Formula 1 sees a major reset in 2022, with new regulations, new tracks, and the fallout from Abu Dhabi 2021 continuing. Amid all of that chaos, Thai-British driver Alexander 'Alex' Albon makes his return to the sport after a year out.
Albon burst onto the scene in 2019 with a string of stellar performances for the Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso team, before a sensational mid-season promotion to Red Bull at the expense of Frenchman Pierre Gasly.
But 2020 saw struggles in the car. As his teammate Max Verstappen stormed to two race wins and laid the foundations for his 2021 title win, Albon found the Red Bull car difficult to drive and, after finishing seventh in the drivers' championship, he was replaced at Red Bull by Sergio Perez.
2021 was a tough year for Albon, as he contended with his demotion and began trying to find his way back to the F1 grid. By his side throughout all of this was an Irishman. Patrick Harding, a Laois native, is a self-described "chartered physiotherapist, strength and conditioning coach, and a mental performance coach," and has played an essential role in getting Albon back to the grid.
Harding spoke to us this week about his work in F1, his expectations for Albon, and how he sees 2022 going, after a challenging year out.
'I’m an au pair for an adult!' - Patrick Harding on Alex Albon
The role of physios and personal coaches in F1 can often be underestimated - and that may be because not a lot is actually known about what it is that they do.
Patrick Harding has been Alex Albon's personal coach for four years now. The high performance coach from Portlaoise has seen Albon move through three different racing series, and three different teams in his time in F1.
He explained to us what exactly his role requires:
I’m kind of involved in all aspects of his preparation for the race season. I look after his physical development, his pre-season training, and his management of his physical fitness throughout the season.
Looking after his nutrition, from a mental performance coaching point of view, making sure he’s in the right mindset to compete and to be ready for the season.
Alongside of that, helping with his lifestyle management, helping with his PR commitments, helping to schedule his timings, looking after his jetlag management. You know what, a big part of it is just being there for him and being somebody that he can trust in a really tough environment.
It’s a little bit of an odd one, you know, when people ask me what I do I laugh and I say, ‘I’m an au pair for an adult!’ There’s elements of that that are pretty true!
For Albon, 2022 marks a second coming of sorts. The ordeal of being dropped from Red Bull understandably took its toll on Albon, now 25. He was the latest driver to fall foul of Red Bull's cut throat policy, with Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat having been axed in similarly harsh fashion in previous years.
Patrick Harding thinks - though the struggles for Albon were well documented - that he didn't get enough credit for how good a job he did in 2019, when Ferrari's suspiciously fast (and potentially illegal) engine had the Red Bulls fighting with four other drivers for podium places.
The other teams on the grid clearly have late 2019 in mind. The move to Williams came with plenty of competition for Albon's signature, a testament to how high a regard his talent is held in. Harding says that there were other options available for drives in 2022 but that, even though they may not contend for wins, Williams felt like the best fit for Alex.
I was pretty confident that he would get another shot. It turned out that he was in conversation for multiple seats and he thought that Williams would be the best place for him and I think, like you say, fresh start, new team.
You can’t put it nicely – they’re not going to be competitive this year in terms of where he was at with Red Bull but there’s a different expectation on the race weekend. You just have to redefine and reframe what looks like success across the race weekend.
George [Russell] is Alex’s best mate – look at the job George did and the platform he gave himself at Williams over the last three years, they’ve really helped to boost his chances in terms of getting that Mercedes seat.
I think at Williams he can reboot himself and get a fresh start with another team.
It certainly seems as though he has settled in well at the legendary British team, with photos and videos galore of a smiling Albon at the team factory.
Excitement levels for the 2022 season building...😁📈 pic.twitter.com/z47h78vNhy
— Williams Racing (@WilliamsRacing) January 29, 2022
From an Irish perspective, the presence of Patrick Harding in the paddock will be a fun storyline to follow during 2022. This year will mark 17 years since the last race entered by Jordan, and 19 years since Ralph Firman's last race in the sport and, aside from Eddie Jordan's presence on TV punditry teams, Irish involvement has been hard to come by.
But Harding is not alone in his Irishness in the paddock. He tells us that one of the key personalities behind Max Verstappen's title win is a fellow Irishman, and that accents from up and down the country can be heard from every garage.
One of Max’s race engineers is from Cork, a guy called Michael Manning. Really, really good guy.
From a trainer point of view, I’m the only one, but you do pick up the accent here and there – not as many as you would in other sports but there’s definitely a few second generation Irish names going around, particularly in the English teams. Like everywhere, there’s always an Irish person not too far away.
Harding has built up quite the portfolio of sportspeople from his past work, including Irish Olympian and bronze medallist Michael Conlan. One of the most fascinating aspects from his perspective when it comes to his long-term work with Alex Albon is the presence of an outside factor.
For a boxer, all they need is their fists and gloves. For a sprinter, it's a pair of runners and a track. But, for Albon, so much of his performance for 2022 will depend on the car that Williams are able to give him. Harding says this plays a huge role in how he approaches the job.
You just have to keep bringing it back to their execution within the confines of their environment. If we come back after a race with Williams and Alex has finished P12 and he’s berating himself for not being on the podium, then we’re creating an unrealistic expectation of what our result is going to be for that weekend.
My questions always come back to ‘did you execute everything you needed to do to the best of your ability, yes or no?’ No? Well, okay, what areas did you feel like you could improve on, identify those.
Next race, what are the strategies we need to put in place so that in those environments and in those circumstances, you can execute that to the best of your ability. Everything else is uncontrollable. It’s such a cliché now but it’s just “control the controllables.”
— Formula 1 (@F1) August 10, 2020
2022 will be a huge year for Alex Albon, and he is well aware of that. But Patrick Harding has a sneaky feeling that the year out has helped Albon mature and that he will enter his year with Williams with renewed energy and optimism for the season ahead.
The guy that I see now in his maturity and his understanding of the environment, the politics around the sport – not just the technical side of the sport – means that he’ll be in a much more rounded position next year.
Not just a guy who’s extremely talented at driving and has excellent racecraft, but also a guy who has matured to the environment and can bring that maturity to the team, and his understanding of the politics around that.
While it wasn’t ideal, I think he’s learned an incredible amount about himself over the last twelve months that’ll only stand to him in the future.
We're not sure we can claim Alex Albon as an honorary Irish representative in F1 for 2022 and beyond but, as long as Patrick Harding is working alongside him in the paddock, we won't have to look too far for some Irish involvement.