Alex Albon shed insight on what makes Max Verstappen the dominant force he has become in Formula 1 today, the Williams driver hailing his former Red Bull teammate’s “unique” and “eyewatering” driving style.
Verstappen powered to 19 victories in Adrian Newey’s RB19, in what was the most dominant combo of driver and car ever seen in F1. Both the 2023 F1 Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships were sealed long before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix season finale.
Albon’s journey began with Toro Rosso at the 2019 Australian Grand Prix and almost ended a year later as his season with Red Bull, as Max Verstappen’s teammate left a lot to be desired. Red Bull opted for the experience of Sergio Perez for 2021.
For Albon, it was a huge demotion as he spent the season on the sidelines with a foray into DTM. The F1 road seemed shut until Williams came calling. Two seasons at Grove have seen a different Albon emerge, more mature of course, as fast as always but wiser.
But, Verstappen’s demolition job on Albon will always be a stain in the latter’s CV. What exactly made the difference between him and Verstappen at the time?
Albon: I would say my driving style is a bit more on the smooth side
Speaking during a High-Performance Podcast, Albon explained: “The first thing is a lot of people say that car is built around him, that he’s like the Michael Schumacher of Ferrari and he’s created this team around him. But truthfully, the car is what it is. Max is very quick. So what ends up happening is, he has quite a unique driving style and it’s not that easy to get along with.
“I would say my driving style is a bit more on the smooth side. But I like a car that has it good front end, so quite sharp, quite direct. Max does too. But his level of ‘sharp and direct’ is a whole different level. It’s eyewatering.
“To give people kind of a maybe an explanation of what that might feel like, if you play computer games at all, if you bump up the sensitivity completely to the max and you move that mouse, it’s just darting across the screen everywhere. That’s kind of how it feels, it became so sharp that it makes you a little bit tense.
“And every time the car becomes sharper and sharper, you start to become more tense. Every time you go into a corner, you don’t know how it’s going to react, you don’t have that pure confidence in the car. It just doesn’t work. It never works.”
Alex burst onto the F1 scene pretty much out of the blue
For those who never followed junior racing all the way back to Karting, where Albon was the man to beat according to many of his rivals on the F1 grid today.
Pierre Gasly, also a Toro Rosso driver destroyed by Verstappen, was called up by RBR prematurely to fill the gap made by Daniel Ricciardo’s unexpected defection to Renault. The Frenchman was simply not ready.
Looking back on what was a whirlwind arrival on the scene, Albon said of the early days at Toro Rosso: “I was living in this dream where the pressure of every race was becoming less and less. I knew after the first race that I belonged. I knew I had got what it takes now and I did genuinely believe in myself.
“Then summer break came around and I got Helmut Marko calling me back to his office. I had no idea why. I thought it was to go through my residency because he was helping me move to Monaco and all this kind of stuff.
“And then just as the meeting ends, he goes, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re in the Red Bull seat. This is the number to speak to, this is going to be your engineer, maybe give him a call and figure [it] out’.
“You can’t go to the factory because it’s shut down [during the summer break]. You’re not allowed to speak to anyone during the shutdown. But he said ‘You’re going to be announced in about two hours’. And that was it. It was big,” recalled Albon, of how Marko informed him of the promotion.
Albon: Formula 1, the way it is, it’s so cutthroat
“It was exactly the same emotion I had when I first got my Toro Rosso chance,” reckoned Albon. “It was ‘I’ve just gone through this literally, I’ve just gone through this. Am I good enough? Can I do this? What’s it like to be Max’s teammate?’
“I’ve got two weeks of nothing, just thinking about this opportunity, but I can’t drive. I can’t get into my happy place, I can’t get my helmet on. I’ve got to just prolong this anxiety. But of course, I went into it with more confidence than I did the first time. But it’s these opportunities, you just have to take them because Formula 1, the way it is, it’s so cutthroat.
“At the same time, I thought to myself: ‘There are so many drivers who would kill this opportunity, there’s so many drivers who wish they could have a spot in a top team. And within six months, you have got that already’. You’re not going to reject it.”
Albon: In a top team every mistake, everything you do gets criticised
Summarising the first chapter of his F1 journey, Albon said: “In hindsight, it was probably a bit too early. I definitely was not prepared enough for my first year. There’s so much that goes on in F1. People always think it’s the driving side of things and you’ve just got to perform in the car when it matters and all these kinds of things.”
“Truthfully, for me, the biggest thing to get used to was everything around it,” recollected Albon. “So once you’re in that top team, the spotlight gets put on you far, far more than what it was like at Toro Rosso.
“The first race [for RBR] that I went to was in Belgium. The attention around this whole seat swap was massive. Every mistake, everything you do gets criticised.
“In F1, the engineering level is far more advanced than anything that happened in Formula 2. But also, when I’m struggling with the car, what do I need to do? Do I need to do some settings on my steering wheel? Will that help?
“There are literally 30 or 40 different things you can do to solve one problem. And I did not know really, I didn’t have experience. I never went through these problems before,” admitted 27-year-old Albon, who will lead Williams for another year at least.
Big Question: How would Alex Albon measure up to Max Verstappen today?