When the opportunity to interview Formula One driver Alexander Albon landed in my inbox, the first thing that came to mind was; I have to know if he enjoys durian. He’s Thai after all. Half British maybe, but he does fly the flag of our neighbours on a predominantly European grid, in what is now a predominantly European 2020 season.
I knew I’d get my answer the moment he appeared in my Zoom window, smiling from ear to ear as he normally does on TV and clearly up for a chat. F1 drivers are typically tense in the build-up to a race weekend and understandably so. But how is Albon, only a rookie last year who was promoted to a title-challenging team mid-way through the season, so laid back in a condensed season packed with back-to-back races?
“With all this break we had, it was a good chance to build up our fitness and get mentally prepared for it,” explains Albon.
“Now we’re in the season it’s full on. It’s very busy. You get tired during the triple headers; it gets pretty tough. But we’re doing what we love, so it’s not the end of the world. It’d be very silly to complain about it.”
Asked if he was feeling any pressure to land his first podium having gone excruciatingly close a couple of times, only to be denied by a certain world champion, Albon replies: “There’s always pressure. It’s not just in Red Bull, it’s in every team.
“There is a podium on the doorstep. The two chances where I’ve been very close to one or should have had one, it’s just not come to it. But to be honest, it’s not in my opinion to my fault – just tough circumstances. If the pace and the driving is improving, the opportunities are going to be there.”
On the topic of pace, Albon concedes that there is work to be done on Saturdays for him to close the gap with teammate Max Verstappen, who he holds in very high regard.
“Max is extremely talented. He doesn’t have very many weak spots. He’s good with the tyres but also very strong in the short runs. And he’s getting the most out of the car. I believe Max is one of the, if not the fastest driver on the grid. To be able to compare and improve myself, that’s always important. I feel like a better driver than I was last year.”
The mention of Verstappen immediately evokes memories of the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix, the last F1 race hosted in Sepang which Max won. A year earlier, Daniel Ricciardo led a Red Bull one-two in a nail-biting race which saw Lewis Hamilton’s engine blow up. But little did I know that a certain Thai driver was on the same step of the podium the day before as a GP3 race winner.
“Sepang was a good circuit for me. I was racing with Charles Leclerc in GP3 and I loved it. I remember how hot it was. The weather is very humid and difficult, but it’s a fantastic circuit. I really enjoyed it.
“My earliest memory of Sepang was when I was a kid. My dad used to race in the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia. I was maybe eight or nine years old. He was doing a taxi, where he was driving the car and I was the passenger. I was too small so I needed a booster seat to look over the top of the car. It was good fun.”
Throughout the interview, I feel like I’m talking to someone who sounds more British than Thai. But despite his mixed heritage, Albon sees himself strongly as the latter.
“I’m proud to wave the Thai flag and to stand by it, to represent not just Thailand but Southeast Asia. There haven’t been very many Asian F1 drivers, never mind Southeast Asian ones. I’m very proud and I hope to make you guys proud too.”
Albon’s commitment to Asean opens up a window for me to finally sneak that question in; the one about the fruit that unites almost everybody in the region. And he immediately bursts into a fit of nervous laughter at the sound of ‘durian’.
“The taste is okay. I have family who eat it almost every day. It’s a unique taste. Can I leave it at that?”
After a few more laughs, he admits: “Just before you eat, you have the smell and that’s quite overwhelming for me. Afterwards, it’s fine. The aftertaste is okay. Just before you eat it, that bit gets me.”
With the clock ticking towards the end of my eventful ten minutes with a driver I will be watching with a bit more intent throughout this weekend’s race at Spa, I ask Albon what he think he’d be doing if he wasn’t in F1.
“I think something with design. I love design. I designed my own helmet. I enjoy the creative side so maybe something to do with house design or interior design, something like that. Something quite different, actually. Or I would be a car salesman if it has to be with cars.”
I’d definitely buy a Civic from a bloke as nice as him.
Watch Alexander Albon in action in the upcoming Formula 1 Heineken Italian Grand Prix 2020 on 6 September 8-11PM live on FOX Sports [ASTRO CH 835 (SD) | CH 815 (HD) / Unifi TV: CH 706 (HD)]