The Test

Clara Mokri/The Players' Tribune

During my year away, I had a lot of time to think. Like really think. I was the reserve driver for Red Bull Racing during the ’21 season and I tried to keep my mind focused on one thing: How do I get back into an F1 seat?

It was a bit of a conundrum, honestly. I did everything I could in the simulator, as well as racing in DTM with GT3 cars to try and keep my skills sharp. But there was also this other side where I almost felt like … I wanted people to see me for what I had done in F1 in my first two years. I just didn’t feel like I was getting a fair shake from the community. I didn’t want anyone’s pity. It wasn’t like that at all.

So during that year I’d sit there and watch Checo and Max rack up points for Red Bull Racing, and it just killed me. It wasn’t because I wasn’t happy for their success. Hand on my heart, I really was happy for them. I worked with both of them all winter to get the car right in the simulator. I remembered all the issues Max and I had with the car the year before, and the team and I spent hours in a dark room looking at data visualisation, making sure we had the car on rails. And when we got to testing and I saw the guys come in and say, “Yeah, car feels really great,” I was really happy it was performing well. But I just wanted to be out there.

I didn’t want to be that guy. The one who you forgot about.

Alex Albon

That was the most difficult moment of my career, and I really had to ask myself some hard questions. I had to think about more than myself as a driver. I had to think about who I wanted to be as a person. How many drivers lose their seat and never come back? How many drivers come in for a few seasons and disappear from F1? It’s a cutthroat business, I know it.

Some people might think I would be one of those who would just disappear, who wouldn’t earn himself a second chance. And I had a few days after I found out I’d be a reserve driver when I just felt sorry for myself. I was down and I didn’t really see a way back. I appreciated all the messages from my fans, but at the beginning it looked a bit bleak. But I took some time, and I talked with my family and friends and I sort of realised that what I needed to do, it wasn’t even about racing — it was about me. It was about who I was. Who I wanted to be.

And I didn’t want to be that guy. The one who you forgot about.

I wanted to be Alex Albon, the F1 driver.

Mark Thompson/Getty

So I checked my ego, my feelings. I went to Helmut and Christian and I said, “O.K., what do you want me to do? How do I give my all to the team?”

That winter, it didn’t matter what the task was, really, I was all in. Like I said, late nights working on data viz or thousands of laps on the sim. I was game. I found this next level of motivation. I was almost mad. Like, You want a test driver? Fine … you’re going to get the best test driver you’ve ever seen in your life. I don’t know if I ended up being that. But I did really try to give it my all. It helped that I knew the team well from my time at Toro Rosso and Red Bull the two years before.

You aren’t just driving for yourself or your family anymore. You’re driving for hundreds of people, hundreds of families.

Alex Albon

I think about those two years often because, even now, it feels like this weird dream almost. I was so excited just to be in F1 for the first time at the start of 2019. And Toro Rosso was the perfect place for me. I was learning. I was growing. I was doing it. I met the team in Faenza that summer and I really understood the great sense of responsibility a driver has. My karting and junior teams were all quite small. But in Italy I saw everyone who helped build the Toro Rosso car and make everything that I do possible. I remember walking through the machine shop and everybody was looking at me, eyeing me up and I just … I understood. F1 is big. You aren’t just driving for yourself or your family anymore. You’re driving for hundreds of people, hundreds of families.

It’s a special team, it really is. It felt like the perfect place for me as a 23-year-old. Lots of talented young drivers had been a part of the team, like Max, who spent two-and-a-bit years there working on his craft.

Our season was going well. I was scoring points pretty frequently and felt like I was improving, and summer break came up quickly. I finished 10th in Hungary and was really looking forward to some time off when I got a call from Helmut.

“Can you come to Graz?”

That’s where he lives in Austria. I really had no clue what it could be about. I was moving at the time from the U.K. to Monaco and he was helping me with some of that stuff, so I figured it might be about that. But it seemed like a long way to go just for that. It was a bit strange. But with Helmut you just come to expect anything and everything. He put me up at the hotel he owns in the city, and I met with him the next day across the street. For the first 20 minutes or so it was about my season so far, then quite a bit about moving and all the logistics involved.

Then toward the end he goes, “O.K., so you’re going to be in the main team now, starting at Spa. We’re going to make the announcement in 30 minutes. So call who you need to and all that.”

I mean…. What can you even say?

Helmut, what a guy. 

It was quite a position to be in. It wasn’t lost on me what a privilege it was. And like any driver, it’s where you want to be. Winning races. Competing for championships. That’s why we do this. But I was also trying to be wise to it, you know?? Like I knew how good Pierre was. I’ve seen it for years. He’s mega talented. He had more experience under his belt than me, too. And for whatever reason it wasn’t working for him at Red Bull Racing, so they made the switch with me.

But why?

I thought about that for the whole summer break.

Clara Mokri/The Players' Tribune

And I was so naive, right, like I didn’t know what it took to compete for a top team. I was 12 races into my Formula 1 career. How was I going to do? How long would it take me to adapt? I just didn’t have the data on myself. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I went into it as open-minded as I could be and, just like at Toro Rosso, I tried to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. I think that’s one of my strengths. But Red Bull Racing, it’s not really a place for learning. And fair enough, I get that. They’re trying to win races.

When I got in the car and had a few sessions under my belt, I thought of Pierre.

I get it. I get it, mate.

This isn’t to throw shade at anyone at Red Bull Racing or Max or anything, honestly. But the car is set up in a unique way that is built around the lead driver, and that’s Max. And, look, I totally get why. I mean, when all is said and done, he might be the greatest driver of all time. But he has a very distinct style of driving, and he likes the car set up a certain way that’s hard for a lot of drivers to sync up with. Of course, you can tinker and tweak your own car, but just the Red Bull in general is suited to Max’s style.

I like a lot of front end and nose. I’ve been teammates with George and Charles and I’ve always had way more nose than them. Basically think front-end sensitivity. And when I got into the Red Bull … I mean there was so much nose on the thing that if you blew on the wheel the car would turn. If you play Call of Duty, or a game like that, turn your sensitivity up to the highest it will go. That’s what it’s like to drive that car.

That’s F1, that’s life. I know that now.

Alex Albon

And like I said, I completely understand why. Max was, at the time, a future world champion. It was clear for all to see. So, of course, you’re going to build your car how he likes.

But for a guy like me, who had driven 12 F1 races his entire life, in a completely different car, on a different team, it was a bit of an adjustment. And I felt like I did O.K.!! I only finished worse than sixth once the rest of the year with Red Bull, and I was getting up to speed with everything as best I could. But F1 is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business most of the time. And even though I didn’t feel out of place at Red Bull, the next season wasn’t easy. The pandemic impacted everything, and I felt I really needed that extra time with the car that we lost. It was a massive break between Abu Dhabi and the first race. But I understood it was difficult on everyone and I had to put my head down and perform.

I will say, those two podiums I’m so proud of those.

Clive Mason/Formula 1 via Getty

Look, I don’t know exactly what my future holds. But to be able to look back at pictures of myself on an F1 podium, with the Thai flag behind me?? Pretty cool. If I could have shown those photos to little Alex dressed in Ferrari red in his go-kart, he’d go crazy. But my F1 story is far from finished and I know there’s more to come.

Of course I wanted to do better at Red Bull. I would have liked more time to prepare for it all. I wish it could have been a bit different. But I don’t regret it. I know how lucky I was. And I’m proud of myself for giving it my all. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. 

That’s F1, that’s life. I know that now.

When I was told I was becoming a test driver at the end of 2020, I didn’t really see the big picture. But in those days where I was feeling bad for myself, I thought about the journey. I remembered walking up to Silverstone as a boy with my dad, hearing the scream of the V-10s. How badly I wanted to be in one of them. I thought of the lean years when I was dropped from the Red Bull programme and thought my racing career was over at 16. I remember how hard my family and I worked to give me a chance to even be in a spot to be considered for F1. There were so many places where it all could have just gone off the rails when we could have packed it in and I could have gone to school and done something else.

But I watched from the sidelines in 2021 as Max won the world championship, and I just thought there was more to my story. I thought what happened at Red Bull wasn’t the end.

Clive Mason/Formula 1 via Getty

So I did what anybody without a job does.

I started handing out CV’s.

I must admit mine looked a little different than most. I did it in excel and I had all these lap times and splits and all sorts of data all colour-coded. It was all in reds and greens and yellows and it was really a sight to behold. I was quite proud of it.

About halfway through the year in Austria, I handed it to Jost Capito at Williams Racing and he and I hit it off pretty quickly. He had a lot of belief in me, and we had a lot of positive conversations. I think George may have said a few nice things about me, too (Thank you, George). I was really excited about the opportunity at Williams and, even though there was interest from other teams, Jost made me feel at home.

There’s really a family feeling at Williams. There’s a sense of community and I’m excited to come to work each day. That goes from the race team, the factory, the owners, everyone. It was obviously a tricky season for us last year, but there’s this moment I remember from the first race in Bahrain that I keep coming back to.

We weren’t where we wanted to be in preseason testing and most people expected us to be out easily in Q3. Hopes weren’t high at all in the paddock, and it was a frustrating week up to that point. But I put together a pretty good lap and we made it into Q2 and I don’t really know why, but I just felt so emotional in the car on my in-lap. I felt like it was a sign almost, like, Keep going. Don’t worry about everything else. Just keep going. To be out of the sport for a year, to question so much about myself and to come out and perform? It meant a lot to me. I know it might not mean much to everyone else. And it’s not a podium. But it’s still a moment I’ll remember forever.

Williams Racing

I could see how much it meant to everyone in our garage and we’ve all built a really good relationship in my time there. Williams is an historic team and I want to be part of turning us around and moving us up the grid. I can’t wait for the year to get going and for us to show what we’re capable of. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we have a great team of people with the motivation to keep pushing on.

I’ve seen a lot in this sport. I’m thankful for all of it. The good and the bad made me into the man I am today.

And I hope you can see me for that Alex, the driver who refused to give up.