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

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