Smiling in the sunshine, Alex Albon simply cannot suppress a playful grin. It is, he concedes, the product of irrepressible glee, of the child with the dreams, now the man who still cannot quite believe on Sunday he will be racing in the British Grand Prix.
“Silverstone is so special to me,” he says. “I still think of myself as a young boy coming to the track, seeing F1 cars and I think: ‘This is crazy’. To be in a race-winning team, a championship-winning team at Silverstone. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.”
The Red Bull driver, London born and of British-Thai descent, races under the Thai flag of his mother’s side of the family. But for Albon the British Grand Prix is still very much his home race and feels almost like a homecoming for the 24-year-old. His journey, however, has been far from plain sailing. Crushing setbacks have been juxtaposed by both remarkable fortune and reward for hard work – but it all began at Silverstone.
The memory is clearly still vivid of his first grand prix here in 2002, when he was six years old. Michael Schumacher won with Rubens Barrichello coming second from the back of the grid. “My dad took me, I watched and I was hooked, Silverstone was what got me started,” he says. “Then I got my racing licence when I turned eight at Silverstone on the little go-karting track next to the main one.”
Karting success followed – vying with now teammate Max Verstappen for the WSK Championship and the World Championship, where they ended honours even, winning one apiece. He was taken on as a Red Bull junior in single seaters in 2012, but struggling to adjust, he was dropped. He fought on despite a lack of funding, making it through F3 and F2, battling with his contemporaries of F1’s own nouvelle vague, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and George Russell. But by the end of 2018 and with no seats open in F1, he took a drive for 2019 in Formula E.
“It is a turning point when you realise you are letting go of your dream,” he says. “It felt like F1 was over and at that point I had never even driven an F1 car.”
Yet there was another twist to come. Daniel Ricciardo’s switch to Renault opened up a slot at Toro Rosso, and Red Bull’s head of motorsport, Dr Helmut Marko, who had dispensed with his services in 2012, offered Albon the seat in December after the final GP of 2018 in Abu Dhabi.
The rollercoaster continued. Impressing at Toro Rosso, Marko noted he was the surprise of the season and with Pierre Gasly out of form at the senior Red Bull team, they took the gamble on switching up Albon. The Red Bull principal, Christian Horner, says: “He has a very strong mental attitude. Look at the challenges he has had throughout his career. The way he has dealt with them, the way he has bounced back. Everything I have seen of him demonstrates qualities that he is very, very strong in his head, self assured and confident in his ability.”
Which has served him well: he had nine races to make his mark in 2019 and Red Bull kept him on. Nor was he intimidated by mixing it with the drivers he had admired growing up. He was shaping for second in Brazil before being tagged by Lewis Hamilton and knocked out of contention. At the opening round of this season the pair tangled once more. Albon, on fresh, soft rubber, was on a charge to the front. His first win was on the cards but trying to pass Hamilton in Austria there was contact and he spun out. Hamilton was penalised, but the win had gone.
There is no animosity, only a racer’s disappointment and frustration. If anything, Hamilton had been an inspiration. “Lewis gave me my first trophy after I won a race at Daytona kart track when I was 12 and he was in his first year in F1” he recalls. “Anyone of my age looks up to Lewis because he was the young gun fighting through then, showing the old guys his talent. The young fighter in him gave us something to aspire to, to fight the big boys. And that’s how it has turned out, with us young guys fighting the old dogs.”
Hamilton, the master of Silverstone, will be hard to beat, but Albon has no compunction about taking him on. “When I think how far I have come in two years it is huge but when you are doing it, racing, fighting on track it feels very normal,” he says. “Lewis is only another driver. When you are off track and the adrenaline is not there you can appreciate what Lewis has accomplished and his success in F1 but once you are in the seat he is just another guy you want to get past or defend against. You are in it for yourself.”
With the family home only 30 minutes from the circuit, Albon remains grounded enough to talk about taking the dog for a walk before heading off to climb behind the wheel at the very track that sparked his passion for F1. A prosaic opening to what pleasingly this young man still perceives as a positively fantastical experience.
“You think of your six-year-old self at Silverstone looking at F1 cars and wanting to be in one of them and now realising that you are,” hebeams. “It’s hard not to smile.”