Buemi's New Bull Run

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Sébastien buemi is hoping that racing for Toyota’s LMP1 programme and acting as a reserve driver for Red bull will help usher him back to the Formula 1 grid in 2013

Formula 1 has always been an unforgiving place for a driver. If you don’t perform to the standard that’s expected you can find yourself cast mercilessly aside as another hotshot takes your place.

You can be getting into a race seat as young as 19 – as Jaime Alguersuari did at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix – and if it doesn’t work out you can be wondering whether your Grand Prix career is over by the tender age of 21.

This sort of brutal attitude to young drivers isn’t new, though. Yes, we may think of the grid as being much younger nowadays, but the average age of the current crop of drivers is 28; and the two next youngest drivers to start an F1 race after Alguersuari were Mike Thackwell in 1980 and Ricardo Rodríguez in 1961.

At the end of 2011 Toro Rosso announced that both Alguersuari and Sébastien Buemi were being moved aside for two younger models: Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Éric Vergne. As you may have read in Sidetracked last month, Alguersuari has decided to remain in the F1 paddock by commentating, while Buemi has gone to compete in the World Endurance Championship for Toyota while keeping his F1 prospects alive by taking on the reserve driver role at Red Bull.

“I really wanted to do something besides being just a reserve driver,” he tells me as he’s making his way to Paul Ricard to race an LMP2 ORECA 03-Nissan in a European Le Mans Series race. “I spoke to some DTM teams and got some offers to go there. I also got some offers to race at Le Mans and I thought the Toyota project was a good compromise because my objective for the future is to get back into F1.

“Not doing the whole WEC was a good way forward [although he was planning to do every round after Le Mans] because I couldn’t have made the full schedule work alongside F1. It would have been too much work and there were lots of date clashes.

“It’s strange being in the F1 paddock and not racing. Actually, it’s more than strange, it’s painful! It’s the way it is now, though, and I’m still learning because I’m a part of Red Bull, doing tests and staying close to the engineers. Even if I’d prefer to be racing in F1, at least I’m getting lots of experience.”

When you think of drivers like Allan McNish and Alex Wurz – who both competed in sports cars before and after F1 – you do wonder whether it’s not a better career choice for a driver who can’t/doesn’t want to bring money to an F1 team. Especially now that the WEC is an FIA-sanctioned world championship with manufacturers such as Audi and Toyota.

For Buemi it isn’t a desirable option. However, by competing at six WEC rounds this year the Swiss driver will not only be getting valuable track time, he will also be a step ahead
when the 2014 F1 rules come into play.

The Toyota Buemi will be racing is a proper hybrid – with an electric motor to boost performance of the petrol engine – and closely resembles what the F1 teams will need to get their heads round come the end of 2013. “The electric motor on the Toyota is more powerful than the KERS in F1 at the moment,” Buemi explains.

“It’s also a lot more complicated, but it is similar to what we will have in 2014. For example the car uses only electric power in the pitlane. I’m learning how it all works now and everyone will have to do that over the next few years.

“The car is very different to an F1 car in terms of feeling, though. First of all you’ve obviously got a roof, the visibility is different and the way you drive it is very different. It’s heavier, so you’ve got to deal with that, but it has got some good downforce so you can push quite hard through the high-speed corners. It takes a while to get used to the differences. I’ve heard some people say that they’re like F1 cars with a roof. OK, the structure of the car is similar: it’s a carbon-ibre monocoque, it’s got an F1 steering wheel and there’s a paddle-shift. It’s also very competitive so there are similarities, but the way you drive the car is different.

“The other part of it that’s quite strange is that you are trying to work so closely with your team-mates. It’s very different to what I’m used to! But I do enjoy the fact that we are working together and trying to make the car quicker. There’s always going to be a bit of a compromise on set-up, but so far [with future team-mates Anthony Davidson and Hiroaki Ishiura, who has since stepped down because of back pain] we seem to be going in the same direction. Of course there are things like your position in the car that will never be perfect.

“We’ve got to be realistic this year because it’s going to be very dificult to beat Audi. They have been racing at Le Mans for more than 10 years consistently and they know how it works. The objective is to do the best that we can and try and be as close as possible. We’ve got to show our pace, but try and stay out of trouble. We don’t have much experience so it will be tough.

“Personally I want to show that I’m quick and try to learn as much as possible in case I continue in that direction in the future. Some of my Toyota team-mates [which include Alex Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre and Kazuki Nakajima in the other car] have been doing endurance racing for a long time now so they’ll be good to learn from.”

Even if Buemi says that he may ‘continue in that direction in the future’ it’s clear that his sights are set on Formula 1. Conversation turns to Mark Webber and the fact that he may retire soon.

“It’s a little early to speak about that because it may be a long way off. Everyone always says ‘he’s going to retire’, but he is still there. I need to show that I deserve the seat and then they can make their decision. I want to be there and I want to be ready because I deserve it. It would be a great seat to be in.”

Red Bull is adamant that Toro Rosso is a proving ground for younger drivers and their two current pilots, Vergne and Ricciardo, have been hailed as two promising talents. If they turn out to be as good in Formula 1 as they have been in the lower categories then many are tipping one of them to partner Vettel at Red Bull when Webber retires (or moves to Ferrari).

However, it’s clear that Buemi is hoping to give the Red Bull management a bit of a headache over that particular decision.

Ed Foster

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