The Mclaren ace takes Peter Windsor for a spin in a 570GT
His rookie-season results may not show it, but Stoffel Vandoorne was born to be a racing driver. Peter Windsor sat alongside ‘The Stoff’ in Mclaren’s 570GT to watch him at work
IT’S ALMOST FAMILIAR
but not completely so: the big LED sign. The intimidating gatehouse. The narrow, curving lane next to a lake filled with expensive carp. You daren’t study the water for fear of running out of road in front of them all. Then there’s the curved-edge structure by Foster and Partners. The glass. The pod lifts. The inward-opening doors. The Boulevard. Bruce’s Austin Seven Chummy. And the rest of the Can-am and F1 cars: orange at first, then red and white, then silver.
You whisper. The occasion, and the building, demands it. For this is the Mclaren Technology Centre. And you tread softly, for there, backlit against the lake, sits the Mclaren 570GT sportscar, doors up. And you reflect that you saw Bruce drive; you saw Denny win with an M19 and then with an M23. You were there when Emerson and James won in the ’70s – and upwards it went. Ayrton and Alain in the gorgeous, Steve Nichols/neil Oatley Mclaren-hondas. Mika. Lewis in 2008. You know the bloodline. You know the essence of what this part of Surrey, England, is inevitably all about.
Yet nothing compares with this moment. You slide into the leather interior, inhaling the aroma. All of those fluxes flowing into this. This isn’t your Lambo or your Ferrari or your Jag or your Aston or even your Porsche. This is a Mclaren. And Bruce would love it. Even in plum.
Charlotte Sefton, Mclaren’s PR and media manager, who is co-ordinating the day, is here to meet us. “I’m afraid Stoffel’s a little delayed. He’s at the factory – there wasn’t a problem with the flight but he’s had a couple of meetings that have put back his training session. He’s just finishing up now. He’ll be another 15 minutes.” “No problem at all. I’ll just wait here.” “You’re sure? Would you like a coffee or something?” I decline with a smile. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here, opening doors in my memory with a 570GT. The thought of spilling coffee onto the red leather is about as appetising as being asked to wait outside the office of Bernard Ecclestone, years ago, when you knew he’d caught you doing… something. “No. I’m fine here. No hurry.” Stoffel eventually arrives, recently showered and wearing a white Michael Kors T-shirt and black trousers. He has a laugh with Charlotte, and then listens politely as the F1 Racing photographers set him up for a selection of portraits and some in-car shots. I snap back from Austria 1974 – the day that Denny ran four different-compound Goodyears on all four wheels – and find a shadowed corner from which to gaze.
Stoff jumps easily into the 570 – feet first and then torso. He listens some more; he smiles; he doesn’t say much. Then the starter motor. That thick, constant idle, which is synonymous with supercars.
The 570 slinks its way around the lake. I watch from the terrace, remembering the stories I’d heard about Stoffel a few years ago, before everything was settled, before GP2 even, coming over from Belgium by train with nothing specific to do other than just to be there at the factory, or to snatch the back end of a day training with Rob Wilson. This wasn’t a guy who’d spend free Friday nights with his mates in the local: this was a prodigy who relished the discipline and the grinding repetition of his vocation. Even the hassles of the mid-winter commutes from Belgium. This was someone who was born to be a racing driver.
I JOIN STOFFEL IN THE CAR,
tapping a rubber pad to make the door sail upwards; the window opens a little. I sit first, then drag in my legs, trying to be slick but failing. With seatbelt on, I feel overdressed next to the T-shirt. Stoffel finger-taps out of auto mode, flicks the paddles and steers easily away. How to begin…?
As the Foster building to my left becomes a piece of art, rather than a technology centre, once again, the opening is organically clear:
“So is there – was there – a point when this amazing place can just be… where you work?”
“Not really,” Stoffel says, smiling. “It’s always something when I come here, always exciting. I see it differently now because it’s been a while; I’ve been with Mclaren through their junior programme. I know it well. It’s my second home, but I still get this feeling when I arrive. Maybe it’s the history. You see those cars lined up at the front of the building and you’re aware of what Mclaren have achieved. You touch that history the moment you walk in.”
“IT’S ALWAYS SOMETHING WHEN I COME TO THE MTC, ALWAYS EXCITING. YOU SEE THOSE CARS LINED UP AT THE FRONT OF THE BUILDING AND YOU’RE AWARE OF WHAT MCLAREN HAVE ACHIEVED”
“I’M A LATE-BRAKER. I’M WORKING ON IT WITH THE ENGINEERS. WHAT YOU DON’T WANT IS TO LET YOUR BRAKING COMPROMISE THE CORNER ENTRY AND THIS IS SOMETHING I’VE SOMETIMES DONE A BIT IN THE PAST ”
“So you’ve been training this morning?” I ask, switching back to the present.
“Yes. Mainly toning. This afternoon, after lunch, I’ll go for a run in the woods with my trainer and engineer. I love it; there are some beautiful paths here,” he says, pointing to the rich woodland to his right. “You’re based in Monaco?” “Yes. Good weather, easy for travel and perfect for cycling. I love cycling – and there’s a kart track not too far away. I still drive karts whenever I can.” And he flies privately – Wheelsup, Netjet – whenever it’s logical for him and two or three of his F1 driver mates to simplify the journey back from an awkward location. Bruce Mclaren, too, loved the south of France. He won Monaco in 1962 and thereafter staged a party on the beach at Cap Ferrat on the Monday after every race. Stoffel’s lifestyle is one to which Bruce would have aspired, engineering priorities notwithstanding. Bruce built and engineered race cars to drive them: that was his reason for being; but he also loved to water-ski on golden Monaco mornings.
We’re now out of the MTC and heading along the quiet roads towards Fairoaks, whence Alan Mann operated not only his aviation business but also Ford GT40S, Ford F3LS, Falcon Sprints and Mustangs. Stoffel hangs back and then rasps the 570 through the gears, the exhaust note crisp and sharp. I’m interested to know how he thinks he drives – and how he thinks he has stacked up this year alongside Fernando Alonso.
“I’m a kind of a… a late-braker,” he says, whipping past a slower car before squeezing the brakes with his left foot. He stammers a little, as if he’s embarrassed. I think of all the racing drivers out there who think they’re the latest brakers on the planet, then realise that Stoffel is speaking in a different vein. He doesn’t think that this is a good thing: “I’m working on it with the engineers,” he continues. “You always want to brake as late as possible – but ‘possible’ is the thing. What you don’t want is to let your braking compromise the corner entry and I think this is something I’ve sometimes done a bit in the past.”
I’m not surprised, of course – I’m not surprised that Stoffel is being this self-regulatory: he’s too ‘together’ a person, and/or racing driver, to be self-obsessed. It is the F1 fashion for racing drivers to want to appear to be bullet-proof and to dismiss any concept of fallibility, but Stoffel is the counterpoint to such lunacy. “So you’ve been braking later than Fernando?” “Sometimes, yes. With Fernando’s telemetry, everything looks normal. He doesn’t have extremes, and this is one of the reasons he is so good at minimising the effects of small mistakes. It’s something I’m working on.”
It’s hard to believe that Stoffel is only part way through his rookie F1 season. He speaks with the self-effacing
calm of a ten-year veteran. And in the context of a torrid year for Mclaren-honda, with engine changes, practice dramas and grid penalties, it’s also hard to believe that he has had sufficient good track time from which to draw any conclusions, let alone to be self-critical.
“It’s been tough, but it’s getting more positive and I’ve learned a huge amount in a short space of time. When you come into F1 and everything is working okay, it’s one thing; when you have to work closely with the team in difficult times, that’s another. It was difficult at first, because in my career I’d always been at or near the front. To be working in a different way took some adjustment but I see where we’re going now. And I feel very positive.” “Do your parents come to races?” “Sometimes. If my dad comes to a race he goes out on the circuit with his stopwatches and times the cars through his own sectors. He loves it and sometimes his results are quite interesting, although we have most of the data, of course, via GPS and so forth. When they’re at a race it’s always good to relax with the family in the evening but we never talk racing.”
“Super Formula last year,” I add, keen to end on an upbeat. “Not easy and you had that win at Suzuka.”
“It was great racing. I love Suzuka and I’m really looking forward to getting back there with the F1 car. I also got to love Japanese food. Most F1 races I eat in the Honda motorhome. I’m starting to pick up a few words of Japanese – just enough to make them laugh!” Speaking of which, it’s time for our lunchtime return. “As you’ll be working out later, are you skipping lunch?”
“WHEN YOU COME INTO F1 AND EVERYTHING IS WORKING OKAY, IT’S ONE THING; WHEN YOU HAVE TO WORK CLOSELY WITH THE TEAM IN DIFFICULT TIMES, THAT’S ANOTHER. IT WAS DIFFICULT AT FIRST”
“Ha! No. It’s set up at the factory. I’ll wait for an hour or so after we’ve eaten and then we’ll be out there.”
We’re cruising back around the lake. To the right, across the water, I glimpse numerous heads swivelling in the Mclaren staff restaurant.
“Thanks Stoffel,” I say, as we sit down. “A lot of fun. Here’s to… I don’t know… the good times to come.” “Definitely. Starting today.” I can sense Bruce smiling, down in the Boulevard, somewhere between his Austin Chummy and the M7C. • You can watch Stoffel at the wheel of the Mclaren 570GT in episode 20 of The Flying Lap on Motorsport.tv
Getting to grips with the controls in the luxurious leather interior of Mclaren’s latest high-performance sportscar