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 scufe. 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 signicant downforce increase on the 2017 cars.
“It’s something I’ve been working on,” he says, adjusting his collar. “It’s a very difcult 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 surng. 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 difcult 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.
EVERYONE KNOWS FERNANDO’S QUALITIES… IF I FARE WELL AGAINST HIM, THEN IT’S GOOD FORR MY CAREER AS WELL
Vandoorne walks with F1R, past a line of former McLaren machinery at the MTC