As the inaugural Formula E championship whirrs towards its first-ever race start, the 20-driver grid continues to fill. This series will introduce the drivers that will race in the first ten ePrix events, starting today with Virgin Racing’s two announced pilots: Jaime Alguersuari and Sam Bird.
While he’s never started a Grand Prix, Sam Bird has spent the last few years around Formula 1, primarily as a test and simulation driver for Mercedes AMG F1. However, despite his F1 affiliation, he’s struggled through his recent career to move up the European Open Wheel ladder and has thus sat stagnant in either GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5 for the past four years.
Before joining those categories, however, he made his European Formula 3 debut in 2008, what would be his first of two full seasons in the category. In that debut season, he failed to take a win and finished just 11th in the series championship, but took two podiums late in the season in Barcelona and at the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe’s Bugatti circuit. He returned to the series in 2009, where he took four podiums and improved his final championship position to 8th. From there, he forewent the inaugural GP3 championship to go straight to the GP2 series.
He made his debut in GP2 cars in the short-lived GP2 Asia secondary championship, where he would take a podium in one of the championship’s eight races and finish seventh in the series standings. He then made his GP2 proper debut later in 2010 for ART Grand Prix, the team with whom he would run the full series championship that year. Here, he would find the consistency he lacked in Formula 3, and would finish his season with a win and four additional podiums, enough for an impressive fifth in the standings on debut. 2011 would see a move to iSport for another GP2 season, which featured three podiums in the season’s first three races, but none more from there. Here, Bird would finish sixth in the championship.
At this point, Mercedes AMG F1 moved Bird into Formula Renault 3.5, a relatively lateral move that brought him into competition with Ferrari-affiliated driver Jules Bianchi, young McLaren star Kevin Magnussen and Red Bull prospect Antonio Felix da Costa, who would join the championship late but still finish fourth in the championship. Against strong competition but now less in the public eye, Bird would have just a two-victory season, but the consistency he showed when not winning was enough for him to finish third in the championship, behind just Jules Bianchi, promoted to F1 in 2013, and a surprising champion Robin Frijns. After this success, Mercedes AMG F1 moved him back to GP2, and there, he would finally steal headlines, as there, Bird would take no less than five victories in his third GP2 season, which concluded with a shot at the championship in Abu Dhabi and, eventually, a runner-up finish in the hunt for that title.
However, as GP2 results have increasingly proven irrelevant in the hunt for Formula 1 seats, Bird found himself out of European Open Wheel entirely in 2014. He searched for rides in IndyCar, just as earlier GP2 runner-up Luca Filippi had in the past, but without success there he eventually turned to sports cars. In 2014, he’s run Ferraris in Europe for AF Corse and Le Mans Prototype Challenge cars in North America for the Starworks team that revitalized the careers of Ryan Dalziel and 2014 Porsche factory pilot Brendon Hartley.
Bird’s inability to secure a Formula 1 ride is another of many examples of a driver who had the resume to move up to the top European Open Wheel championship in the land, but lacked the funding or opportunities. For him, a Formula E opportunity with Virgin offers an opportunity to race in front of the open wheeled world he would have otherwise never had, and a chance to again be noticed by someone willing to move him into a Formula 1 car.
Unlike Sam Bird, who spent four years at a level just below Formula 1 without ever getting a chance in the championship, Jaime Alguersuari made history by being one of the least experienced drivers to ever race in a Grand Prix.
The young Spaniard, just 24 three years after his Formula 1 career came to an end, first gained interest from the European Open Wheel scene in 2008, when the already Red Bull affiliated young Spaniard won the British Formula 3 championship in a dominant season that ended with three consecutive wins. It was no surprise when he was promoted to Formula Renault 3.5 for 2009, nor was it a surprise when Red Bull’s Scuderia Toro Rosso F1 satellite team released a struggling Sebastien Bourdais halfway through the 2009 Formula 1 season. However, the decision to replace Bourdais with a then-19 year old Alguersuari, who at that point had scored his first ever Formula Renault 3.5 podium just one weekend prior.
Even while running Formula 1, Alguersuari continued in FR3.5, ending his debut season with one win, three total podiums, a sixth place finish in the championship standings and, most importantly of all, an F1 ride he was clearly unprepared for. His inaugural half-season of F1, meanwhile, concluded with zero points and a best finish of fourteenth on a 20-car grid. 2010 would bring improved fortunes in the form of three points paying finishes, but he still finished behind team mate Sebastian Buemi, who had four. Nonetheless, he continued with the team in 2011, at which point it was made clear by Toro Rosso leaders that either he or Buemi would be sacked at the end of the season if they could not lead the team in performance. Even with this added “Incentive”, both drivers struggled, oftentimes failing to even make the second round of qualifying. However, both did improve marginally and Alguersuari finally did beat Buemi, 27 points to 26. Red Bull executives, meanwhile, did not live up to their promise, and instead chose to release both Alguersuari and Buemi from race seats, though they maintained Buemi as an affiliated driver. Buemi would surface the next year racing Toyota’s TS030 Le Mans Prototypes, but Buemi seemingly vanished from the public eye, surfacing only at karting events on rare occasions.
For him, Formula E represents an opportunity for redemption. Alguersuari was in Formula 1 a victim of an insane Red Bull development program that saw success with Sebastian Vettel in extreme circumstances and has thus worked to recreate those circumstances for its other drivers. Now, five years removed from his premature rise to Formula 1 and three from his untimely fall, he returns to the European Open Wheel scene behind the wheel of one of Virgin Racing’s all-electric Spark-Renaults, where he can finally prove he can win at a high level.
He’s also a DJ, which is pretty neat.
Photos: Virgin Racing, GP2 Series, YouTube.