- GP Week meets Jaime Alguersuari
The young and the restless
To address the students at one of the most important technical universities in the world would be a feat for any 21- year-old. The young man stood in front of Politecnico's engineering students looks just like them: young, eager, casually dressed, almost impossible to tell apart from his peers. The only difference is that his job is to drive the fastest single-seaters in the world every fortnight and, what's more, he's very good at it.
Jaime Alguersuari, who ditched his studies after high school to pursue a career in motorsport, addressed the students in Turin the week before the Turkish Grand Prix. His season had begun well, with the new Toro Rosso STR6 showing potential in the opening three races, including a seventh place gird position in China.
"I think the team did a great job during the winter, because it's not easy for a small and relatively inexperienced team like us to do something like this," he says. "So, we have to congratulate the team, all the engineers, Giorgio [Ascanelli, technical director], Franz [Tost, team principal], everyone who pushed to have such a competitive car.
"Based on what we've shown in the last few races, we are capable of qualifying in the top 12-13. We managed to get to Q3 [in China], which I think still represents our limit, also thanks to a timely red flag. But, still, we were there."
The races were a slightly different story. In the first two grands prix of the season, Toro Rosso's Spaniard was close to the points (11th in Australia, 14th in Malaysia) and then he suffered bad luck in China, losing a wheel after the pit stop. But the Achilles heel of the STR6, which is an ambitious and aerodynamically efficient car, is a common one up and down the grid in 2011: Tyre wear.
"I think both of us drivers need to learn how to look after our tyres a little bit better," he says, referring to team-mate Sebastien Buemi. "And the team, as well, has to understand how to reduce the wear to allow us to manage them better, especially on Sunday. That's it. I think the improvement and development margin of the car will be higher this year than the last, so I'm pretty confident of what we can do in the future.
Alguersuari believes a better understanding of the Pirelli tyres will be crucial for turning good qualifying results into points.
"We still have to understand what changed from last year, because we are really struggling," he adds "The tyres are very different and we still aren't 100%, like all the other teams, I think. Anyway, we'll have to be smart and understand it before the others, so that we can find a way to reduce rear tyre wear and go faster. Let's take Sauber's example: their cars seem at our same level in qualifying, but on Sunday, in the race, it is able to set times on used tyres which leave us completely stunned. They manage with just one pit stop, while we have to do three. That's all that matters: the race, the race, the race!"
On the other hand, the Catalunyan driver seems less worried by the other changes to the 2011 Formula One technical regulations: The Kinetic Energy Recovery System and the Drag Reduction System.
"I think we reached a good level on these two features, above all since we performed a lot of simulator testing and in the first few races we understood them well. I don't see them as a big problem for what concerns the performance, because it's the same for everybody. Of course, the only limit is that all this gets you busier in the driving seat and makes you take the hands off the steering wheel."
"What do I feel being a driver? It's simply my job, since I was eight, when I started racing in karts. Then I came to Italy and so on until now. I like driving, I like challenges, races, bringing the car over the limit."
Even before he took his driving test in his father's SEAT, Alguersuari had competed in Formula Renault 2.0 in Italy, Formula 3 and World Series by Renault. But the biggest moment of his career came midway through 2009 when he was drafted in by Toro Rosso to replace Sebastien Bourdais in Formula One.
"I found myself debuting in the Hungarian Grand Prix, without having ever sat in a Formula One car," he recalls. Those who know him well reveal that it was the most difficult period of his life. He did well under the pressure, but due to his complete inexperience the results on track were nothing to write home about. At the end of the year his efforts appeared to have been pointless and, during the height of a global recession, he was told to find money to pay for his drive .
"To secure the renewal for the following year, I spent all winter in Spain looking for sponsors. At the end of the winter, I found myself with zero euros in my pocket. I thought that would be the end of my career. Instead [Red Bull owner] Dietrich Mateschitz decided my commitment should be rewarded and that I deserved a seat at Toro Rosso for the following year as well."
The worst was now in the past and as the races went by in 2010 he started to get to grips with his car, taking his first points (ninth in Malaysia, tenth in China, ninth in Abu Dhabi) and beating his team-mate Sebastien Buemi more often than not.
This year his name has started to appear in the shortlist of the candidates to replace Mark Webber, should the Australian retire at the end of the year, at Red Bull. To get his promotion, though, Alguersuari will need to overcome another obstacle, namely Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo - runner up in the latest World Series by Renault championship - is the current golden boy of Red Bull's young driver programme. He is fast and already has his feet in Formula One as third driver in the Toro Rosso team itself. Only when touching upon this sensitive topic does Jaime lose his usual talkativeness, hiding behind strained political declarations (and proving he has learned the F1 game): "I just heard rumours. My job is here now, at Toro Rosso, and nowhere else." Tell us the truth, I urge him: do you think about it once in a while?
"Absolutely not. The team I'm in is like a big family. I want to learn and to improve with them and I just think about doing my best with the means I have, the car I have. That's all. Tomorrow I will speak about the rest."
His passion is clear. In Barcelona, Jaime owns a private recording studio and, performing under the name DJ Squire, has become very popular in Spain. He's even performed in superclubs such as Amnesia or Space Ibiza and he opened the Barcelona Music Conference in 2010. For many young people, Jaime is a DJ first and a racing driver second.
Perhaps because we're in Italy, or perhaps by coincidence, he cites his disc-spinning heroes as Italian: "One above all the others: Marco Carola. He's a genius. As a DJ he is my myth, my guiding line. Just like Ayrton Senna is as a driver."
He couldn't have found a better partner than Red Bull, whose brand image is linked with clubbing and youth culture. As if to prove that point, Red Bull threw a Formula One themed party in one of Turin's most famous discos, the Banus, the night after Alguersuari's lecture at Politecnico.
This time Jaime was not behind the console but having fun on the floor, and surrounded by a bevy of female admirers. He had been awake since 6 am to catch the plane to Italy, but didn't look tired at all. He left the disco 24 hours after his alarm went off and then, as fresh as a daisy, was led to the Automobile Museum. From there he went directly to Piazza Vittorio Veneto in the town centre, where his task for the day was to entertain more than 40,000 spectators in his single-seater.
Maybe it's thanks to the Red Bull cans he drank, but after this marathon of media events Jaime didn't look as exhausted as one would expect. You need the stamina of a 21-year-old to withstand that.