaccessible.
The previous rejection has certainly not made him bitter or resulted in him putting up any metaphorical walls. Like most rookies he comes across as welcoming and appears buoyed by the opportunity to be in the sport.
It’s hard not to be drawn into conversing about his previous association with the famously brutal Red Bull driver programme; when asked about his racing background he’s quick to mention that he’s “had a few ups and downs” throughout his racing career.
He races under the Thailand flag but, being half-British and brought up in the UK, karting was on his doorstep, and he began racing as an eight-year-old through his father, who was himself a keen racer and participated in the British Touring Car Championship.
“I could’ve expected it. I knew I was going to get dropped at that time.”Albon
A very successful time in karting – beating future Red Bull graduates Pierre Gasly and Max Verstappen in the KF3 category of the 2010 European Karting Championships – resulted in his addition to the Red Bull driver academy. However, that association would cease after a difficult first year in single-seaters, finishing 38th overall in the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 category.
“That [affiliation with Red Bull] would’ve been when I was twelve, so really early,” he recalls. “I had that was when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old.
“2012 was when I got dropped from Red Bull, in my first year of junior single-seaters.”
In what can be a very corporate and PR-ready world of Formula One, it’s surprising to hear how openly he uses the word ‘dropped’, when other teams or drivers might have phrased that in a less-damning manner.
“In 2012 I wasn’t doing a good enough job. So, I could’ve expected it. I knew I was going to get dropped at that time.”
So, does Albon believe that the Red Bull backing was too much pressure to take as a young driver?
“Not really…you’re not even aware of it. It’s just a Red Bull logo, really! You just think ‘oh, cool!’, I get the clothes, I’ve got their helmets on, but there was no pressure at all. It was just innocence really.
“Even then, the Red Bull junior programmes…they’re not serious really until single seaters. During my time, anyway.”
Going it alone as one of the lesser-funded drivers, Albon’s results slowly improved in single seaters, and he came up against a host of hotshot competitors during his time in European Formula Three, GP3 and Formula Two, including; Charles Leclerc, Felix Rosenqvist, Lance Stroll, George Russell and Antonio Giovinazzi.
Mercedes-backed Russell enjoyed a comfortable winning margin at the summit of the Formula Two championship last year, finishing 68 points ahead of McLaren junior driver Lando Norris.
However, it was in fact Albon who kept the Formula Two championship ‘alive’ until the final round, as he was the only driver who could mathematically beat Russell to the title.
“There is no ‘black-listing’ in motorsport, so there was always a chance to come back.”Albon
A scruffy qualifying lap and stall at the start of the final feature race set Albon up for a poor final weekend – his worst since his double-retirement in Monaco earlier in the year. This was a surprise ending for a driver who, until the finale, had been the in-form driver in the second half of the F2 calendar.
It was his consistent front-running form in Formula Two that encouraged Red Bull and Toro Rosso to reassess him and, subsequently offer him a drive for 2019, something Albon never ruled out.
“There is no ‘black-listing’ in motorsport, so there was always a chance to come back. In that period in between [stints with Red Bull] I was always just trying to get back, bounce back stronger, show the world that I can carry on my karting success.
“It picked up relatively late really, I think it was 2016 when I was in GP3 was when people really started to recognise me. Last year I had a good year and… I’m back! ”
With Toro Rosso taking the entirety of last season to weigh up their options for 2019, Albon was the last driver to be confirmed for this season – taking Brendon Hartley’s seat – but he only found this out after the final race of the year.
“Yeah, the race weekend [in Abu Dhabi] was finished on the Sunday, and my flight was Monday night,” he explained.
“I was just killing time shopping one day, buying some shoes in the Dubai mall, and I just got the call [from Red Bull Racing advisor Helmut Marko] like ‘let’s do this’. I said ‘Oh, okay, I’ll stay on then’, cancelled my flight, watched the post-season test and…that was it really! It was obviously a bit of a surreal time.”
However, there was yet another stumbling block. Such was his level of performance with DAMS in Formula Two, team boss Jean-Paul Driot offered him a drive in the DAMS-run Nissan Formula E project. The deal would have brought Albon into one of the hottest seats in one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.
The contract with Nissan had already been signed, but Albon said that he didn’t believe that there were any hard feelings from the DAMS team when he and his management team tried to negotiate their way out of the deal, in order to sign for Toro Rosso.
“From my side, we just made the phone call to speak with DAMS to see if there was a chance that they could release me, and it worked out. In F2, they are always providing juniors to Formula One,” explained Albon.
“At the time it was news to all of us really, and it was just about seeing if everything was okay. They were the same guys that helped me race in F2 that year, because it was a tough year just trying to get a seat for Formula Two.
“Once I had the chance [to race in F1], they were extremely kind to release me.
“We’re still speaking to each other so there’s no hard feelings at all.”
With the Nissan contract out of the way he was free to join Toro Rosso alongside F1 returnee Daniil Kvyat, who has accumulated over 50 starts for the Italian team.
However, with Albon having not completed a lap in a Formula One car before pre-season testing, he believes his new team-mate will initially take on the role of ‘team leader’, adding that the rookie-orientated environment of the Red Bull junior team will only aid his development.
“I think he [Kvyat] has the experience, definitely. I look at Dani as being the leader.
“He’s been through it before and he still has experience from Ferrari as well, so he does know the areas to focus on.
“I think what people don’t realise is that Toro Rosso, in terms of percentages, must go through the most rookies out of every team, just because this is a junior team.
“The atmosphere is very tailored towards a rookie, so a lot of help, a lot of simulator time and of course they know where drivers tend to struggle coming from Formula Two. They really do understand what areas a rookie needs to focus on to make the step up.”
I ask him how good his Italian is compared to Dani’s.
“[laughing] My Italian’s not great! I raced for an Italian karting team for two years and I didn’t really pick it up. Dani’s a bit of a professional.
“I didn’t realise how good his Italian was…he’s almost half-Italian I think…he’s secretly Italian!”
The conversation then detoured towards online racing and whether he competes online or not, like Lando Norris and Max Verstappen do.
“I’ve noticed that [Norris and Verstappen race online]. I see Lando on Twitch streaming his races and I sometimes just send him messages undercover!
“And start trolling them?” I ask.
“Exactly! But yeah, I don’t enter stuff like that, but I do play racing games, I’m a big F1 player.
“A few drivers will just race against each other, do time trials, just things like that. Not competitively, it’s very hard to do a lap without one of us crashing into another one!
“Actually, my brother kills me on these games, so it makes me lose confidence. I don’t try to play against him after that…’you do you, I’ll concentrate on the other stuff!”.
Given his late arrival into Formula One, his non-affiliation with a team and his own self-admission of being a “shy dude”, it’s easy to see why Albon has flown under the radar and why more of the attention has gone towards the remaining rookies of Russell, Norris and – to an extent – Giovinazzi.
However, Formula One’s latest recruit is confident that he – and Toro Rosso – will be consistently competing for strong points finishes in a compact midfield battle.
“It’s been a really positive four days [of testing]. The car’s been consistent from the first time we put wheels on it.
“Of course, the midfield looks really tight and, in my eyes, it looks like whoever is the team that maximises their setup and gets that little bit more at a specific circuit will be the team that gets in front on a given weekend.
“I think it will be a really close fight there, but we’re definitely in the mix and I think we’re in the mix to score some good points.”