He’d been told that what he was getting would be sausages with mashed potato. No doubt he had been imagining plump Toulouse sausage, nestling seductively on a bed of creamy potato puree, just as they would be at home.
What he got was “bangers and mash” from the Silverstone Paddock Diner: sausages that could double up as torpedoes, mash that was slightly grey, all doused in a viscous gravy that would probably prove effective in putting out small fires.
But he hadn’t come to Northamptonshire on a grey, blustery day in November 2008 for a gastronomic experience - which was just as well. Instead he had come to acquaint himself with the Red Bull RB4 that he would use at the official Formula One test session in Barcelona a week later.
It wasn’t quite the first time that Seb had driven a Formula One car: at the end of 2007 he tried out a Renault at Paul Ricard, as part of a job swap promotional day with Heikki Kovalainen. But that, he explained, was a slightly rushed experience, designed just to give each driver a small taste of what the other’s car was like, without even a proper seat fitting or technical debrief.
This was a whole load more serious: particularly because at Barcelona, Sebastien’s times would be mercilessly compared to those of the best Formula One drivers in the world underneath a very public spotlight.
There was no way that he could go into it cold. So it’s ironic that when he stepped into the Red Bull for the first time at Silverstone, he was actually shivering. These were far from ideal conditions, with low temperatures and standing water making it even harder than usual to get the car - and particularly the wet tyres - up to operating temperature.
But within just a few laps, the normally inscrutable Red Bull engineers began to raise a few eyebrows. Sebastien wasn’t going to break any records, but he clearly wasn’t intimidated by the car and the conditions either.
Most of all, what impressed them was his considered approach. He gradually built up speed and kept getting quicker and quicker - there are a few, exceptionally good drivers who can do that - but at no point did he spin or even come anywhere close to a big moment. Practically nobody can do that on their first time in a Formula One car, which is what really caught the engineers’ attention.
At this point they decided to break for lunch to analyse the data, and that’s when the trouble started...
By the end of the day, 30 laps or so later, the entire Red Bull team was deeply intrigued. Theoretically, from what they had just seen, this WRC champion should be right on the pace of the established F1 stars. But that was surely something to do with the freak conditions at Silverstone, rather than genuine front-running pace? Or had they just stumbled into the start of something incredible?
They all knew they wouldn’t have to wait long for those questions to be answered, as the Barcelona test was only days away. Come back tomorrow to find out what happened there...