He’s taken on Formula One, Formula E and, last year, he partnered Fernando Alonso to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Now, Sebastien Buemi comes to Sebring, as the World Endurance Championship makes its return to the Florida track for sportscar racing’s ‘Super Sebring’ weekend. In an exclusive feature for Mobil 1 The Grid, John Hindhaugh sat down with the Swiss driver to discuss the challenge of the race ahead, and what it’s like having a 2-time F1 World Champion as a teammate.
It’s a very special week for sportscar racing. The 67th running of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring is a huge event for the IMSA competitors, and for their fans all around the world. And for 2019, the Sebring paddock is packed to overflowing, with the addition of Friday’s FIA WEC race – the 1,000 Miles of Sebring – which starts at 4pm local time.
As the home of the first U.S. Grand Prix and the American round of the original World Sportscar Championship in the 1950s, Sebring – which occupies the site of Hendricks Army Airfield – is no stranger to World Championship competition, nor international visitors for that matter. Indeed, WEC themselves have been here before.
The race in 2012 was a combined event, with the then American Le Mans Series and the WEC fields running simultaneously.
That meant there were twice as many classes, which meant some very confusing numbers on the cars. I seem to remember a ‘007’, a ‘7’, an ‘07’ and a ‘77’… and possibly even an ‘017’! To be honest, I’ve purged most of it from my memory. Frankly, it was a bit of a mess and I’ve still never found a complete set of overall results.
Splitting the two races, as will be the case this weekend, is an altogether better idea. It gives WEC a chance to race in front of the 150,000 ardent IMSA fans at the track, and it has provided me with an opportunity to catch up with some old friends… and none more so than Toyota’s Sebastien Buemi.
Now in his seventh year with the Japanese team, the likeable Swiss was in relaxed mood when I spoke to him yesterday… stopping by for a chat at the Toyota Gazoo Razing motorhome, having been dropped off by none other than teammate Fernando Alonso. I’ll have more on him later.
Buemi has been to Sebring just once before. That was in 2017, with Rebellion Racing. His teammate and countryman Neel Jani put the car on pole that year, but the car suffered issues and ended up out of contention in the race.
“I didn’t race much because of the mechanical issues”, he explains. “But still I remember it was a great weekend. The atmosphere was amazing, the track was great. I am happy to be [back] here, and to re-discover it in the LMP1 Toyota.”
It has been a long and different season for all of the WEC competitors, with the Championship in the midst of its transition to an Autumn-Summer calendar.
“It’s a bit difficult”, admits Buemi. “We’ve only had five races in one full year [in 2018]. Now, we have 3 races, including Le Mans.”
No matter the layout of the season, it’s been a good year for Buemi in the number 8 TS050, alongside teammates Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso.
“We won Le Mans and we won Spa. Unfortunately, we were disqualified at Silverstone… and then we finished second twice at Fuji and Shanghai behind the sister car. Hopefully, we will be able to fight for the win this week.”
As both Toyotas fell foul of the same issue with the underfloor skid blocks in the UK round, the 8 car, courtesy of the additional points awarded for the Le Mans win, currently leads their sister team by 5 points in the standings.
As for Alonso, his arrival in the Championship has, like Mark Webber before him, brought a huge amount of general, F1-orientated motorsport attention to both endurance racing and to WEC as a competition. Buemi, himself a former F1 driver for Toro Rosso, is full of praise for how the Spaniard has approached the new challenge.
“It’s been great. He [Fernando] came into the team wanting to learn as much as possible. I’ve been impressed by the attitude and commitment he has shown. I was not expecting him to do so much… He has really put the work in, so he has deserved what has happened.“
Indeed, it is becoming more and more unusual to see top flight drivers ‘change codes’; swapping the comfort of what are very specific disciplines and putting their reputations on the line in a new form of the sport. Buemi agrees, and points out that Fernando has made a bold choice.
“He could have looked bad, but he has done it in the right way… At Daytona [with United Autosport in a P2 car in 2018] to start to learn… Then he did lots of testing with us, lots of simulator work. He has done it the way you should do it. Of course, he is a great driver and it has ended up a great story.”
We shift focus to this weekend, and the 5th round of this enduring WEC season.
“[At Sebring], you have to finish the race, and that’s not so easy here”, explains the 30-year-old. “Because of the traffic, the bumps, the darkness… It’s expected to be quite warm. It’s going to be difficult. Before you start thinking about fighting the other guys, you need to do your homework. It’s different to what we usually have in WEC. We came here 3 weeks ago for testing and, luckily, there were some GT cars out on track as well, so we were able to learn a little about traffic. You try to pass those GT cars as fast as you can, losing the least amount of time and making sure you stay on the road and don’t damage the car.”
There is, of course, an extra two hours over the ‘standard’ 6-hour WEC race to deal with, too. “In WEC, normally only one driver goes back in the car. But here, all three of us will go back in the car, so the strategy and tyre management is different.”
And how, I ask him, does the TS050 compare with the Rebellion he drive around the 3.74 mile Sebring circuit in 2017? The question brings a huge smile to Sebastien’s face.
“It’s a LOT faster. In qualifying, maybe 8 seconds quicker. It’s a big chunk. The Sebring lap record – held by Audi – is a 1m41s. In qualifying, that could be a 1m39s. It’s going to be a big step. Ok, qualifying is a bit artificial… But in the race, you are in the car for 2 hours doing lap times like that. It’s not easy.
“Compared to an LMP2 [the class Buemi drove here in 2017] you don’t feel that you carry much more speed through the corners. The biggest different is exiting the corners. The four-wheel drive and the Hybrid system help you exit SO much quicker. You have so much more traction. That’s where you make up the lap time.”
With our interview coming to a close, I save the most difficult question until the end: If he has to pick one accolade at the end of this 2018/19 WEC transition season, would it be the win at Le Mans or to win the World Championship outright?
The answer comes without hesitation.
“I’ll take another Le Mans”, he confirms. “Because I’ve already won the World Endurance Championship once.“
In truth, with an 8-hour, a 6-hour and then the 24 Hours of Le Mans left in his season, there’s every chance that Sebastien Buemi could walk away with both.
Every session of WEC Sebring is live on channel RS3, and can be accessed here. The broadcast schedule for the whole Sebring event, including the 1,000 Miles of Sebring and the 67th running of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring is at the foot of the homepage at www.radiolemans.com.
Images courtesy of Jamey Price Photography.