Exclusive: Why British-born Alex Albon is a Thai racing hero

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 17: Alexander Albon of Thailand and Red Bull Racing prepares to drive on the grid before the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 17, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
Alex Albon is just the second Formula 1 driver to race under the Thai flag. (Getty Images)

Just over a year ago, Alex Albon was poised for a career in Formula E. To his own disbelief, he ended up in Formula One as Max Verstappen's team-mate at Red Bull.

Albon's journey has been a remarkable one. It started at the age of seven, with him racing a go-kart around a barn near his then home in Suffolk, on a course made up of bricks.

The 23-year-old was inspired by father Nigel, a British racing car driver who competed in the Renault Clio Cup, British Touring Car Championship, and, most notably, the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia for three seasons in the mid 2000s.

In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Sport, Albon said: "He was the one who got me into it, who had the passion.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 30: Alexander Albon of Thailand and Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing participates in the F1 Hollywood Festival on October 30, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images for Red Bull)
Albon replaced Pierre Gasly as Max Verstappen's partner this year. (Getty Images)

"He bought me my first go-kart and we forged a father-and-son team back in the day, after school, just going to the barn, and that's where we started, putting some bricks down in a figure of eight, just going up and down, learning kart control.

"After school, I would nag my dad all the time, 'Can you get the stopwatch and time me'. We would do laps, and, of course, the lap times got quicker and quicker.

"Throughout my days in karting, he was my driver, coach, mechanic, engineer. This was a period in time when the whole era of a father-and-son team started to become quite difficult because of the money required."

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The 23-year-old has progressed to become only the second F1 driver to race under the Thai flag, and the first since Prince Bira in 1954.

Although he is London-born with a British father, and despite the fact he has lived all his life in the UK, Albon's Thai roots run deep thanks to his mother, Kankamol.

Albon knows that without the maternal link to the country, it is extremely unlikely he would have made it into F1.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 16: Alexander Albon of Thailand driving the (23) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB15 on track during qualifying for the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 16, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Albon facing in the qualifiers for the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil. (Getty Images)

"Being half-Thai, I'm very lucky," assessed Albon. "That transition from karts to single-seaters is not easy because the money required is massive.

"But in racing under the Thai flag, I have had some really good people backing me, the majority being Thai. That was really the only way I could survive. Bit by bit we got through it.

"Each step you make in single-seaters becomes more and more expensive. By the time you reach Formula 2, it's insane money."

Albon was also fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of Red Bull's Junior team in 2012, with the programme helping to oversee his development and rise into GP3 and F2, initially with ART Grand Prix in 2017 and DAMS in 2018.

In September last year, Nissan e.dams announced they had signed Albon for the 2019 Formula E season. Two months later, FE became F1 as he maintained his link to the Red Bull stable by joining Toro Rosso.

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In August, Albon's rapid rise was complete when Red Bull confirmed he would partner Verstappen for the remainder of the season - demoting Pierre Gasly to Toro Rosso - a relationship that will continue into 2020 on the back of his superb performances for the team.

Albon could not be more proud of the fact he is now not only representing Red Bull in F1, but also Thailand.

With a beaming smile, he added: "I visit three or four times a year, with my mum.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 27: Alexander Albon of Thailand and Red Bull Racing waves to the crowd on the drivers parade before the F1 Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 27, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Albon's fanbase in Thailand continues to grow along with his success. (Getty Images)

"I see a lot of Thailand in myself. Every time I'm there I feel pretty much at home, to be honest, this happy, smiley way, which is me as well. I'm quite positive.

"I'm not saying my dad is a grumpy guy but I'm quite happy, I get that from my mum."

And with his rising status, there is growing adulation from his adopted homeland, which he was initially wary of, but now he is able to recognise the benefits.

"Since January, when I first got into F1, there was talk, but it wasn't huge, yet there were still weird moments, like when there were some people waiting for me outside the lobby at a hotel I was staying in Bangkok, and I thought 'Woah! Okay, it's a big deal'," reflected Albon.

SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 19: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing and Alexander Albon of Thailand and Red Bull Racing take part in a mystery box game during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 19, 2019 in Singapore. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Albon is set to join teammate Verstappen in his move to Monaco. (Getty Images)

"Then when I was there just before the Japanese Grand Prix, there were trains and billboards in Bangkok with my face on it, and I was like 'Wow! It's pretty big now'.

"I can see it, and I love it. I obviously now just hope to make the Thai people proud. I just want there to be more people from there involved in Formula One, even in motorsport in general.

"We have the facilities, but it's still an ongoing process. It's exciting. We've some karters coming through, who look really strong."

Despite Albon's strong performances for Red Bull, he has still unsurprisingly been outperformed by an exceptional Verstappen who has enjoyed his strongest season of his five to date in F1.

The bar is high, with Albon aware he has to rise to it.

"I'm still a rookie in Formula One," said Albon. "Of course, I won't be next year but it's all still new to me, and I've only had half a year with the team, so it's still a learning process.

"Of course, I want to close the gap and mix it with the top boys, which is quite a clear goal for me, and with Max, I'm comparing myself to one of the top people, if not the quickest guy on the grid.

"So I see it as an opportunity, and a great way to speed up the learning process is to be up against him. I've learned a lot in six months, but it's still chipping away, and we'll see how it goes next year."

Albon will be closer to Verstappen in one respect next year as he soon will be cutting the apron strings and leaving the family home to move to Monaco, where his Dutch team-mate also resides, along with a number of other F1 drivers.

Being home alone, though, will bring fresh difficulties for Albon.

"I'm moving out soon," said Albon, again with a big grin. "It shouldn't be long now. It's nice to be able to move into my own place.

"I need to still learn how to do laundry. I'm still not great at it. Everything else I'm pretty much okay with. Cooking I'm sorted. I think my mom is going to miss me. I'm sure she'll be making some excuses to come and visit me.

"And I'll also be near Max. Maybe we're not going to meet up every day. I'm not sure how our relationship is, or what it's going to blossom into, but we will see.

"At least cycling and training are good around there, and the weather is good. Group cycling, with other racing drivers, I think that's the norm, so it will be fun.

"It will be good to have that alone time in the winter to really get prepared for next year."

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