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Sébastien Buemi: The high-voltage racer

Formula E is now in its sixth season – and Sébastien Buemi has been part of the all-electric championship since the very first race. The 31-year-old Swiss is also the driver with the most E-Prix victories under his belt. In a recent interview, the e-racing pioneer talked to Julius Baer about his Formula E career and reflected on the future of mobility.

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It isn’t uncommon for certain character traits to skip a generation. Georges Gachnang’s passion for racing is one such example. The owner of a garage in the Swiss town of Aigle, who in the 1960s competed in several prestigious car races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, witnessed two of his grandchildren grow up with the same passion for speed as their granddad. First it was Natacha, who at the young age of five drove her first laps in a go-kart. About a year later, her younger cousin Sébastien followed suit: “When the two of us started go-karting, my grandfather was actually against it,” remembers Sébastien Buemi. “He had lost many friends to motorsport, so he was not that keen on us embarking on a racing career. But he very quickly became a big fan.”

The cousins both climbed the ranks of motorsport, even competing for a couple of years in the same series – the German Formula BMW. “That was actually very good, because we were pushing each other,” Buemi recalls. “Sometimes she was quicker, sometimes I was.” While Natacha left motorsport in 2010, after having competed in Formula Two and the GT1 World Championship, her cousin made it all the way to Formula One, where he drove for the Toro Rosso team for three seasons, and finally to Le Mans, where he claimed victory in 2018 and again in 2019, almost 60 years after his grandfather had hit the track there. Le Mans may have marked his biggest victory to date, but history books will probably remember him better as the most successful driver in the early years of Formula E, where he scooped up a world championship title and three second-place finishes in the first five seasons. Buemi is a true pioneer who has become a passionate ambassador of this game-changing series.

We met Sébastien last October in Valencia, at the Formula E pre-season tests, to hear first-hand how electric race cars are changing mobility.

Sébastien, do you remember how it felt the first time you jumped into an electric race car?
That was in Donington, in the UK, in the first official test for the 2014/2015 season. Sitting in that car for the first time felt really good. I was really impressed by the performance we had with the 200 kW in the qualifi cation mode. And since then, the performance has improved year by year.

What about the noise levels compared to a combustion engine?
It was quite weird, actually. As soon as you exceed 100 kilometres per hour, all you hear is the wind. But it took me only three laps to get used to it.

I didn’t expect to see so many of the big manufacturers like Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, or Audi getting on board so quickly.

Sébastien Buemi

Why did you decide to join this new series in the first place?
I was approached by Jean-Paul Driot, the founder of the Renault e.dams team, who sadly passed away a couple of months ago. At that time, I was racing in the Endurance Championship, where I didn’t have many races. So I thought: why not try Formula E? I loved the idea of racing in cities, but to be honest, I was also sceptical. Fortunately, the races turned out to be very entertaining from the very beginning.

Did you foresee the dramatic growth of the series in only five years?
I had no idea how the championship would evolve. Obviously, I expected it to get better every season. But I didn’t expect to see so many of the big manufacturers like Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, or Audi getting on board so quickly.

How big was the changeover from Formula One?
The main difference to any other series is the energy management during the race. You don’t only have to be fast and push your car to the limit. You also have to be smart in saving and recovering energy in order to finish the race. Finding the right balance is quite challenging.

 

In the next 10 years, we will see a big shift towards electric cars – simply because they are the better option.

Sébastien Buemi

Since the start of the series, you have won 13 races and have finished on the podium in 12 other races – more than any other driver. How important is winning for you?
Sometimes, I have the impression that it has become a bit too important. It is very difficult for me to enjoy if I don’t win. That can be a positive thing, because it constantly pushes me to improve, it pushes the team. But when you’re having a difficult season and you don’t win, it becomes very hard to keep up the motivation. That happened in the last season, where we had a lot of bad luck. In such a situation, you have to keep working hard, knowing that it will pay off in the end. And it did. At the end of the season, I secured four podium finishes in a row, and I finished second in the championship.

What has been your sweetest victory so far in Formula E?
That was probably at the end of the last season, when I won in New York. Our team head, Jean-Paul Driot, couldn’t attend because he was already in critical condition. So that victory was really for him. And it ended a dry spell of more than two years during which I didn’t win anything.

How important has Formula E become in promoting e-mobility?
We cannot overstate its importance. Until recently, many people refrained from buying an electric car because they were worried about the limited range, the reliability, the performance, or the aesthetics. Formula E shows them that electric cars can drive fast and far while looking cool.

Cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, or Zurich are very much pushing for electric mobility. And the rest of the world will follow soon.

Sébastien Buemi

What is your personal vision when it comes to future mobility?
I am very confident that in the next 10 years, we will see a big shift towards electric cars – simply because they are the better option. Of course, technology needs to improve even further, especially the battery capacity and weight. And we need to be able to produce enough energy to sustain that shift. But that’s just a matter of time.

You spend a lot of time travelling the world. Which cities do you think are making the greatest headway in terms of future mobility?
I would say that Europe is ahead of the curve, just because the regulations on CO2 emissions are the strongest. Cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, or Zurich are very much pushing for electric mobility – not only cars, but also other means of transport like bikes, scooters, or buses. And the rest of the world will follow soon.

You have two little kids. Do you think they will even drive a car when they are old enough to do so?
I think they will – most probably an electric car. I don’t expect driverless cars to proliferate that quickly. But who knows? Again, technology might change faster than we expect.

Will they drive a race car?
I don’t know, to be honest. I’m not going to push them, but I’m not going to stop them either if they want to do it. I’d rather try to support them in the best way I can. I’d feel bad if one day they look back and regret their decision. So let’s see what the future brings.

 

Lead image: Buemi celebrates after clinching a win at the New York City E-Prix in 2019.
Lou Johnson, Spacesuit Media