Alex Albon says Formula 1 drivers are “all concerned” about an apparent clampdown on their ability to speak out on social and political issues.
The Williams driver says the FIA’s decision to prohibit “personal, religious and political statements” without written consent is “confusing”.
“We need clarity from the FIA on what they are trying to tell us,” he said.
“It is hard to see as drivers what they are trying to say. We need to be able to speak freely to a certain extent.”
Albon, speaking at Williams’ 2023 season launch event where a new livery and title sponsor were unveiled, said the impression was that governing body the FIA was “trying to go away from” the pro-diversity ‘We Race As One’ campaign F1 as a sport had promoted since 2020.
“Politics and stances – it is a very sensitive area,” the Britain-born Thai said. “We were very much for We Race As One. We need clarity and I am sure we are going to get clarity.
“With who we are, and the media, and the engagement we have to our fans and the people who watch, a lot of people look to us as spokespeople for issues around the world, and I do feel it is a responsibility for drivers to make people aware of these situations.”
Albon said the subject of freedom of speech had been discussed between the drivers but “not too much”.
He referenced the concerns that have emerged in F1 around the conduct of the FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem on a number of issues in the past year.
“We are all concerned,” said Albon. “I know that between F1 and the FIA they are trying to get everything together in the same form of communication. At the minute there is a little bit of confusion.”
Expectations for the season
Williams unveiled their new livery on a show car at their factory in Oxfordshire on Monday, including a new title sponsorship deal with fuel company Gulf, which has an iconic status in motorsport because of its success with Ford and Porsche at Le Mans in the 1960s and 70s.
The new Williams F1 car will run for the first time at Silverstone on 13 February.
Williams finished last in 2022 and Albon said the team’s aim this season was to score points more regularly.
They secured a new team principal last month, with James Vowles moving from his role as motorsport strategy director at eight-time constructors’ champions Mercedes. He will start on 20 February.
“I am sure he can bring a lot to the table,” Albon said. “We have caught up on the phone and had a dinner or so. It’s nice to see what he thinks and where the team can be,” Albon said.
“With his experience with Mercedes, hopefully that can push things forward and increase the evolution of the car.
“It’s nice to have that different point of view, coming from team that has had so much success. You can very much tell with James that he has had a lot of experience in all areas of the company and hopefully we can put that to good use.”
Williams head of vehicle performance Dave Robson said: “What he brings is a wealth of experience from Mercedes and its incarnations before that. He knows what it takes to be and stay at the top. He is very ambitious and very smart.”
Williams were bought by investment group Dorilton Capital in 2020. It has increased investment after years of financial struggles and the team have embarked on a rebuilding process they acknowledge will take time.
Robson said “investment had been a problem” before Dorilton took over and that the team were looking for “stability” with Vowles’ arrival after a series of management changes.
“We are ready to go on the next phase of the development and some sense of stability, and a much longer-term plan will stand us in good stead,” Robson said.
What will performance be like?
Williams are keeping their expectations in check for the start of the 2023 season and Albon said the team had focused on addressing their key weaknesses, highlighting wheel-locking into low-speed corners.
“We don’t think we will come out of the blocks flying,” Albon said. “But we need to be smarter.
“We started last year on the back foot but we started scoring points around midway. We had our strong areas – (high-speed tracks such as) Spa and Monza. I would be surprised if we were still strong there.
“The aim is to score points. Podiums hopefully, but we’ll see about that.
“If we can be always fighting for Q2 (the second part of knockout qualifying) and making it into that area of the grid, the more chances we get to fight for points, the more we are going to get there.”
Albon has a new team-mate in American Logan Sargeant, who is making his debut this season.
The 22-year-old moved to Europe with his family at the age of 12 to pursue his dream. “It was difficult at times, but obviously worth it in the end,” Sargeant said.
With testing restricted to three days in Bahrain at the end of the month, Sargeant will have only a day and a half’s worth of experience in the car before the first race at the same track on 3-5 March.
“I have prepared to the best of my ability and we will see what happens when we get to the Bahrain,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say I’m going in on the back foot. With only a day and a half’s track time, it becomes absolutely vital to make the most of. But it is what it is.”
Sargeant is the first American to race in F1 since Scott Speed in 2006 and will have three home races, with the high-profile inaugural event in Las Vegas in November added to those in Austin, Texas, and Miami, which made its debut last year.
“Coming into the sport in a year where there are three US Grands Prix is a special opportunity and a privilege at the same time,” Sargeant said.
“F1 in the US is at a peak. It does show how much it is growing there. Everyone over there knows what F1 is now.”