Another lacklustre display at Formula 1’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix will have done little to ease the enormous pressure mounting on the shoulders of Alex Albon.

Albon’s maiden F1 podium at Mugello - and what at the time appeared to be a major breakthrough - seems nothing more than a distant memory.

The Red Bull driver came into the Imola weekend knowing he desperately needed to perform after a disappointing recent string of results, including finishing 10th in Russia, retiring in Germany and taking 12th in Portugal, a lap down on teammate Max Verstappen

Inconsistent results across the opening 13 rounds of the season have resulted in Albon’s place at Red Bull coming under threat, and led to mounting speculation over his future. Red Bull needs a driver to be backing up Verstappen in its aim to mount a sustained challenge to Mercedes and Albon has, so far at least, fallen short of those expectations.

While Red Bull chief Christian Horner has continually insisted the team’s intention is to keep Albon for 2021, he stressed he wanted the 24-year-old to “claim” his seat by delivering strong weekends at Portimao and Imola in order to prevent the need for Red Bull to look at outside candidates including Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez

But will finishing 15th and last at the former San Marino Grand Prix venue following a costly spin shortly after the Safety Car restart prove the final straw for Red Bull?

“Alex has obviously had a difficult race,” Horner told Channel 4. 

“Unfortunately, spinning at the restart there cost valuable points for him and the team. He was stuck in a battle with Daniel [Ricciardo] and Charles Leclerc and they were running in a train all afternoon and unfortunately that mistake was costly. 

“Again, we’ll just have to take ourselves away, analyse it, try and work with him and try and make sure that he comes out fighting out of the box at Istanbul in a couple of weeks’ time.”

Managing just one point across the last four races, Albon has now fallen to ninth in the championship standings on 64 points, one clear of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and a massive 98 behind third-placed Verstappen. 

One podium to Verstappen’s nine (which include a win at Silverstone) and carrying an average qualifying deficit of just over half a second is not the desired level of performance that Red Bull is seeking from Albon. 

Was Albon’s weekend as bad as it appeared?

Multiple track limits offences in qualifying put Albon under unnecessary pressure before he gathered himself for a lap that was good enough for sixth - behind both Gasly and Ricciardo - to land a familiar starting spot on the third row of the grid. 

Albon lost a place immediately at the start to Ferrari’s Leclerc and struggled to make progress in a train of cars with an unstable rear-end. Despite this, Albon appeared on course for a minimum top-six finish when Verstappen spun out due to a tyre failure, but a sluggish Safety Car restart cost the Thai racer. 

He was passed by Daniil Kvyat into Tamburello and was then mugged by Perez’s bold around-the-outside overtake at the Villeneuve chicane as he lost two places in the space of a few corners. 

Seemingly caught out by a loss of downforce in the dirty air behind Perez, Albon dropped his RB16 all by himself and plummeted to the rear of the field. Although he protested that he had been hit from behind, there was no such contact and it was very much Albon’s fault. 

Albon found himself under attack at the restart in part because he was running on old Hard tyres after a late call to pit meant he missed the chance to swap onto fresh rubber during the Safety Car period. 

Albon’s race engineer, Simon Rennie, apologised for the communication blunder over team radio after the race, saying: “Sorry about that call it was too late, obviously. That was my fault, my bad.”

“No worries, mate,” was Albon’s reply. 

Staying out on worn tyres meant he was a sitting duck to those behind who had pitted for new tyres, and it made Albon’s task all the more difficult. 

Albon was convinced that he would have been able to fight for a podium had he pitted.

“We were the first cold tyre car for them to come across, so it was always going to be difficult to hold them off,” he explained. “If we stopped, we could have been looking for a podium, but that’s just the way it is.

“Of course I’m hanging in there, I’m doing everything I can. It was, in retrospect, not a bad weekend for me. But we’ll focus ahead on Turkey.”

What next for Red Bull?

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Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko previously indicated that he wanted Red Bull to have finalised its line-up for both teams by the Turkish Grand Prix on November 15, a target that appeared to align with Horner’s comments about Albon needing to produce some convincing drives in the most recent two races.

Despite Kvyat’s eye-catching and battling efforts to claim fourth and his best result of the season at Imola, the Russian is looking increasingly-likely to be replaced by rising Honda-backed Red Bull protege Yuki Tsunoda for 2021.

Marko rates Tsunoda highly and it is clear to see why. The 20-year-old Japanese driver has starred during his rookie Formula 2 campaign with Carlin, taking two victories so far to occupy third in the championship heading into the Bahrain finale at the end of this month.

After qualifying, Marko appeared to confirm to Sky Germany that Tsunoda will graduate to F1 at AlphaTauri alongside Italian GP winner Gasly, who last week was confirmed as staying put at the Faenza squad for another season. 

Whether such a move would strengthen Albon’s position or not remains to be seen, but it appears unlikely that Red Bull would be willing to drop him from its programme altogether for a second time. Losing his place on the F1 grid would surely cause irreparable damage to Albon’s already dipping confidence. 

The big question remaining is whether Red Bull is willing to continue to show faith and an untypical amount of patience in Albon, or if it sees Hulkenberg or Perez as a better fit to fulfil its short-to-mid-term ambitions. 

Should Red Bull continue to persist with Albon, or has the time come to change things up for next season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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