Thailand will have its first Formula One driver in more than 60 years when 22-year-old Alexander Albon takes up a full-time drive with Toro Rosso in 2019.
Albon, who was raised in the UK by his Thai mother and British father, will be the second Formula One driver to race under the flag of Thailand — Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh, who scored points three times in a five-year career in the 1950s, was the first — and only the fourth to hail from South-East Asia.
He will replace out-of-favour Kiwi Brendon Hartley to partner F1 returnee Daniil Kvyat.
“It’s such an amazing feeling to know that I’m in Formula One next year,” he said. “I’ve always been motorsport mad and since I first got in a car it’s been my dream to be in Formula One. To be given this opportunity is just incredible.”
Though Albon arrives at Toro Rosso after finishing third in the Formula Two championship behind fellow F1 draftees George Russell (Williams) and Lando Norris (McLaren), his route to the top-flight series has been a difficult six-year journey through a variety of junior motorsport categories.
An impressive karting career, including junior European and world titles in 2010, led to his induction into the Red Bull Junior Team in 2012, but he was dropped at the end of the year after failing to score a point in his debut Formula Renault Eurocup campaign.
“It was a difficult year for me for numerous reasons, not least because of my results, but it made me work that much harder,” Albon said in a Red Bull interview. “I was on the brink of stopping racing altogether.”
But Albon forged ahead with his junior career, remaining in Formula Renault Eurocup for two more seasons and finishing third in the championship in 2014. A seventh-place finish in European Formula Three in 2015 was good enough for promotion to GP3 in 2016, where finishing runner-up to Charles Leclerc, this year’s F1 rising star, earnt him a place in Formula Two in 2017.
He took a year to find his feet, finishing 10th with two podiums, but increasingly competitive performances in 2018 left him as one of only two drivers still in championship contention by the end of the season, eventually losing out to winner George Russell at the final round.
But Formula One doors remained closed to Albon despite his junior title tilt, and in September he agreed to a sideways move to Formula E for the Nissan works team. It wasn’t until the following month, as relations broke down between the outbound Brendon Hartley, that Toro Rosso came knocking for the driver it dumped almost six years earlier.
“Throughout my single-seater career I went through a few ups and downs,” Albon said. “I was dropped by Red Bull in 2012, so from then I knew my road to Formula One was going to be a lot harder.
“I worked really hard and tried to impress every time I got in the car, and I have to say a big thank you to Red Bull and Dr [Helmut] Marko [Red Bull motorsport advisor] for believing in me and giving me a second chance.”
Toro Rosso finished ninth in the 2018 championship standings with its unreliable Honda power unit, and though closer technical relations with frontrunning sister squad Red Bull Racing are expected to deliver the team a boost next season, Albon isn’t prepared to set himself any concrete goals.
“It’s more about trying to maximise each race weekend as it comes,” he told the Red Bull website. “I won’t have many days in the car before Melbourne, so it will be very important to be as prepared as possible and take each race as it comes.”