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What a difference 12 months can make.
Around this time last year Pierre Gasly, with barely a handful of F1 races under his belt, was the talk of the sport after his giant-killing fourth-place finish at the Bahrain Grand Prix for the newly united Toro Rosso-Honda team. The Frenchman, at the beginning of a year in which he would comfortably beat two-time WEC championship-winning teammate Brendon Hartley, was marked out as a future Red Bull Racing star.
But fast forward just 12 months to his RBR debut and he’s beginning to feel like yesterday’s hero, overshadowed by Toro Rosso’s next big thing.
Alexander Albon, after a centimetre-perfect race that hauled him up from a pit-lane start to a point-scoring finish and won him the fan-voted driver of the day award at the weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, is suddenly attracting attention.
The Thai driver has flown largely under the radar this season as far as rookies are concerned. Lacking the manufacturer backing of fellow debutants George Russell, Lando Norris and Antonio Giovinazzi, he rose to F1 the hard way, having been dropped from the Red Bull Junior Team once on the way and having already decided to abandon F1 in favour Formula E mere months ago.
Even after his unlikely rise he was marked as a second-preference driver. He was only inducted into Toro Rosso at the end of a chain reaction beginning with Daniel Ricciardo’s vacancy at Red Bull Racing and ending with the fractious relationship between the team and Brendon Hartley, who he ultimately replaced — indeed the joke that Albon is a former Red Bull reject replacing a former Red Bull reject partnering a former Red Bull reject did the rounds on Twitter shortly after his announcement.
But Albon has let his driving do the talking. A low-key debut in Australia gave way to his first points in Bahrain before his powerful drive in China cemented him as a man who belongs in F1.
The one blot in his copybook was the violent crash at the end of Saturday practice that wrote off the car so completely it was irreparable before qualifying that afternoon.
He was forced to start from the pit lane, but rather than keep his head down after the chastening experience, he treated the race as an opportunity, bolting on a set of new softs and executing a race of controlled aggression, pulling passes while still massaging his tyres to take tenth on a difficult one-stop strategy.
“If I crashed and I was slow, then that is a lot worse than crashing and having no pace,” he said afterwards. “I would say Saturday I was the worst driver of the day, so it’s nice to come back strong on Sunday.”
The jubilant Albon contrasted starkly with the out-of-sorts Gasly, who continues to struggle with his transition into a frontrunning car.
Gasly has been open about his lack of comfort in the RB15. He’s taken until the third round to qualify for the top ten in a car that’s easily top-six material and has been suitably shaded by teammate Max Verstappen, who’s a podium and 26 points to the good.
This comes off the back of a difficult preseason in which two major crashes curtailed not only his own track time but also that of the team, which was unable to conduct a race simulation and ended its testing campaign almost a day early due to a lack of parts.
The green shoots began emerging in China – he qualified and finished sixth, the minimum expectation, saying he felt increasingly comfortable – but he still would’ve finished more than a minute behind Verstappen had he not fallen further back by making a third pit stop to snatch a point for fastest lap. In a season Red Bull Racing doesn’t quite have race-winning pace, the team will need Gasly performing strongly enough pressure the frontrunners into mistakes, just as Verstappen did to the Ferrari drivers in Shanghai. He can’t do that from 60 seconds down the road.
We’re only three rounds in, but the perpetual pressure of the Red Bull F1 programme is focused on Gasly, and he knows it. After all, the Frenchman was the beneficiary of the ruthless turfing of Daniil Kvyat part of the way through 2017.
Of course this isn’t to say that an Albon-Gasly switch is imminent or even on the cards. Gasly’s struggles are understandable in terms of both his inexperience, having little more than a single season of racing under his belt, and the snappy RB15 package. He’s also up against Verstappen, the sort of driver who can work around car problems and who is one of the quickest men on the grid. Even minor weaknesses can be made to look more severe against the Dutchman.
And if Gasly could be too inexperienced to perform at his maximum, Alex Albon certainly is. He might be having a solid debut, but so too did Gasly sprinkle his rookie Toro Rosso season with outstanding drives, most notably in Bahrain, Monaco and Hungary. In any case Albon’s Chinese Grand Prix success still came after an enormous crash in Saturday practice, the session in which drivers know greediness can be punished by missing qualifying.
But both drivers serve at the pleasure of the Red Bull driver programme, the unpredictable nature of which means it’s just about anyone’s guess what’ll happen in the next 12 months.