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Exclusive: Albon hopes he can bring Williams a slice of Verstappen glory

Now back on the F1 grid with Williams, Alex Albon never really went away and has plenty to show for his year spent helping Max Verstappen to title glory.

Alex Albon is hoping that he can bring a different kind of experience, and plenty of speed, to Williams this season. The British-born driver, who races under the flag of Thailand, arrived at his new team's Oxfordshire home during the winter tasked with the tough act of following Mercedes-bound George Russell. Those are no easy boots to fill, worn previously by a driver who last year made himself Williams' first podium-sitter since Lance Stroll (2017) and the first driver to stand on the second step of a podium for the team since Felipe Massa (2014). And the mountain he must climb to match his predecessor is made just that bit steeper by the year he has spent out of action, acting as a test and reserve driver for the very team that opted to demote him, Red Bull. Albon can count himself somewhat fortunate. Stoffel Vandoorne, Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson all act as a not-so-friendly reminder that a season out of F1, no matter your age and junior promise, can so often mean the end of the road. "I wouldn't say relieved. Excited is the word I'd use," he explained, speaking exclusively to RacingNews365.com , when asked if he was relieved to be back. "It's been a year where we've been really pushing hard to get a seat in Formula 1, and to have the opportunity to be with Williams, an up-and-coming team, and a team that has got great investment behind them, people who care for the team... "Jost [Capito, Williams' Team Principal] as well is pushing hard to get the car more and more up the grid, [so] it's very exciting to be a part of."

How a year on the sidelines helped Albon to grow

There are some cobwebs for Albon to blow off before the lights go out in Bahrain later this month, cobwebs that he is sure will still be there for the first few rounds of the 2022 season. "We've seen that with [Fernando] Alonso and Esteban [Ocon], previously," he says, well aware that he has fellow drivers to turn to during pre-race driver parades should he need advice on how to get back into the groove after some time off the grid. But after his year behind the scenes at Red Bull, Albon confesses to have spent more time driving in the simulator (often piloting the sport's new 2022 machines) than anyone else on the grid. "I think these new regulations are a bit of a reset for everyone, so it maybe even goes a little bit towards my advantage," he continued. "But you can do as much sim work as you want, it's a different ball game. "[You lose] that pure feeling of motion and the feeling you get through your bum and your back, [of] being on the limit. I would always say that a simulator has a restart button, so it's very easy to push flat out, it's easy to be quick on the simulation. Whereas driving is much more about the feeling and the sensitivities of the car. "[The simulator has] helped me in terms of an understanding of developments and what makes these kinds of cars quick, but it kind of stops there, so this year there is still this essence of getting back up to speed, truthfully, because there's a bit of rust to shake off."

Learning from Red Bull pair Verstappen and Perez

Where Albon has really grown is in his understanding of the sport and how to build a car that fights for the ultimate prize. Had he been allowed to plot his own path, Albon would have kept his seat at Red Bull last season and dealt himself more time to match Verstappen's electric pace. However, having rebuilt his stellar reputation amongst those behind the scenes in Milton Keynes, Albon is aware that a return to Red Bull could be on the horizon. Last season, the 25-year-old landed praise from Verstappen himself for the part he played in developing his title winning-car, fine-tuning it in secret while the Dutchman fought Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton on track. In return, Albon was able to sit in and listen to the post-race debriefs of Red Bull's two superstar drivers, Verstappen and Sergio Perez, learning plenty of tips and tricks that he will now bring to his newest role. And as he reflects on what at first looked set to be a painful year of rejection, Albon now sees that he has something to show for his year spent on the sidelines.

Albon "feels very much a part" of Verstappen's success

"Formula 1 is a team sport and it doesn't matter if you're driving or not; there was a lot of satisfaction in seeing Max win the championship, you feel very much a part of that in some way, as does everyone else at the factory at Red Bull," he said. "I was very happy for him and, at the same time, during that year, there was a lot of experience gained. I spent a lot of time in the debriefs listening to Max and Checo and seeing things from a different perspective, seeing how they work, seeing what they like in the car and testing things for them. It was quite eye-opening. "It shows the credit of everyone. I mean, I'm not talking about myself here. I think, coming from 2020, the car was quite tricky to drive, and it was amazing to see how strongly the team came into 2021. "Obviously, I remember the Bahrain winter testing, it was obvious straight away that there was an improvement within the car." He added: "We made the car good. I actually took quite a lot of satisfaction from that, because my feedback was good and the things which I felt the car was lacking were true. We addressed the issues and we made a step forward, so that was really important."

What can Williams achieve with Albon behind the wheel?

The season that lies ahead is an uncertain one for all in the Formula 1 paddock, and for Williams that is no different. Capito and his team will be hoping that the new season demonstrates a first real step in the right direction after four years at the back of the grid. If their performance during Barcelona testing is anything to go by, Williams have built a reliable car with the pace to fight amongst the midfield, but only time will tell if those early indication ring true. "I think to put a number on [where Williams will finish] is tricky," Albon explained, well aware that it would be wrong of him to make any form of prediction after just three days in the car. "I think on our side, of course, we want to start better than then we ended last season, but then you never know. You might hit the ground running, you might not. "For us, it's gonna be really important to make sure that we develop well and I feel like, as a whole, if we can finish the season better than how we started it, then that's a real positive." Ending his chat with RacingNews365.com , he said: "On my side, I want to help in that way as much as possible. I hope I can bring as much experience and, of course, speed to some extent, for that to happen."

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