Alex Albon on missing out on a career in the electric series: "Formula E was my conviction"
After promising test drives, up-and-coming driver Alex Albon was set to make the step from Formula 2 to Formula E in 2018. The Briton with Thai roots was presented by Nissan e.dams in September 2018 as Nico Prost's successor. However, Formula E was only "Plan B" for Albon, who left the racing series before the first race in favour of a Formula 1 cockpit. The current Williams driver now describes the "silly season" surrounding his Formula 1 debut from his perspective.
"Formula E is the next best thing career-wise to do outside of Formula 1," Albon describes in the High Performance Podcast. The electric series was flying high at that time: the new Gen2 car promised a significant performance boost, and four new manufacturers - BMW, Mercedes, Nissan and Porsche - had announced their entry. "I got approached to do Formula E and I thought, 'Amazing, that's great'."
"“I actually called Helmut Marko, who’s the boss of the Red Bull junior programme, before I signed the contract (with Nissan e.dams), just to say: 'Just out of any chance, is there a seat going in F1 before I sign this Formula E contract?' And he replied: 'No. Our seats are full, there's no chance'," he continues. However, Albon asked around not only at Red Bull, but also at other Formula 1 teams, to see if there was a possibility of getting a cockpit in Formula 1.
"I think at that point I was disappointed," explains Albon. "I thought: 'Okay, Formula E it is', and that was also my conviction." Due to the back-to-back Formula E calendar at the time, with the season starting at the end of the year, the end of the Formula 1 and Formula 2 seasons was still a long way off when Albon was announced as a Nissan driver for Formula E in September 2018. But before the Formula E season started in December, everything was about to change.
"I signed that Formula E contract maybe three, four months before the final race of the season in Formula 2, and then it came to the last race of the year and Helmut Marko got me back again. He got his PA to come over and speak to me and say, ‘Do you mind just popping into Helmut’s office at the circuit?’"
Helmut Marko: "Can you get out of the contract?"
"We had a chat about simulator work. I was actually at the simulator at Mercedes doing work for them, he wanted to know how much I got paid at Mercedes," he continues. "I gave him a big number. And then he said, ‘Okay, can I see it then?’ I thought, ‘Great, he’s agreed to my terms on my simulator contract'. Aas I was walking out the door, he was like, ‘By the way, what’s your position with your Formula E contract? Can you get out?’"
Contrary to all assumptions, a cockpit had become available at Toro Rosso, Red Bull's junior team: Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo had signed a contract with Renault for 2019. Red Bull promoted Pierre Gasly as Max Verstappen's new team-mate, leaving his seat at Toro Rosso vacant. A surprising opportunity for Albon, who was prepared for this eventuality.
"he one thing I did make sure with my Formula E contract was to have a clause in it that, if I had a Formula 1 offer," explains Albon. "Marko said: 'Okay, let me get back to you'. And then within 24 hours it was almost pretty much all done. He called me, saying: 'Okay, yep, good to go. We’re going to make your press announcement in about an hour', and I was a Formula 1 driver."
However, it couldn't have happened quite like that: Albon did not get into the Formula E car at the pre-season testing in Valencia just six weeks before the Formula 2 season finale, even though he had travelled to Spain. Back then we reported on Albon's departure, which was related to contract negotiations with Toro Rosso. The timing of the announcement, however, fits.
The Japanese manufacturer, apparently surprised by Albon's move, brought Oliver Rowland to Spain the next day, who replaced Albon both at the final day of testing in Valencia and in the 2018/19 Formula E season. Rowland is still driving for the team today - with a two-year break - and achieved pole position at the last race in Diriyah, taking third place in the race.