“Vandoorne is already at home with Honda”
It looked like a scene from the 1960s. A couple of hundred Honda engineers and mechanics, all dressed in the same immaculate white overalls and green caps standing respectfully in the bright autumnal sunshine.
They had gathered at the gates of Honda’s Suzuka road car factory last Thursday morning to send off their three drivers – Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Stoffel Vandoorne – and wish them well for the forthcoming grand prix.
Each driver was presented a bouquet of flowers and said a few words to the troops from the car production facility. Button in particular delighted the assembled crowd with his Japanese: “Konnichiwa. Suzuka GP Tanoshimidesu, ganbarimasu!” Which translated into “Hello. I’m excited for the Suzuka GP and I’ll try my best!”
Then, after a team photograph and an enthusiastic, but polite round of applause, Alonso and Button sat in the driver’s seat of two brand new Honda NSXS (Alonso chose red, while Button drove the silver one) while I sat alongside Vandoorne in the passenger seat of a sporty Honda Civic Type-r.
As the 2017 Mclaren race driver climbed aboard he fed out behind the two NSXS and the Honda employees parted to create two lines. He wound down the window and high-fived them out of the facility before lighting up the tyres to their delight.
A right turn out of the factory gates, and the Suzuka Circuit is 10 minutes south, as you head towards Ise Bay and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Not to be outdone, Vandoorne jumped ahead of Alonso’s NSX and got to the head of the queue of traffic turning right, flooring the Type-r once the lights turned green…
At the previous weekend in Malaysia, Button was celebrating his 300th grand prix and there was a sense this was the beginning of his farewell tour.
In Suzuka, one week later, there was now a feeling that Vandoorne was being welcomed into the sport through the Honda family. On the journey into the track he spoke of his year racing in Japan, how he’d come to love the culture, the food and the way of life.
“After winning GP2 there weren’t many options to go racing in Europe, so with Mclaren and Honda they decided I should come and race here in Super Formula,” said the Belgian. “I think that was the best thing for me, it’s a very competitive car and the important thing for me was to build a strong relationship with Honda – which is massively important for our future together.”
Having visited their F1 base in Sakura, he’s learnt a lot about the way Honda operate, its culture and understanding its philosophy. And not to be outdone by Button (who’s seat he’s replacing at Mclaren-honda), he’s also picked up the local lingo too.“Arigatou gozaimasu,” he said as the gates to the Suzuka circuit were opened. “Thank you very much.”
Welcome to F1, Stoffel.