When Alex Albon opened his microphone after crossing the finish line third at the Tuscan Grand Prix he showed none of the exhilaration you might have expected from a racer at their first podium.
“Thank you, everyone; thanks for everything,” he radioed. “Thanks for sticking with me.”
But his words carried no less weight for their lack of jubilation.
Alex Albon has been a man under pressure in 2020. The innocence of an impressive rookie season lost, the jungle drums have been beating ever louder for the Thai occupying one of only four regular victory-contending seats.
It’s easy to forget that only two years ago Albon had given up on his F1 dream when an unexpected vacancy at Toro Rosso, now named AlphaTauri, provided the opening he needed, and by last August he was thrust into the limelight of being a fully fledged Red Bull Racing driver.
His nine races at the senior team were solid, albeit unspectacular, but that was his rookie campaign; 2020 would be the real mark of the man.
The year got off to a cracking start, a likely victory in Austria wiped out only by a clash with an errant Lewis Hamilton, but the Thai has struggled since. On average half a second behind the Dutchman in qualifying and with 47 points fewer to his name, just twice this year has Albon has finished inside the top four, where is car comfortably belongs.
By contrast Verstappen has finished on the podium in every race he’s finished, including one victory.
Piling on the pressure is that the man whose former seat Albon occupies, Pierre Gasly, is revitalised in AlphaTauri’s low-pressure environs. One of the year’s standout performers, the Frenchman banished his 2019 demons with a famous maiden win at Monza, a race Albon ended an anonymous 15th.
Red Bull holds the contracts to all four Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri drivers and can switch them as it likes. Notoriously cut-throat, you either swim or sink.
But the team has notably mellowed this season. Whereas in 2019 Gasly was cut no slack against Verstappen, in 2020 team boss Christian Horner is publicly supportive and in an acknowledgement of the RB16’s capriciousness has confirmed there’ll be no Gasly-Albon switchback this season.
But the sword still dangles for 2021, which is why Albon’s first podium offered as much relief as joy.
He’d qualified well at the physically challenging Mugello and survived the first-lap melee that claimed Verstappen and so many others for retirement, but at both standing restarts he lost positions, threatening to misalign the stars working in his favour.
But the cool aggression behind the wheel is yet to leave him during his struggles, and one by one he picked past his rivals to rise.
The last overtake was decisive. Faced with stern racer Daniel Ricciardo, Albon perfectly judged a move around the Australian’s outside, where the grip is low and the risk immense, and made it stick, rocketing into a third place he at long last held to the line.
“It took a while to get here!” he said. “It’s really nice to give the team something back after they’ve supported me since day one and show them what I can do.”
Undoubtedly talented and blessed with a sharp racing brain, Albon deserves a seat at the front - but you’re only as good as your last result, and Albon has eight more races to argue his case.