Since the age of five, it’s been Alex’s dream to compete in Formula One and he achieved this in 2019, but it wasn’t your usual rookie season.
Alex’s life changed in November 2018 when he received a somewhat surprise call up to the Toro Rosso team for 2019. His performances in the first half of the season saw Alex swap places with Pierre Gasly for the remainder of the year and join the Team alongside Max. It’s testament to his attitude and how well he coped this year when at the end of season awards the British-born Thai driver was awarded the Rookie of the Year at the FIA prize-giving ceremony in Paris.
“If someone had told me in November 2018 that I was going to spend the next year racing against Lewis and fighting him for the podium in Brazil, I would’ve said you were lying. I didn’t even have a drive in F1 at that point,” said Alex.
It has certainly been a whirlwind 12 months for the 23-year-old, but he’s keen to ensure he stays grounded. “Working with Toro Rosso was great, I felt very well looked after and part of the team,” Alex explained when reflecting on the first half of 2019. “It was a big step for me to be called up to Aston Martin Red Bull Racing – there were big boots to fill and being new to the sport I wanted to make an impact and prove what I could do. There are things I need to work on for next season, but I’m starting to get a better understanding of where I need to improve.”
Moving into the Team meant being next to one of the biggest names in F1, Max Verstappen. Being a novice and next to the Dutch driver – who passed the 100 race starts milestone this year – must add pressure, but there are benefits. “Everyone knows Max is quick and who he is. What better way to learn and to prepare myself than to have a teammate who’s one of the fastest on the grid? It’s a good thing and a goal to chase. He has had a lot of years within the Team and knows how to extrapolate the best from it, for me, it’s still a learning process.”
Highlights of the year
A debut season in the pinnacle of motorsport will be special for anyone, full of highlights, and of course Alex has plenty, but just being in the car still thrills him. “Driving with low fuel in qualifying is one of the most incredible experiences ever. I wish the spectators could feel what we feel. It might look impressive on TV, but I can tell you it’s so much better, it’s a different world!”
His list of enjoyable races includes Spa, because it was his first race with the Team; Hockenheim because it was his first race in the wet and he was up to P4 at one point. He even enjoyed Brazil, despite his collision with Lewis Hamilton on the final lap when he was within a chance of claiming his first podium. “When I look at the [Brazil] weekend as a whole, there are a lot more positives than negatives. Brazil, to some extent, was good. I am proud, but I want more,” he said. “Afterwards I was more disappointed for the Team rather than myself. It would’ve been good to get those extra points. In the end it was good for Max, but it would’ve been good for everyone, and myself – I’m not going to lie – but it happens, it’s racing. I was over it by the next morning.”
Moving into any new discipline requires a steep learning curve if you want to be competitive and Alex has certainly shown he has what it takes to mix it with the front runners, but what has he taken away from this season for 2020? “I’ve learned not to listen to external noise too much, do my own thing and focus on myself. It’s a team sport but you have to approach your driving as an individual. I have to question where I can improve and what I need to do to improve. I need to take it a bit easier in free practice and try not to overdrive. We had a taster of what could be in Brazil and I want to build on that over the winter so I can be better next year.”
Alex is excited about getting next season started as he has a full schedule of testing and can focus on being strong in Albert Park in March 2020. “I need to be aware of where I am. I’ve only had a year in F1 and less than half a season with the Team, but the goal is to close the gap between me and Max. We want to start a bit stronger. The guys are already working flat out at the factory, we want to keep the pressure on Mercedes and Ferrari. I’m hoping we’ll come into Melbourne near the front,” said Alex.
With Honda onboard after extending its partnership with the Team, it makes things even more stable for Alex, and he doesn’t feel like he’ll be starting at square one again. “I’m feeling that next year will be a bit more normal. This year was my first year and it definitely wasn’t normal. It was also my first year with Honda and the relationship is incredible. The work rate and chemistry between everyone just shows the passion that we all have.”
So, with the season just months away Alex has set out his stall for what he wants from 2020: “The gap is shrinking and it’s looking positive for next year, we’ve got a good platform to work with, which is really important in terms of developing the car and we want to take the next step. It’s all going in the right direction, I want to mix it at the front next year!”