By Abhishek Takle
SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (Reuters) – Alexander Albon will be battling nerves and excitement in equal measure when the Thai rookie makes his Red Bull debut at this weekend’s Belgian Formula One Grand Prix.
The 23-year-old has been promoted from Toro Rosso into the seat alongside Max Verstappen starting this weekend in a straight swap with underperforming Frenchman Pierre Gasly who has been sent back to Red Bull’s sister team.
For Albon, dropped by Red Bull from its junior programme in 2012 and set for a future with Nissan in electric racing series Formula E this time last year, the move up to the former champions and into a race-winning car is an unexpected break in his rookie year.
But as Gasly’s demotion and former Toro Rosso team mate Daniil Kvyat’s before that shows, it can be short-lived.
“I’d say it’s a 10 for excitement,” Albon, sitting next to new Dutch team mate Verstappen in Red Bull kit, told reporters at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit on Thursday.
“But then the numbers for nerves are quite high as well.”
British-born and educated with a Thai mother and English father, Albon has been quietly impressive at Toro Rosso this year.
He finished sixth at last month’s German Grand Prix, the first time he had driven a Formula One car in the wet, to chalk up his best result so far.
But at Red Bull he finds himself alongside Verstappen, the sport’s youngest race winner, driving for a team battling Ferrari for third place in the constructors standings.
The Dutchman has won two races this year and scored more points than even Mercedes championship leader Lewis Hamilton since the Austrian Grand Prix at the end of June.
Albon, who was told of the promotion in a regular catch-up meeting with Red Bull consultant Helmut Marko, will start Sunday’s race at the back of the grid due to an engine-related penalty.
He said he would settle into the high pressure environment of his new team step-by-step.
“Of course jumping into a car this early, I do feel like in a way you would wish it would happen a bit later,” said Albon.
“But no, I’m still very excited and I can’t wait to get started.”
Gasly, meanwhile, said he will respond to his “shock” demotion by doing his talking on track.
“Whether I understand it or not is not going to change it,” said the Frecchman, who has scored 63 points to Verstappen’s 181 over the first 12 races of the year.
“The only thing I need to focus on is performing in these nine coming races with Toro Rosso at my best.”
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Ken Ferris)