On July 26th, 2009, a 19 year old Spaniard by the name of Jaime Alguersuari broke a record that had stood for some 29 years, and became the youngest man ever to start a Formula One World Championship race. It was the culmination of a short but hitherto stellar career, that had seen him excel in karting, before winning the 2008 British F3 championship at his first attempt ahead of the likes of Sergio Perez and Marcus Ericsson, and in F1 he would be lining up for the Toro Rosso team that had first propelled a similarly teenaged Sebastian Vettel to fame and glory.
Six years on, and on the 1st October 2015 Alguersuari announced his retirement from motorsport, citing a loss of passion for racing. To those of us that love the sport, and would give our left ear to have the ability and opportunity to drive a racing car at the top level this seems like the ultimate in heresy. So, what went wrong?
It’s possible that it was all too much, too soon. Back in 2009, the always-testy relationship between the Toro Rosso team and 4-time Champ Car champion Sebastian Bourdais had ended acrimoniously, and the team were in need of a new driver to partner Red Bull protégé Sebastian Buemi (yes, there were a lot of Sebastians in those days….). Toro Rosso essentially existed – and (at the time of writing at least) still exists – as a kind of ‘training school’ for young drivers contracted to the Red Bull programme. The idea is that the very best then progress to the top Red Bull team, where they are given a car that can challenge for the championship. The young driver programme had scored a huge success the previous season, when the aforementioned Vettel proved himself to be a champion-in-waiting, taking perhaps one of the greatest against-the-odds victories in F1 history by winning the 2008 Italian Grand Prix in wet conditions for the tiny Toro Rosso squad. He was duly snapped up by the senior team, and 4 world titles later, the rest, as they say, is history.
Vettel was only 19 himself when he started in F1, so clearly the Toro Rosso bigwigs felt that age in itself was no barrier to success, and so when a replacement for Bourdais was being discussed, Alguersuari got the nod. One critical difference between the young Spaniard and Vettel however, was that where Vettel had competed in 35 car races in junior formulae since leaving karting, Alguersuari had done just 17. It may not seem a big difference, but in the early years of motorsport, experience can be critical. And certainly, Jaime failed to pull up any trees in his first half-season, qualifying on the back 2 rows in his first four races, and not troubling the scorers at any event.
Although they took rather a long time to confirm his drive for 2010, “he’s one for the future” his bosses insisted, and indeed at the last race of the year in Brazil, an impressive qualifying performance of 12th out of 20 suggested that Alguersuari was starting to come to grips with the top level. The trend of improvement continued into the next season, with his first points finishes coming in the 3rd race of the season at Malaysia and his home event at Barcelona in the fifth. Things were looking up. The rest of the season rather plateaued, however, and no more points were scored until the final event, in Abu Dhabi, with a 9th place finish.
Nonetheless, Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost declared himself pleased with Alguersuari’s progress. “Jaime generally had a good season,” Tost said, “”I think that he learned this season how to set up the car, how to drive the car, and I’m looking forward to the next season because I think he has matured enough to continue improving himself.”
Already, however, there were rumours about Alguersuari’s commitment to the sport. Unusually for usually single-minded young F1 drivers, who usually eat, sleep and drink motorsport in a drive to be the best, the young Spaniard had a very active life outside Formula One. In specific, he was a DJ, going by the unlikely-sounding name of Squire, and in-between races, would take himself off to places like Ibiza to headline sets of banging choons.
Indeed, throughout the critical 2011 season, Alguersuari was busy with producing his debut album ‘Organic Life’, which was released on 14th September of that year. Oddly enough, based on iTunes snippets, it’s not nearly as bad as you might have feared. Despite the time he was devoting to interests outside F1, he insisted that he could keep music and racing separate: “I’m a Formula One driver but I have another thing in my life, and that is music. It’s obviously quite strange to see a Formula One driver having another life but this is who I am. I’ve always said it’s important to follow your instincts: I love music and racing doesn’t interfere with that. I love to close the door and produce, compose, play music, listen to music.”
Should we read anything into the fact that he said that racing didn’t interfere with his music and not vice versa?
None of this, certainly, escaped the watchful gaze of Helmut Marko, the fearsome head of Red Bull’s Young Driver Programme. A former Le Mans winner whose own F1 career was ended prematurely when a rock kicked up by Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus pierced his visor and blinded him in one eye. A man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, the blind eye and Austrian accent give Marko the air of a Bond villain, and he demands nothing but the best from his young charges. Scott Speed, Tonio Liuzzi and Bourdais had all been jettisoned by Toro Rosso as not being up to scratch, and 2011 would be make-or-break for not just Alguersuari, but his team-mate Buemi.
After a low-key start, around one third of the way through the season, Jaime started to pick things up, and scored points at 5 of the 7 events between the Canadian and Italian events. The Canadian points were very timely, as without them a performance clause could have been invoked where he could have been replaced. Alguersuari was steadily improving, but was steady improvement enough for Herr Marko? It was common knowledge that the Austrian taskmaster was unimpressed with “DJ Squire” galavanting around the clubs of Europe promoting his latest ‘bangers’, even though Alguersuari insisted he could devote energy to both activities.
Jaime blotted his copybook in Singapore by crashing out and in the next race in Japan finished an anonymous 15th. The pressure was on, especially with other Red Bull youngsters Daniel Ricciardo, and Jean-Eric Vergne doing well in feeder categories and eyeing the Toro Rosso seat. And so to the Korean Grand Prix, which sealed the young Spaniard’s fate.
In practice, Alguersuari briefly blocked Vettel in the Red Bull, and the German angrily gesticulated as he eventually got past. At the time Vettel was romping to a second consecutive championship, and was Red Bull’s golden boy. Marko was incandescent. Unwisely, this then happened:-
A career-best seventh place finish came in the race, but it was too late. After the season’s end, and after several weeks’ uncertainty came the news that Toro Rosso would be replacing Buemi and Alguersuari with Vergne and Ricciardo. Uncharitably, the announcement came so late that it gave neither ousted driver a chance to find a new team for 2012.
“Toro Rosso was created to give young drivers a chance,” Marko said in “Alguersuari and Buemi had that chance for three years and after that period it’s possible to evaluate a drivers’ development.
“We didn’t see in them any possibility of growth. Both are Grand Prix drivers, but for us that’s not enough. We want Grand Prix winners.”
And that was the long and short of it. Alguersuari had been improving year on year – 0 points in 2009, 5 in 2010, 26 in 2011, but there were no Vettel-like flashes of brilliance – no podiums, no qualifying performances that turned heads (his best effort was 6th at Spa in 2011), no against-the-odds wins at Monza in the wet. In some ways, Alguersuari was unlucky. He was young, he was making progress, he was becoming a regular points scorer, and it’s difficult to see Marko’s argument that, at 22 years old, he wouldn’t have improved still further.
Against that, Alguersuari was from a rich family, and had never really had to work for anything. The fact that he felt that he could dovetail DJing with carving out a career in Formula One shows either naivety or arrogance, but certainly a lack of understanding of the sheer commitment and effort it takes to be a champion. Biting the hand that fed him, by arguing with Marko, may or may not have been the last straw (as the Spanish media claimed), but it was certainly foolish. It’s telling that Red Bull retained Buemi as a test driver, despite the Swiss socring 11 points fewer than Alguersuari in 2011, and yet dismissed the Spaniard entirely. All these things (travelling the world DJing, arguing with his bosses) point towards a lack of maturity – but who is perfectly mature aged 22? Was he pitched into things too fast, too soon in an attempt to find ‘the next Vettel’?
Jaime made noises over the next 2 years about seeking out another F1 drive, but although interest was mooted from various teams, he was confined to doing some rather dull test work for Pirelli, F1’s tyre company. In 2014-5, he was signed to the new Formula E electric racing championship to race for the Virgin team. Would this be his chance to show what F1 had been missing?
In short, no. The first Formula E season was largely a success, and during the year, there were no fewer than 17 drivers who had competed in F1 involved. Alguersuari, however, was a largely peripheral figure, qualifying and racing in the midfield in most races. In contrast, Buemi – the man he appeared to have finally got the measure of in his final Toro Rosso season – finished second in the inaugural championship with 143 points. Alguersuari scored 30. The spark seemed to have gone, the progress that was being made had flatlined.
Strangely, there was a health scare when Jaime blacked out after the Moscow round, and he missed the last event in London. However, extensive medical tests were done, and it was deemed that he was fit to resume his career. Except he didn’t want to.
At a press conference in October 2015, he announced his retirement. “I decided to stop because it’s time for change,” he said, confirming his career move into music. “Something inside me says it’s the moment to take a different path because I think I have fallen out of love with this girlfriend who has been with me all these years.”
The words of a dilettante, whose wealthy upbringing left him unable to knuckle down and make the most of the opportunity that his natural talent gifted him? Or the decision of a newly-mature young man who at last realised that he couldn’t sustain two top-level careers, and who is following his heart in pursuing the thing that he loves the most?
Whatever, it’s sad when somebody who is clearly gifted, and once promised so much, retires at what seems like a premature point. To me, it seems inconceivable that a young man who could mix it with the best drivers in the world should just voluntarily give it all up – even without F1, a career in sportscar racing or Formula E surely beckoned. Would things have been different had Red Bull not pitched him into F1 when so young and inexperienced? Would his progress have continued had he found a seat for 2012? We’ll never know. I sincerely hope that Alguersuari, however, finds the fulfilment in his musical career that eluded him in motorsport. Most of all, I hope he has no regrets. Somehow, however, I doubt it.