Alex Albon has made a strong return to Formula One in 2022. The Thai-British driver was replaced by Sergio Perez at Red Bull at the end of 2020, and took a year away from the sport. He has returned for 2022 with Williams and shown his full worth at the top table.
Albon has outperformed his teammate Nicholas Latifi across the first three races, despite Latifi entering his third season with the team. The Williams car isn't the quickest on the grid, but Albon has maximised its potential in the opening rounds of the season.
The impressive form of Albon was most evident last time out in Australia, where he drove 57 of the 58 laps on one set of hard tyres to go from P20 to P10.
Right by Albon's side throughout his return to Formula One is Irishman Patrick Harding. Laois native Harding is Albon's personal coach and, this week, we spoke to him to break down the strong start to the season and that incredible drive in Melbourne.
He said that starting from the back afforded an unexpected opportunity to roll the dice with the strategy, and that Albon's racecraft was crucial to the result.
'Being in the position at the back gives you a lot of freedom'
There have been plenty of impressive drives this season in Formula One, with Charles Leclerc dominating thus far. That being said, it's hard to beat Alex Albon's charge to a point in the Australian Grand Prix. Having driven almost the entire race on one set of hard tyres, Albon pitted on the penultimate lap and held off Zhou Guanyu to take 10th.
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 10, 2022
Albon's personal coach Patrick Harding hails from Laois, and he spoke to Balls this week to look back on the opening rounds of the season.
Naturally, we had to ask him about the race at Albert Park. The Williams has struggled to keep pace with the pack in the opening races - but Harding said that that unexpectedly played into the team's hands. He told us that Albon's time to get used to the new tyres without battling with other cars allowed him to run for so long on the hard tyres at the Australian Grand Prix.
In terms of the strategy in Australia, it probably helped him to be at the back because these new Pirellis, we knew it took a little bit more time to get some heat into the carcass.
Being at the back for the first few races and not being in that tussle meant that he had time to bring those tyres in. Him, with that pace in lap 57, still going green in sectors, meant that starting at the back was maybe an advantage.
Albon and Williams also found advantages from other unexpected areas.
The former Red Bull man was disqualified from qualifying for a fuel shortage, meaning he had to start from P20 in Melbourne. Patrick Harding told us that the team saw an opportunity there to gamble on an alternate strategy to the midfield runners.
Being in the position at the back gives you a lot of freedom. There’s zero expectation. In terms of strategy, it gives you a little bit of a wildcard.
The perspective Alex had was: “we need to do something different”. If we did the strategy that everyone around us is doing, we’d probably just end up in the same position. So, starting at the back, you might as well throw out a hail Mary and see if it works, rather than sit in the comfort zone and finish P18 or P19.
He backs himself in those circumstances, his attitude is always: “well, if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.”
Having driven on the hard tyres for 57 laps, the late pit stop left Albon with one flat out lap on the soft tyres. He came out in close quarters with the Alfa Romeo of Zhou Guanyu and, after an intense final lap, he held off the rookie for the final point.
Harding told us that race day is the best part of Albon's package, and that that manifested itself on Sunday in Australia - particularly on the final lap.
You know, race day is probably the strongest part of his toolkit. So, when it comes to a Sunday, I’m never concerned about how it’s going to go. I know he’s a racer at heart, and we saw that in terms of his tyre management, in terms of his race strategy, in terms of just keeping his cool, particularly into that last lap.
The pit stop wasn’t the quickest and coming out 0.3 ahead of Zhou, there wasn’t much in it that last lap. Just keeping a cool head and being able to bring it home in P10 is huge for the team.
The cameras in the paddock captured a lovely moment post race, as Albon and Harding embraced in the aftermath of one of the best drives of Albon's career.
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 10, 2022
The quest for points at Williams has been an arduous one over recent years. They have mainly relayed on chaotic races such as last year's GPs in Budapest and Monza to collect points. Albon managing to finish P10 thanks to pace and strategy will be a massive boost for the team.
Harding even suggests that a point for Williams at this current moment is as good as a podium was when Albon was at Red Bull.
It wasn't only in Melbourne that Albon impressed.
Indeed, Harding told us that he believes the lap that got him into Q2 at the season opener in Bahrain was one of the best of his entire F1 career.
I would say those two laps that Alex did in qualifying in Bahrain, in Q1, were probably two of his best qualifying laps in his F1 career. Especially the second lap. To get into Q2 with where the car was at on that track was incredible.
That’s in his top three qualifyings of his career, the others being Silverstone at Toro Rosso and matching Max at Suzuka when he’d only been at Red Bull for a couple of races.
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 19, 2022
The hope will be that Alex Albon and Williams can push on to contending for points regularly in the upcoming races.
It certainly seems like it will be a tough ask but, if Albon can continue maximising the opportunities at hand, they can cause a few more upsets.