Sébastien Buemi wasn’t sitting on the toilet when he received the call on 23 December 2008 that he’d be driving for the Toro Rosso Formula One team in 2009. This fact makes Top Gear sad. When one of the biggest moments of his career came through, we sort of thought he might have been attending to his daily business.
But, the suggestion of it appears to make Sébastien Buemi laugh. Quite hysterically. This is good. Buemi is a disarmingly nice chap. His story is familiar to those fond of watching a little-known race series where a man named Vettel bludgeons the opposition into teary-eyed submission every Sunday (that’s you, Formula 1 fans). He was a former Red Bull tester who graduated to a full-time Toro Rosso driver for three seasons, got dropped and found himself behind the wheel of a Toyota Le Mans prototype trading blows with Audi, and – now – drives a Red Bull again as a reserve driver.
Quite a rollercoaster, and one that must sting a little considering the man who replaced him at Toro Rosso will partner Vettel in the ‘proper’ Red Bull car next year. “If you look at Ricciardo’s results and mine, they are not really different to be honest,” says Buemi, “but I think he deserved the seat, and he came at the right time because Mark decided to move to sportscars. It’s a good decision for the team to take a junior driver, give him the chance and opportunity.”
He’s kept himself busy, mind, joining up with Toyota in 2012 for its return to the top tier of Le Mans, though you’ll no doubt remember co-driver Anthony Davidson’s horrific crash ended last year’s hopes. “We had a very competitive car, but this year we finished second and it was a good race, especially after last year’s accident.”
Ah yes, this year. Buemi was the man who brought the car home second behind Audi. But a curious thing happened near the end – Buemi managed to unlap himself and appeared to go gunning straight for the outright win, until he mysteriously backed off. “You know what? I thought we’d be fighting right until the end, but then the team told me it’s better if you drop back, because like this we don’t need to do this extra lap. It was very frustrating for me because you want to fight until the end, but I can understand the team was under pressure: you’ve been racing for 24hrs and you don’t want anything bad to happen at the end.”
After being unceremoniously dropped from F1’s front line then, Buemi admits he never contemplated moving permanently to sportscars. “I’m quite happy to do both. The season in sportscars is eight races and F1 is 20 races, so if I only did sportscars I feel it wouldn’t really be enough.
“As long as I’m a reserve driver for Red Bull and I get some mileage in the car, there are more opportunities as long as I can combine both. Obviously, the objective remains to get back onto the F1 grid as soon as possible, but if that’s not possible I’m happy to be racing in sportscars. I still race, and this is what I like.”
So, what of the life of a reserve driver? “Obviously in the past there was no limit to testing. We can’t do that anymore, so we decided to develop a simulator – we spent many years and a lot of money on that. I spend most of my time in the simulator, especially on both the Thursday and Friday before the races, but only in Europe because I can still fly to the races on the Friday evening.
“What we do is basically get all the data from the track and improve the simulator and make it more realistic, and then by driving the car I can find more setups and just try to improve it. Sometimes we only find a couple of tenths, but that makes a difference on the Saturday in qualifying.”
Bet he’s a demon on Gran Turismo, but when I put it to him that Vettel probably owes him a beer or two in helping develop a championship-decimating and bonkers-fast race car, he laughs quite vociferously again. “Sebastian’s a very nice guy because he’s the one driving the car and winning the races, but he never forgets to say when someone does a good job. He always motivates people and when you do something good, he recognises it. It’s not down to one guy; it’s down to the whole team. We wouldn’t be able to win the races if you only had just a good driver.
“He’s only a year older than me, and we’ve raced together in Formula BMW and Formula 3, so I’ve known him for a long time, I suppose the relationship is a bit different when you know someone for many, many years.”
Interestingly, at the time of this interview, Raikkonen had yet to be confirmed as a Ferrari driver, so when I asked Buemi how Kimi would have partnered Vettel (when the silly season rumours were at their peak) he laughs. “That’s a good question, I don’t know to be honest. Kimi’s a nice guy, I don’t think he really focuses on rumours, he just does his job. I think it would have worked but obviously the philosophy was to give the opportunity to a younger driver and part of the Red Bull racing family,” he notes, sagely.
Buemi’s opportunity on the other hand, lies in rejoining Toyota’s 2014 LMP1 squad, but his eyes are still only fixed on one end game. “It’s still not 100 per cent about me racing with Toyota next year but with Porsche coming back I think it’s going to be a good championship.
“But it all depends on what my future is in Formula One”.
(Later, TG.com is given the news from Nissan that Sébastien Buemi is working on another very special project: he’s helping develop the upcoming Nissan GT-R. More news as we get it…)