WAFFLES WITH STOFFEL
We catch up over breakfast with GP2 champion Stoffel Vandoorne, Mclaren’s new test and reserve driver
It’s early Sunday morning in Interlagos
and Stoffel Vandoorne is sitting outside the Mclaren hospitality unit in the sunshine, shades on, checking his mobile phone as he waits for breakfast. It’s a sad reality that test and reserve drivers spend rather a lot of time in solitary contemplation during grand prix weekends.
Vandoorne, 23, has stepped into the role recently vacated by Kevin Magnussen when Mclaren chose not to renew the Dane’s contract. Magnussen had done little wrong during his tenure at Woking; it shows just how fickle Formula 1 can be when racers don’t have the chance to prove themselves every fortnight.
“A number of drivers have won everything on the way to Formula 1 but haven’t been given a proper shot when they got there,” notes Vandoorne as F1 Racing follows him inside the Mclaren hospitality unit for a breakfast of
Belgian waffles. “It’s the way F1 has been for a
couple of years. It’s always been very competitive and there have been a number of talents that haven’t made it, which is a shame.”
Vandoorne has been on the team’s radar for
a few years now, having first visited Woking
in early 2012. He was formally placed on their young driver programme when he scooped the 2-litre Formula Renault title at the end of that season. He’s an intelligent, conscientious young man who fell into motor racing almost by accident. He grew up in the small Belgian town of Kortrijk, close to the French border. His father – an architect – was working on a project at the local kart track one day; he took his young son along with him, and Stoffel spent the afternoon driving on the indoor kart track. He was hooked.
Soon, with the help of a motorsport-mad uncle (who would go on to become his mechanic in karting), Stoffel began to display his talents in more powerful machinery and started to climb the karting hierarchy.
“When I was at school I competed in loads of sports, such as football, tennis, judo, karate and handball,” says Stoffel. “But karting was the one I was most interested in, and that’s the one that I wanted to do above everything else.”
As the years progressed, he was able to raise the money to compete in both the Belgian national championship, KF2, which he won, in 2008, and also the world championship, in which he was runner-up in 2009. At the end of that year the Belgian Motorsport federation, the RACB, held a shoot-out at Le Mans for six upand-coming Belgian racers, in identical 1.6-litre Formula Renault cars. Three days of running culminated in a 20-minute qualifying session, in which the fastest driver would be given the
Mclaren have promoted their Belgian protégé Stoffel Vandoorne to the role of Formula 1 test and reserve driver for 2016. Can he build a future where Kevin Magnussen missed out?
budget to progress to cars. Vandoorne’s victory paid for his graduation into F4 Eurocup, which he won first time out. Victory followed in 2-litre Formula Renault, and he put those winnings towards a year in Renault 3.5 World Series.
“In my first year I battled closely with Kevin Magnussen and finished second to him in the championship,” admits Vandoorne. “But he was in his second season in the category and I was in my first. That was an important and very successful year for me, because it was also my first as a Mclaren junior driver.”
Vandoorne became part of the FIA Young Driver Excellence Academy in 2011, headed up by former racer Alex Wurz whose influence in Formula 1 extends far and wide. Wurz used his contacts at Mclaren to arrange introductions for Stoffel to Mclaren’s then sporting director Sam Michael and chief engineer Phil Prew.
“I had a informal meeting with them, where we talked mainly about cars, but they wanted to understand about my technical ability and my way of thinking,” recalls Vandoorne. “After I won the Renault championship, Sam Michael asked if I wanted to join Mclaren’s young driver programme. Obviously, I didn’t hesitate.”
Just as they did with Lewis Hamilton, Mclaren helped place Vandoorne at ART in GP2 where he instantly set the 2014 series alight, qualifying on the front row and winning his debut GP2 race in Bahrain. Despite a few inevitable rookie hiccups, he was well into his groove by season’s end, taking four wins and four poles in a row, to pip Felipe Nasr to the runner-up spot behind Jolyon Palmer. And at the time of our chat, on the morning of the Brazilian GP, he’d dominated his second season of GP2, winning the title with two events remaining.
“It’s been everything or nothing for me this year,” he says. “There is always pressure because I knew after coming second last year I had to win it in 2015, but I feel that I’ve handled it well. I’ve broken almost every record in GP2, so that shows how strong my season has been.”
To avoid him spending an entire year on the sidelines, Honda are looking to position Stoffel in Japan next year. At the end of this season he tested a Super Formula car, a machine similar in speed and downforce to a GP2 car. “And there’s only one or two clashes with F1, so it would be possible to do both,” he notes.
“I don’t have a race seat in F1 for next season, but hopefully I can get one in 2017 – that’s what I’m working on, flat-out. I’ve done everything right, everything that has been asked of me, and I’ll continue to work hard. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in this sport.”
Born Kortrijk, Belgium Date of birth 26 March 1992
2015 Wins the GP2 drivers’ championship with ART Grand Prix
2014 Finishes second in GP2 with ART
2013 Finishes second in Formula Renault 3.5 with Fortec, taking four wins
2012 European Formula Renault 2.0 champion with Josef Kaufmann Racing
2011 Finishes fifth in the Formula Renault 2.0 European championship with KTR
2010 Wins the F4 Eurocup series
2009 Wins the RACB young driver programme