Alex Albon will be driving for Williams in the 2022 season, but the former Red Bull Racing driver could be back at the team for 2023 if needed.
When Alex Albon was announced as a Williams driver for 2022, many were relieved to see the British-born Thai driver get a drive in Formula 1 once again. His talent was clearly being wasted as Red Bull’s simulator and back-up driver. A few would also have been glad to see him depart the Red Bull system. However, many figured that wasn’t the case at all and that this had the potential to be a temporary situation.
This is because Red Bull said that while they were releasing Albon, they would “retain a relationship with him that includes future options”. And now Red Bull boss Christian Horner has expanded on what exactly that means.
“It means that we have a good relationship with Alex, he retains a link to Red Bull, and we would have an option on his services should they be required in 2023,” he told F1.com.
“He was effectively out of contract at the end of next year anyway, so basically what we have done is speed that process up and secure future options on him.”
It is at once both shocking and not surprising at the same time. Red Bull’s driver merry-go-round over recent years has become the butt of many jokes.
And it seems like, despite having an experienced hand in Sergio Perez alongside Max Verstappen – not to mention a good number of junior drivers who would likely jump at the chance – the long-term status of their seats remains wildly unclear.
It’s also worth noting that keeping one’s options open is actually a good thing. But that is a myopic view that ignores a lot of factors.
Red Bull’s swift and ruthless seat changing has been a theme of the team’s running since 2016. That was the year they dropped the underperforming Danii Kvyat to Toro Rosso and replaced him with Verstappen.
The move paid dividends, and doubtless plays a part in the strategy still being used. However, it ignores the most basic premise of placing your faith in young drivers.
The thing about young sportspeople is that making the transition to the top level can and will take time. Verstappen was and remains the exception to the rule. In the modern era, only Lewis Hamilton was a race-winner in his rookie season aside from Verstappen.
Of the two, one is a certified all-time great and one has the potential to be his successor. Yet not every driver will take to F1 like a fish to water. Proof of that can be seen in the way Pierre Gasly has shone since his own Red Bull demotion.
The Frenchman – who was ironically replaced by Alex Albon, who then made way for Perez – has shone at AlphaTauri. He won his maiden race and has notched consistent points finishes and the occasional podium.
And this, it’s worth noting, is in a car that is at best a solid midfield contender.
There’s no doubting the fact that Gasly didn’t show his best at Red Bull. For that matter, neither did Albon. But in the quest for short-term gains, the team severely stunted the growth of two of their own juniors.
Albon has now temporarily departed the Red Bull system, although it seems unlikely he would come back. Gasly will do the same should he get a drive in another team, so torched are the bridges between him and Red Bull’s upper management.
But is this down only to the drivers?
The simple answer is no, mainly because this isn’t the first time they have let a talented driver slip through. After all, the team has seen the likes of Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo depart in recent times.
And here’s the thing – Red Bull cannot employ every single junior driver they produce. That’s just the nature of the game, given the limited number of seats.
Sainz’s departure is somewhat understandable, given at the time there was nowhere for him to go beyond Toro Rosso. Yet Ricciardo was a multi-time race winner with Red Bull and still chose to leave.
Publicly, he said he wanted a new challenge. Privately, many believe this departure happened due to the team being more and more centered around Verstappen.
This assumption might have seemed far-fetched at the time, but given what happened to Gasly and Albon, seems more realistic now.
Albon’s talent is evident with just a cursory glance of his achievements. One look at him during his Toro Rosso days was itself enough to convince many he was a top prospect.
Yet being in the Red Bull clearly affected his psyche, to the point he seemed mentally burnt out. The sad part about this? Most of that pressure that led him to losing his drive seemingly came from within the team.
And even now, despite him not being contracted to Red Bull, that the team ‘retains an option’ to his services is baffling.
Christian Horner has stated publicly on numerous occasions that the team rates Alex Albon very highly. Which makes it all the more baffling that they could not find a drive for him in one of their four F1 seats.
Would he have been worse than Yuko Tsunoda, who himself admitted he was shocked to be in a drive next year due to his penchant for crashing? Or than Perez, who himself hasn’t been the most reliable despite winning a race in 2021?
There is clearly no future for Albon at Red Bull. How good a potential second stint might be remains doubtful, because the issues weren’t down to Albon’s driving ability.
Despite that, the team want to retain an option for him. It’s short-termist, it’s indecisive and it treats drivers like pawns on a chessboard. But such is the Red Bull way.