Vandoorne: It was 2017 or never


Following his stunning success in GP2, finishing runner-up in his debut season and going on to win the title a year later, Stoffel Vandoorne was fully confident of making the step up to F1 this year.

However, it wasn't only Jenson Button that was kept waiting for a decision by McLaren, the young Belgian was also kept on tenterhooks by the Woking team before finally hearing the news.

Though he has had to content himself with Super Formula this year, over the weekend of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the 24-year-old was finally put out of his misery and told that he would be partnering Fernando Alonso in 2017.

"It's a big relief that finally I will be a fully-fledged Formula One driver," he told the official F1 website, "that McLaren-Honda is giving me that opportunity.

"I have spent so much time with this team already and had a lot of success in the junior series. The team has really been preparing me for Formula One for years, and now we both want to get rewarded."

Asked about not getting the drive this year, McLaren opting to retain Button for a sixth season, Vandoorne admits it came as a serious blow and left him fearing he had missed his big break.

"I don't know what discussions were going on behind the scenes, but I remember a year ago when I was finishing GP2 that there were a lot of rumours around that I might get the drive already for 2016. Alas it didn't happen, but I remember all the hype surrounding it.

"To be honest I was a little disappointed at the beginning," he admits, "it was a tough moment for me to understand that F1 would have to wait another year. But I kept my head cool and won the last two GP2 races that season and actually broke the record in that series.

"I knew it was best to give the answer on the track. Sure, time is always pressing in a driver's career, so I knew it had to be next year, as it was probably my last chance of getting to F1."

Asked about the decision to head east this year, he said: "Firstly, I've won almost everything in Europe, so what else was there to do? Secondly, McLaren tried to keep me busy, keep me in the racing loop. And thirdly, the series is very popular in Japan and it got me close to the Japanese working procedures.

"McLaren and Honda is still a very recent cooperation and in that way it gave me the chance to work with Honda engineers and understand how they 'tick'! I am sure that will help me in 2017. And probably, yes, to introduce me to the Japanese fans."

Along the way however, there was that unforgettable baptism by fire F1 debut in Bahrain, when the youngster was called in to preplace Alonso following his horrific crash in the season opener in Australia.

"I think it is fair to say that in everything I've raced before everybody was aware of my talent. But, sure, having had that opportunity has helped my chances because even if everybody knows that you are a very talented driver they still want to have proof of how you perform. And F1 is very different to anything else. Then there was how I handled the circumstances of getting the call at the very last minute, getting into Bahrain very late, in fact straight from the airport into the car, and then seeing how I worked. That was a big relief for the team... and for me! And the icing (on the cake) was that I delivered the first points for the team this season!"

Confirmation of Vandoorne's drive in 2017 came as part of McLaren's "innovative three-driver strategy for 2017 and 2018", which effectively leaves the door open for a Button return. Doesn't this put unwanted pressure on the youngster?

"No, I don't see that situation as extra pressure," he insists. "I have a long-term deal with McLaren. Hopefully we soon will be able to get back to the competitive level where McLaren used to be. In terms of next year, yes it is a special structure but I think it is one of the best.

"Myself and Fernando are going to race, and it is good to keep Jenson as well. He is the most experienced driver in F1 now and he will be involved with the team, be it in the simulator or coming to a few races."

Asked if the Briton might still get the occasional drive, the Belgian responds: "That's not what I am thinking at the moment, no. I am fully thinking about the opportunity that I get, there is no room for non-issues. I want to succeed and am very much looking forward to that.

Of the dramatic rule changes for next year, Vandoorne is delighted to be making his debut at the same time.

"This is probably a nice opportunity to perform well for me, as I don't come with the 'baggage' of the old F1 car experience," he says. "But then F1 drivers are all so massively talented that any change will be immediately absorbed and implemented.

"The reality of F1 is that almost every race, cars are changing with updates so drivers are used to that. And those who are right now in F1 are those who have shown that they can adapt very quickly otherwise they wouldn't be here.

"But actually when I think about it, yes, it could actually be a bit of an advantage for me to have a big reshuffle next year," he adds.

"This is an environment where you have to perform and I am used to that demand. I had to win championships to move forward otherwise I would not be here. You might say that I grew up in a pressure environment. F1 is a bit more in every respect, but I have enough self-confidence to know that I can handle it."

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Published: 23/09/2016
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