March 7, 2019 / 2:03 AM / 3 months ago

FEATURE-Motor racing-Thai rookie Albon follows in royal footsteps

LONDON, March 7 (Reuters) - Alexander Albon would have to start thinking about competing in next year’s Tokyo Olympics to truly follow in the footsteps of the only other Thai to race in the Formula One world championship.

The 22-year-old Toro Rosso rookie, who makes his race debut in Australia next week as his country’s first F1 driver of the modern era, moves in a very different world to his late predecessor.

Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh, known simply as B. Bira, started 18 championship grands prix, including the first at Silverstone in 1950, and retired at the age of 40 in 1954 as one of the sport’s more colourful characters.

A British-educated member of the Siamese royal family, he also competed in sailing at four Olympics — including Tokyo 1964 — between 1956 and 1972.

Abandoning plans to become a sculptor, he used his considerable wealth to go racing in cars bearing a white mouse emblem and painted in what became the Thai racing colours of pale blue and yellow.

He flew his own plane from London to Bangkok, had a string of marriages and affairs and died in 1985 of a heart attack at Barons Court underground station in central London — a prosaic end to a remarkable life.

“He seemed a proper sportsman from what I understood. I’m not sure I could replicate that. I could give it a go,” Albon told Reuters with a smile when asked what he knew about his illustrious predecessor.

“Motorsport is where I excel... but I’m okay at drawing,” he added, hopefully.

Albon, British-born and educated with a Thai mother and English father, comes from a rather different background.

A Buddhist, who attends a Thai temple in Wimbledon and has lucky charms tied around his wrist, he has come up through karting and junior series.

Father Nigel competed in the British Touring Car Championship and sportscar races while mother Kankamol made headlines in Britain when she was sentenced in 2012 to six years in jail for a multi-million-pound fraud involving luxury cars.

SURPRISE PACKAGE

Albon is a good fit for Toro Rosso owners Red Bull, whose energy drink brand has its origins in Thailand, but that is largely incidental.

He did enough in pre-season testing to support the suspicion that he could be a surprise package.

Albon set the second-fastest lap, of the 20 drivers, at the first four-day test and was then sixth in the final week in Barcelona.

“I am more than optimistic that he will do a good job,” said team boss Franz Tost.

Albon, who won four races in Formula Two last year and finished third overall after missing out on the runner-up spot at the end, hoped so.

“I don’t see why I can’t try and surprise a few people. I think I do have that. People who don’t really know me and don’t know what I can do. Of course it gives me a bit of motivation to prove what I can do,” he said.

A world champion in the KF3 karting class in 2010, the Thai was also runner-up in the GP3 series in 2016 to current Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc.

“That was kind of my very first year where I thought this is where I’m going to see what I’m really like, because Charles back then was also this up-and-coming superstar,” he said.

“And to be able to mix with him gave me a lot of confidence.”

Dropped by Red Bull following a difficult 2012 season, Albon returned to the fold when he was given the race seat last November after he had extricated himself from a deal to race for Nissan in the all-electric Formula E series.

“I had no feeling that when I did get dropped in 2012 there was never a chance to come back,” said Albon.

“I think that’s actually the drive, to prove to everyone that I do deserve it and that I can try and prove myself for another chance in Formula One.” (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Clare Fallon)

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