While he was able to make light of the situation during a recent Twitch stream, Alex Albon’s demotion from a Red Bull F1 seat alongside Max Verstappen to the team’s reserve driver and a move into sports cars with DTM has to hurt.
Unlike his predecessor Pierre Gasly, there was no room for Albon to drop down into an AlphaTauri seat once it was decided he wouldn’t be the person to partner Verstappen this season, and so the British-Thai is left hunting for a route back to the top.
Is there a way back to an F1 seat for Albon? And what does he need to do to secure his return?
The best opportunity for the 24-year old driver to showcase his skillset is in the competitive DTM championship, where he will share the drive with Nick Cassidy, another British driver hailing from a single-seat background who has raced in Super Formula and previously won the Japanese F3 championship.
Racing in an AlphaTauri-liveried Ferrari 488 GT3 Evos, the driver will get his first taste of life outside single-seaters and has a good opportunity to prove his talents against a tough grid in which former Formula 1 drivers have formerly struggled.
Just look at Robert Kubica, who finished 15th in the championship last year.
Red Bull test and reserve driver
While Albon’s main source of racing this year will be in the DTM, the driver remains the Red Bull test and reserve driver, and team principal Christian Horner has publicly stated that Albon remains “a key part of our team as a test and reserve driver with a major focus on development for 2022”.
Also, given the current uncertainty around the pandemic, he remains the first in line to cover should others drop out from races, and Helmut Marko has suggested that Albon may even join another team this year as temporary cover.
In practice, the driver’s role will most likely come down to putting in a lot of hours on the sim and working on testing for future development. That knowledge of the 2022 Red Bull car gives Albon value for other teams also which may seek his employment.
While he is the most recent holder of a Red Bull F1 seat alongside Verstappen, Albon is not the only person in the hunt for a spot with the main team. His peers in AlphaTauri, Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda, are also vying for the spot.
Gasly had a stellar 2020 season, taking home a surprise maiden F1 victory at a hectic Italian Grand Prix at Monza and consistently out-scoring his teammate Daniel Kvyat after suffering a torrid prior season driving for the main team. But despite this form, Red Bull leadership did not mention Gasly as a potential replacement before it was announced that Sergio Perez would replace Albon for 2021.
Tsunoda is a more uncertain variable, given that he is yet to step up and race in F1 despite his impressive junior career and performances in F2. However, Marko has shown previous form in quickly promoting drivers he considers ready to the main Red Bull team and the Japanese driver is a strong link to its engine supplier Honda.
Another driver who could thwart Albon’s efforts to get back on the F1 grid. Red Bull hired the Mexican for his experience and strong, consistent performances for Racing Point last season after two seasons unsuccessfully promoting its own juniors.
The expectations from Red Bull for Perez are crystal clear: be much closer to Verstappen than Albon or Gasly. Should the driver accomplish this feat, the team will be hard pushed to find reasons to eject him.
Red Bull Juniors
While Albon still has a long career ahead of him at 24, he is not the youngest person vying to drive for Red Bull. The company also has three junior drivers in F2 looking to make the step up to the top bracket: Liam Lawson, Jehan Daruvala and Juri Vips.
Vips already has a super licence and is therefore qualified to drive in F1 at any time Red Bull wishes to promote him. He was set to drive in the Japanese Super Formula series in 2020, just as Pierre Gasly did in 2017, before the coronavirus pandemic meant he did not drive for an entire season, ruling him out of a chance at moving up this year.
Tsunoda meanwhile shone in F2 and was granted the AlphaTauri seat, but should Vips perform well in the coming year there is every chance he could also be in the running for an F1 seat next year.
Overall the real question for Albon is whether there is room for him to return after an underwhelming first season at the top. The ideal situation for the driver is that Gasly, tired of Red Bull’s management style, opts to leave the team for pastures new, and that Tsunoda fails to live up to his promise.
In such a situation, a strong season for Albon in DTM, in which he will have to beat his teammate Lawson, would just maybe put the British-Thai back in contention for a seat. But when Marko has lost confidence in a driver, it can be a long way back to that seat.