WHAT THE HELL HAS HAPPENED TO SEBASTIEN BUEMI?
Last year there was a theme to talking about Formula E; "oh man, Sebastien's going to win." By this point in the calendar he seemed unstoppable, from pole or not, with the idea of anyone else getting a top-step look-in only available if he was penalised or so jetlagged it has to be considered impressive that he still managed 13th even in his actual sleep.
Season 3 of Formula E, there is no question, belonged to Sebastien Buemi. Lucas di Grassi took the title, as sheduling chaos and an uncharacteristic error destroyed Buemi’s attempts to come back from missing New York but with six race wins and an incredible pole record, Buemi had become so successful last season he’d transformed into almost a villain of the series, so good at winning that people thought it was boring.
By this point in the season last year, eight races in, Sebastien Buemi had taken six wins. The blip in Mexico aside, he was simply unstoppable and Lucas’ persistence in saying he was in contention for the title looked almost as laughable as it does this year.
Buemi had two things in his favour: one, he’d won the previous year’s championship, which when battling with an opponent as psychological as Di Grassi must be a useful cushion and two, he had the fastest car. Best power train. Whatever.
Nevermind that three other drivers on the grid had the same power train, including fellow Toro Rosso dropout Jean-Eric Vergne and (even if only briefly) ex-F1 driver Esteban Guttierrez. That the lowest-rated driver in the car was probably Seb’s three-time race-winner teammate Nico Prost only says how much of a credible threat the others were.
Renault are the only team to have ever won the constructor's title in Formula E - three times in a row, now. This year they look set to win it again but, convolutedly, behind the mirror of their own customer team, the points-dominant Techeetah. This... is not how the French constructor's final season was supposed to go.
A lot of the 'fall from grace' narrative this year has been about Lucas di Grassi. The champion going into this season, with Audi announced the fastest car from unrepresentative testing, it's been assumed it's him losing the season. Reliability dogged the first few races for him, the inverter persistently failing and the vagaries of Formula E homologation forcing him into the back of qualifying.
But he's also been outshone by his teammate Abt, extracting two wins on track out of the car, one taken away from him. Lucas is a fast driver, there's no doubt but you can't blame everything on the car or on, as he's got a tendency to, various difficulties. 89 points behind title leader Jean-Eric Vergne, di Grassi refuses to concede the title until it's mathematically impossible and weirder things have maybe happened in Formula E but it's certainly looking rather unlikely he can defend the championship.
By contrast, in Mexico Sebastien Buemi (now 77 points down from Vergne) sat in a press conference and bluntly said he can't challenge for the championship this year because he just isn't fast enough. Which is a really weird thing to hear the man who's dominated every season of Formula E - and who last year was so impossible to beat on track - just straight-up acknowledge.
I asked him about it, afterwards - I like Sebastien, he's usually incredibly detailed and technical in answers and can be quite honest and emotive. What surprised me was while he definitely had the latter covered, the total lack of pace didn't seem to have an explanation; "I guess... we’ve switched the focus to next year and I’m doing the best I can but it’s just not enough. We’ll see at the end but I’m fighting for the best I can every race, if I can go for a win I’ll go for it and if we’re good in the championship we’re good but I’m not relying on that, I’m not hoping for that because we are in general not quick enough and we need to work hard to make ourselves quick again.”
Sebastien is fourth in the championship, with a couple of podiums and his first retirement since the Season 2 finale, when the beef with di Grassi spilled over into both of them crashing out on the first lap. Punta del Este's retirement was less dramatic, simply running into issues with regeneration that forced Buemi out of the race - but indicative of where Renault e.Dams currently are, compared to their indomitable state the last three seasons.
Team boss Jean-Paul Driot has been missing from the garage, in treatment for a medical issue and only returned in Rome this season. Speaking in Paris, he was blunt about both Sebastien and the team's issues, as both floundered to find a form that had come naturally until now.
Speaking about Buemi he said "He can turn it round in a good way and he can do a good job from here. Many problems occurred since the beginning of the season, from the car and from the driver as well. You see Hamilton, today, having difficulty to win and a race and you think that he's good when you see Bottas, so it's just like this. It's a question of parameters, environment, confidence of the driver and yeah we do everything we can in order to get back and try to regain the top and win races."
The Mercedes comparison isn't un-apt, from a dominant team. But on the other hand, Hamilton left this weekend leading the Formula One world championship and Sebastien is increasingly out of the running for even a top-three finish, Renault themselves relegated to sixth in the teams' championship, behind even Season 3 dead-last finishers Jaguar.
In the last few years there've been a few motorsport moments where a driver's mental state has really shown. Sebastian Vettel losing his temper and ramming Hamilton in Baku, an emotional Daniel Abt crumpling into an almost foetal position after a last-lap retirement in New York, that dead-behind-the-eyes Daniil Kvyat interview that saw the bloodlust of even motorsports fans drop and genuine human concern come in, watching a young man seemingly destroyed.
And then there was the Montreal incident.
Watching the tirade unfold, from the media centre, I felt a bit ill with sympathetic embarrassment. I, too, can irrevocably lose my temper and be totally unable to back down, winding myself up further with the embarrassment of what I'm doing. Sebastien is normally quiet, measured - he'll swear on the radio during a race, for sure but he's neither a vengeful driver nor especially inclined to trash talk anyone, let alone pick a fight.
I didn't get a chance to talk to him afterwards because I'd been cornered by a much-less-measured Loic Duval who'd decided he had a bone to pick with me. But it stuck in everyone's head - not least Seb's, of course; it was the moment di Grassi knew he had him on the ropes, even before Buemi was disqualified from the race, effectively handing the championship to Lucas. Calm, methodical, serious Sebastien Buemi had completely lost it and relatively hotheaded Lucas di Grassi had got under his skin and onto his podium step.
Seb isn't destroyed, of course. He's just having a terrible season. There's no getting around the fact that Jean-Eric Vergne is driving the same car, sitting at the top of the championship, except with less testing. Renault also get Techeetah's data, so in theory should have a huge advantage over their customer team but the gap is only pulling out further.
Vergne has repeatedly said that his form this year is due to getting his own head together. A half-starved mess when he arrived in Formula E after the traditional pleasantries of exiting the Red Bull driver programme, Vergne struggled with himself, his teams, his car and his ambitions, grieving Formula One (and his friend Bianchi) and unable to let go enough to concentrate on a win. Midway through last season, that changed and JEV has gone from strength to strength, converting his finally-taken win in Montreal last year to a dominant run.
If you ask JEV what's letting him win, he's clear: he spent a lot of time working on his driving - and himself. If you ask Sebastien what's going wrong, it's harder. In Rome, I asked him if he could be relatively happy with a decent points finish, a weird thing to find myself saying to Buemi.
Needless to say, he couldn't. “No, no. P3 would have been a decent one but no, P6 - I can’t be happy with that. I had no pace in the second car. I got out of the box in third position, Sam had the same strategy, was just 5 seconds ahead of me and yeah, I’m disappointed, honestly, to be where I am. So now we just have to make sure… we are waiting for the data, hopefully we will straightaway see something wrong because it didn’t feel normal really.
"It looks like I’m having better qualifying now than I am in the race, in the past it used to be the opposite. I’ve been in Super Pole quite a few times, I missed both times in Hong Kong but otherwise I’ve been in four, five times this year. But then in the race I’m not quick enough anymore so we just need to understand it why we seem to be so far behind."
You ask Jean-Paul Driot, though and his analysis is blunter. "We had the same car last year, we won the first six races of the season. I think that Buemi was really impacted by the fact that he couldn't race in New York, feeling that he lost the championship because of this - he was quite angry against the people he was racing with in Nurburgring and this is why we have seen, in Montreal, he overdrove in order to compensate. And you've seen the crash in Montreal, which was a heavy one and he could have injured himself.
"The mentality of a driver is very, very important. The most important thing is to regain confidence and to be relaxed, do his job - without trying, like the engineers, to reinvent the wheel. Because when you go too far, the driver is overdriving and the technicians are doing more than they should do, in order to find new things in order to compensate and it does not work."
Formula E has a short calendar, a high-pressure schedule. Free Practice, qualifying and the race all happen within 12 hours of each other, leaving no real margin for any kind of error or uncertainty. The teams and drivers that have it together, have it together from their first lap of practice and an off weekend is all too easy to get into.
e.Dams, becoming partner to Nissan next season, are currently evaluating next year's driver lineup. It seems borderline insane to say Sebastien might not be in it, as arguably the most dominant driver ever in Formula E - albeit with a factory tie to Toyota, which could count against him. It would be equally stupid to put Seb fully out of contention - his form has recovered since the disastrous first weekend in Hong Kong and he remains a formidably quick driver.
A compromised home race (for Renault) in Paris saw me asking him what happened, again. Sebastien didn't dissemble what's going wrong - but it seems like neither he nor the team know, either - "The first car was really good, I was competitive but then in the second car with the extra energy somehow I was not able to use the energy. So I’m really disappointed because I thought I had done the most difficult part in the first stint - I was really good, I went longer than the rest so I was expecting to be really competitive in the second car but somehow, not so good. So we need to understand why, somehow, we can't use the extra energy."
Motorsport is boring when the same people win all the time, so it's good for Formula E to see a different rivalry (between JEV and Sam Bird) at the top of the championship, after almost three solid seasons of di Grassi and Buemi. But it's hard not to want Sebastien back in the fight, the man who more than anyone seemed to master electric racing completely just 12 months ago.
Seb is so much the benchmark it tends to delight the other drivers if you compare them to him, Sarrazin visibly lighting up when I told him he'd made up more places than Buemi in the second Montreal race. In Paris I asked JEV why, with the same car, he was leading the championship while Sebastien had told us that he simply didn't have the pace. Jean-Eric seemed a bit taken aback, "Well, I take it as a huge compliment."