x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Buemi under starter's orders

Sebastien Buemi is the closest thing the Middle East has got to a home driver in Formula 1.

Switzerland's Sebastien Buemi, left, and Sebastian Bourdais of France will form the Toro Rosso Formula One team this season.
Switzerland's Sebastien Buemi, left, and Sebastian Bourdais of France will form the Toro Rosso Formula One team this season.

BARCELONA// Sebastien Buemi is the closest thing the Middle East has got to a home driver in Formula 1. The 20-year-old Swiss driver is F1's newest recruit, snapped up by Toro Rosso during the winter, and is the sole rookie on the grid this season. But he calls Bahrain home rather than the foothills of the Swiss Alps where he was born, and lives there with his uncle, who works for the American bank UBS.

"I wanted to get out of Switzerland and decided to go to Bahrain," explains Buemi. "My uncle lives there and has always said how great a place it is so I thought 'why not?' "And the people seem to have taken me in as one of their own. I love it there. "So for me, the Bahrain Grand Prix is my home race, and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the end of the season feels a bit like a home race too - it's not exactly a million miles away."

But Buemi has much bigger things on his mind than simple geography. Tuesday was only the first time he got to test the STR4, the team's new car. Besides he has never driven at four of the circuits being used for this year's world championship. Add to that is the shadow of Sebastian Vettel, the man he replaced, that still looms large at Toro Rosso. Vettel has been tipped as a future world champion following his stunning victory at last year's Italian Grand Prix, but Buemi is unfazed.

"What Vettel did last season surprised me," says Buemi, "and I had love to say I'm going to win like him but, with all the rule changes, it's just not possible to predict that. I just have to turn up at Melbourne and see what the pace of the car is like. Then after that we'll see." Already he has been taking advice from the former grand prix winner David Coulthard as he prepares for the Australian Grand Prix at the end of the month.

Buemi is bold enough to say that "some of it is useful some of it isn't". He adds: "I've had a lot of advice in recent weeks and when someone who's won as many grands prix as David has starts telling you things, it's worth listening. I won't do all of what he advised, just the bits that suit me." At 20, he is two years younger than Lewis Hamilton was when he made his F1 debut. But, despite his relative infancy and inexperience, Buemi says he does not feel like a rookie.

"There's so much other stuff to think about you don't get a chance to even think about being a rookie," he says. "There's too much else to take in and learn. And I feel like I've been preparing for this for a long time now." For 15 years, in fact. Buemi received his first kart at the age of five as a Christmas present and he did not have a clue what it was. After driving it around his dad's garage, he was immediately hooked and, from that point, decided he wanted to emulate his hero, Michael Schumacher.

"Growing up I just wanted to be Michael Schumacher and not because of him specifically but because he was the guy winning everything," he says. "If someone else had been winning, I would have had someone else as my hero. I'd love to achieve what he's achieved but I don't think that will ever be done again." Buemi certainly has time on his side to match Schumacher's seven world titles but, while on Toro Rosso's books, he is unlikely to get the chance, with the team unlikely to challenge consistently.

For now, though, points rather than world titles are the immediate goal. "I want to be competitive in Australia and then keep on climbing up the grid during the season," he says. "And who knows how high that will take me." mmajendie@thenational.ae