All change at McLaren as Stof­fel Van­doorne takes up his race seat


Anew dawn breaks in Wok­ing. The bright win­ter sun oods through the lake­side win­dows at the McLaren Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre, form­ing a pool of white light on the fac­tory oor. Emerg­ing into the warm rays is the team’s fresh new hope, 24-year-old Stof­fel Van­doorne, who has all the swag­ger of a man step­ping up to a full-time race seat this year.

He takes up po­si­tion next to McLaren’s pres­ti­gious line of for­mer GP ma­chin­ery – sil­ver Häkki­nen ti­tle-win­ners and the iconic Marl­boro-- liv­er­ied, fat-tyred be­he­moths of the 1980s. These cars are a re­minder of the glory days.

The last oc­ca­sion McLaren scooped a win­ner’s tro­phy is re­ced­ing ever fur­ther into the dis­tance. When Van­doorne and Fer­nando Alonso line up on the Aus­tralian Grand Prix start­ing grid, it will be four years and four months since Jen­son But­ton tri­umphed at the 2012 Brazil­ian GP.

But in con­trast to re­cent pre-sea­sons past, this win­ter there’s a sense of op­ti­mism cours­ing through the grey cor­ri­dors of the MTC. The glass-and-steel build­ing, once the vi­sion of Ron Dennis, is now mi­nus its mas­ter-planner, fol­low­ing a pro­tracted board­room scufe. The wel­come at the main gate and the re­laxed mood among the work­force feels more hu­man. There is less fear now the lurk­ing spec­tre of Ron has dis­ap­peared from the fac­tory oor.

Al­ready this morn­ing there have been two rare sight­ings of a bird, once con­sid­ered ex­tinct in these parts: the Kiwi. This na­tive of New Zealand is the sym­bol used to rep­re­sent the team by its founder Bruce McLaren – a ‘Kiwi’ him­self, of course. There’s more: the liv­ery of the 2017 MCL32 is a throw­back to the 1960s with a black and ‘Tarocco orange’ colour­way. It’s as if the team are no longer afraid to re­mem­ber their il­lus­tri­ous past pre-Ron.

There has been a break from the cold fa­cade of re­cent years. The day af­ter our visit, a group of McLaren fans have a spe­cial in­vite to meet Van­doorne and one lucky win­ner has a golden ticket – their pass to the launch of the MCL32.

On this win­ter week­day morn­ing, Van­doorne is at the MTC to spend a lit­tle more time on the sim­u­la­tor, to de­brief with his en­gi­neers and to speak to se­lect mem­bers of the press. He’s sport­ing a bit of stub­ble, know­ing there’s no chance of a dis­ap­prov­ing Ron in­sist­ing he shave.

Van­doorne’s look­ing trim, although he has no­tice­ably ex­panded in the neck­line. That’s thick­ened to cope with the ad­di­tional cor­ner­ing G-forces that will re­sult from the signicant down­force in­crease on the 2017 cars.

“It’s some­thing I’ve been work­ing on,” he says, ad­just­ing his col­lar. “It’s a very difcult mus­cle to train and, with the new reg­u­la­tions, we do ex­pect the cars to be a lot tougher, so we need to do as much prepa­ra­tion as we can.

“Some of the high-speed cor­ners will be at this year, while the lower- and medi­um­speed turns will be much faster,” he con­tin­ues, en­thused at the prospect of driv­ing the quicker, new-gen­er­a­tion F1 cars. “We won’t know ex­actly un­til we start the sea­son, and I don’t know if they will be eas­ier to race. The brak­ing zones will be later, which won’t be good for over­tak­ing, but the cars will have more drag, so slip­stream­ing might be eas­ier. We just don’t know.”

What we do know is that driv­ers need to be phys­i­cally stronger to cope with the in­creased de­mands, and, at the time of our meet­ing, Stof­fel has al­ready had two stints at train­ing camps

in the south of Spain. Two more were planned be­fore test­ing. In Mar­bella, he has been work­ing with his trainer, Mikey ‘Mus­cles’ Col­lier, Jen­son But­ton’s body guru of the past few sea­sons. Ei­ther side of Christ­mas, the team have been run­ning, work­ing in the gym and cy­cling on 60mile round trips in the An­dalu­sian hills.

Train­ing was sand­wiched be­tween a hol­i­day in Bali and a spot of New Year surng. Dur­ing F1 Rac­ing’s pho­to­shoot at the MTC, photographer Ben Wright looks up from her cam­era as Stof­fel talks about his trips away and asks if he misses his Bel­gian home? “Not re­ally,” he says, laugh­ing.

Be­neath us, deep within the bow­els of the McLaren fac­tory, un­seen by pry­ing eyes, work is con­tin­u­ing in se­cret on the new car. With Honda plan­ning changes to the ar­chi­tec­ture of the power unit for 2017, there is gen­uine hope that with the re­sources McLaren now have, they can rise up through the grid and at least be ‘best of the rest’ be­hind Mercedes, Red Bull and Fer­rari.

“The past two years have been pretty tough for us,” says Stof­fel. “But for Honda it’s been a new project and dur­ing those two years we’ve made big progress. For 2017 I think we will take another step for­ward as Honda have a new de­sign for the en­gine. Our aero depart­ment is pulling to­gether strongly [led by ex-Red Bull man Peter Pro­dro­mou] and we’re pretty happy with the gains we’ve found over the win­ter. How­ever, it’s very difcult to put that into con­text as we don’t know what the other teams have done.”

Lest we for­get, Van­doorne is tak­ing over Jen­son But­ton’s seat this year, and al­ready has one grand prix start to his name. At the eleventh hour he was called in to re­place Fer­nando Alonso in Bahrain last April, af­ter the Spa­niard sus­tained frac­tured ribs dur­ing his ter­ri­fy­ing shunt at the Mel­bourne sea­son-opener.

Hav­ing own straight from Ja­pan (where he’d been test­ing a Su­per For­mula car), Van­doorne went to Sakhir and im­me­di­ately im­pressed. In Q2 he was 0.064 sec­onds quicker than But­ton and started two places fur­ther up the grid than him. A day later, de­spite a cau­tious open­ing lap, he scooped a points nish with tenth place.

While Van­doorne is highly rated, he has one ma­jor hur­dle to over­come in his rst full year of F1: the in­de­fati­ga­ble Fer­nando Alonso. So how does an in­com­ing rookie deal with a team-mate who is a two-time cham­pion and one of the fastest, most con­sis­tent driv­ers in For­mula 1?

“Well, I know Fer­nando very well,” says Stof­fel. “I’ve been able to work with him for two years and see from the out­side how he op­er­ates within the team. I think it’s been very in­ter­est­ing to see how he pushes the team for­ward, how com­pet­i­tive he is, and how well he takes the max­i­mum out of ev­ery sit­u­a­tion. I’m look­ing for­ward to rac­ing along­side him. Ev­ery­one knows Fer­nando’s qual­i­ties and they also know that if I fare well against him, then it’s good for my ca­reer as well. He has a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence and he’ll be a tough team-mate, but our main fo­cus is to bring McLaren Honda back to the top.”

Does fac­ing Fer­nando give Stof­fel sleep­less nights, or does he have a plan to beat him? “All F1 driv­ers are quick and can do a quick lap time,” he in­sists. “The dif­fer­ence is how you pack­age your week­end, how you build up to qual­i­fy­ing and the race and be­ing able to do that con­sis­tently, 20 week­ends a year, not just once a year. That’s where there’s a dif­fer­ence – and that’s the area on which I need to fo­cus.”

The last time Alonso had a raw rookie as a team-mate, it was Lewis Hamil­ton in 2007. And we all know how that story ended. But Stof­fel is tal­ented and McLaren are long over­due a com­pet­i­tive car. So as we en­ter a new era of F1, this could be their rst step back to glory.


Van­doorne walks with F1R, past a line of for­mer McLaren ma­chin­ery at the MTC

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