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Inside Line: Take note Alex Albon is the real deal

Phew! What a weekend that was for Formula 1… Charles Leclerc won his first Grand Prix when he triumphed on Sunday at the ruthless Spa-Francorchamps after it stole Anthoine Hubert from us a day earlier and forced the race to be run under the shadow of death.

It was as harsh as it sounds. The morning after one of the most viciously horrific accidents I have ever seen, nothing felt real as fans, media, teams, drivers… everyone numbly went on doing what they do on Grand Prix day’s, but did something not feel amiss to all?

Putting aside the horror of a day earlier, it’s worth reflecting on an enthralling Grand Prix, with a fantastic result in the form of a new 21-year-old winner and (I predict)  the arrival of a new real deal on the biggest stage of all.

Leclerc’s victory was just the tonic Ferrari needed, but also what Formula 1 needed. A new winner is always a boost while the Reds finally not shooting themselves in the feet and taking a victory for the first time this season was a welcome relief. The Reds need to be winning regularly all the time.

Apart from Lewis Hamilton’s late-race charge which was rivetting stuff, for me the highlight of the race was Alex Albon on his debut for Red Bull which indicated to me we may have the real deal in a race-winning car.

Onboard with Alex, during the race courtesy of my F1TV subscription, was a total revelation, particularly once he got going in the second half of the race.

Before we go there, it is worth pointing out that the apparent anonymity of the quiet-spoken Thai driver, before he burst on to the scene with an out of the blue Toro Rosso call up for this season, is misleading.

In 2005, eight-year-old Alex started karting and by 2011 was such an accomplished karter that he finished second in KF1 in the WSK Euro Series and second again at the CIK-FIA World Championship.

In karting circles at the time, Albon was the driver to beat at every race he turned up to. He was up against full-time factory drivers, career karters with huge experience and, more often than not, the youngster beat them. He became the benchmark for other drivers to target on race weekends.

In the junior series he never won but improved with each season until he finished the 2018 F2 season third, but did enough in a latter half surge of form that convinced Helmut Marko to hand him the keys to a Toro Rosso.

Fast-forward to Sunday. He knew he had the pace, did not get too excited early on, kept out of trouble and in the second half began his charge.

Granted Max won his first race when he stepped up to Red Bull, but Alex’s circumstances were vastly different and cannot be compared. Furthermore, he was not helped by the fact that engine penalties meant he started his first race in blue from 17th.

That failed to deter him, he avoided the melee that eliminated his teammate at La Source, then bided his time in the early stages as the DRS set the pecking order. Although down the order for a number of laps, he remained remarkably calm, incredibly cool with absolutely no panic evident in the cockpit view. Also, no indecisiveness or hastiness.

His real charge began shortly after the halfway mark as he picked off one rival after another, watching this at the time live, it was evident that the karting tricks were out in force as he stalked, feinted one way then the other before pouncing and finding a way through.

He ruthlessly cut up the king of the overtakers – Dan the Man – with a move that began on the exit of Les Coombes and ended as they roared towards Pouhon. At one point the Renault man had no clue where the Red Bull was.

Irrespective of tyres and strategy that was a neat move not only in execution but, crucially and impressively, with minimum fuss and no marked loss of speed or momentum. Very cool stuff in my book.

Then the show of ultra-big balls when he simply refused to go the long way around wily old Sergio Perez who tried to squeeze him onto the grass up the Kemmel dragstrip. Alex was having none of it, with DRS wide open and not to be wasted he just muscled his way past the pink car. Again: Wow!

The kid delivered in the car he only drove for the first time 48-hours earlier, showed a fighting spirit, race-craft and maturity that his predecessor sorely missed and probably does not have, while Alex appears to be part of a very select few who do at the very highest level.

It is very early days, but the signs are very positive and I don’t think I am going out on a limb, but in case I am alone in my observations, I am putting it out there:

“Alex is the real deal and he is going to wow us many more times in the future.”

He might be understated in comparison to some of the big caricatures in the F1 cartoon, but he gave a glimpse of something special during those 44 laps at Spa. Maybe more Prost than Senna, and we know how potent the Professor was in his heyday.

Evidence suggests that Red Bull have found their next warrior.

With Max guaranteed to deliver fireworks, the Blues are well served with a fireman rather than another fire-starter. The Doctor may have hit another home run with Alex.

Time will tell…

On a related note, Lando Norris was voted Driver of the Day and he deserved it merely for consolation from the heartache of a well-deserved fifth place going up in smoke with the finish in sight.

After he impressively missed the mayhem that ensued in front of him into La Source, he also did well to extract himself from the clutches of the mid-pack and proceeded to have a lonely race whereby fifth place became his to lose. Renault obliged.

No doubt the young Englishman – a true find by McLaren – has the real deal stuff in him too and he again delivered a performance that belies his youth but Alex got vote on the day, after all he did bag the points while Lando didn’t.

I also felt the Red Bull driver had to work harder on Sunday afternoon, not only when he was attacking but also when he was keeping his powder dry. Like I say, I only saw good things in Alex’s drive on the day.

Big Question: Alex’s lap chart at the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix:

Big Question: Is Alex the Real Deal?