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Thailand’s new Formula One flag-bearer

Thailand’s new Formula One flag-bearer

SHANGHAI: A loud, deep thud. Gasps from the grandstand. Then silence.

Formula-One
By Michael Lamonato

Saturday 27 April 2019, 01:55PM


With just seven minutes remaining in the final practice session for the Chinese Grand Prix, Thailand’s Alexander Albon lost control of his car at the exit of the final corner. He’d gotten too greedy on the throttle while riding the kerb, which spun him around and spat him backwards into the tyre wall in a 49G smash.

In a cloud of gravel and broken bodywork, the barrier launched him back onto the track, where his mangled Toro Rosso finally came to rest. He escaped unscathed, but the damage was too great to repair before qualifying. He’d expected to contend for the top 10, but now his Saturday had come to a sudden, violent halt.

But in Formula One it’s how you bounce back from your mistakes that defines you.

Starting last from the pit lane, 23-year-old Albon executed a centimetre-perfect race of controlled aggression, making eight on-track passes and just a single pit stop – only four other drivers managed the same strategy – to finish 10th and score the final point of the race.

It was a powerful performance in just his third grand prix, and it was his mental toughness in recovery that most impressed the paddock.

But Albon is used to battling setbacks – indeed just to get to Formula One has been a six-year struggle against the odds after being dropped from the Red Bull Junior Team at the end of 2012.

It was always going to happen because the results weren’t good,” Albon admitted candidly to The Phuket News in Shanghai. “Truthfully speaking there was no reason for me to carry on another year in Red Bull, so I had to get ready for it.

It was a tough period, but at the same time a really good experience mentally because you have that desire, that eagerness, to show everyone that I am good and I will come back strong.”

The junior karting world champion managed to string together enough funding to recontest the European Formula Renault 2.0 series and commit to continue alone, and slowly he began rebuilding his momentum. He finished third in that series by 2014 and jumped to F1 support category GP3 in 2016, where he finished runner-up to Ferrari-backed Charles Leclerc.

Two seasons in Formula Two re-established him as a junior contender, but even by 2018, when he took the title to the final round against eventual champion George Russell, the door to F1 remained closed to the young Thai racer. It wasn’t until a falling out between Toro Rosso and then driver Brendon Hartley that the sport came knocking again.

I was kind of having my best races at the end of the year, which was doing my reputation very well… and to get the phone call was, ‘Oh, okay, here we go! This is what I’ve always wanted’.

But getting to Formula One is one thing; doing enough to keep your seat is quite another, and as the last rookie to be signed for 2019, Albon arrived as the least prepared, having had none of the 2018 practice or testing of his contemporaries.

I didn’t have that chance,” he said. “If you’re already ahead of in terms of you know what the switches are doing, you know all the toggles or the kind of feedback you need to be giving, then… you’ll be in a stronger position for it.

I felt very prepared out of the car… but there’s always that feeling of, ‘How’s it going to go?’ because it is a huge step.”

Testing started ignominiously with a spin that beached him in the gravel – “That knocked the confidence down!” – but he quickly came to terms with his machine at the tricky Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya to acquit himself well alongside his more experienced teammate, Daniil Kvyat.

Indeed Albon has grown so quickly in confidence with the Toro Rosso STR14 that he’s had Kvyat’s measure on the balance of the three races to date, outqualifying and outracing him twice, scoring three points to the Russian’s one, culminating in his powerful Chinese Grand Prix drive.

Of course, the 21-race season is still young, but the signs are strong, and Albon already looks as though he belongs among F1’s exclusive ranks – so much so that the British-dominated paddock continues to claim the dual British-Thai national as one of their own, in part because his father is a former racer.

It’s an amusing sideshow surrounding a driver who flew under the radar for much of the preseason, but Alex is proud to race under the Thailand flag.

I chose Thai,” he said. “I see myself as a Thai – I’m very close to my mum and to my whole family in Thailand, I go there quite a lot, I’m Buddhist – I feel very much at home when I’m in Thailand. To me, it was a choice.”

But he isn’t the first driver to race with Thai colours in Formula One. Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh – better known as Prince Bira – was a feature of early grand prix racing, competing in the Formula One world championship between 1950 and 1954.

As well as being an Olympic sailor, British-domiciled Prince Bira’s motorsport legacy was Thailand’s blue and yellow racing colours. Those colours are now dominant on Albon’s helmet, and for the 1000th world championship race in China, Alex designed a tribute to his royal forerunner.

Prince Bira I find very close to how I am in the sense that he did all his studies in the UK,” Albon said. “I do feel like we have in some ways a connection.

It sounds corny – it’s not that I see a bit of him in me, but I do see there is a connection there.”

His gentle British accent may disguise it, but Alex Albon is the latest chapter in Thai racing history, and though he may lack the regal background of his famous predecessor, he might soon be just as highly regarded in the racing world.

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