McLaren has several promising juniors on its books – and one of them stumbled upon racing by chance. Adam Cooper met him
It’s been a while since Belgium had a front-running F1 driver – indeed 25 years have passed since Thierry Boutsen scored the last of his three Grand Prix victories for Williams. However, as a direct result of a talent search initiated by the country’s ASN, McLaren protégé Stoffel Vandoorne is well set to be the man to end that drought. How long the 22-year-old will have to wait for his chance remains to be seen.
His problem is that the Woking team is hardly short of options for the foreseeable future. Jenson Button has been confirmed for two years, and Kevin Magnussen is on standby, having been demoted to the reserve role. Vandoorne has been named test driver, and as such will be focused on running in the simulator. Logic suggests that his main hope will be getting the nod over his Danish colleague when next a vacancy occurs.
Vandoorne’s introduction to motor sport came entirely by chance. While many of his contemporaries come from racing families, his father was an architect who happened to be commissioned to design a restaurant at an indoor kart track in his native Kortrijk. The six-year-old Stoffel accompanied him to work one day, and was offered a run in a kart. Things progressed from there.
“I loved it, and I wanted to go back,” he recalls. “I have no idea if I was quick, because I was mainly driving alone. Then I started doing some races for fun. I didn’t really have the funding to race, but my dad found a few sponsors, and we were able to make the step.”
He won the Belgian title in 2008, and the following year was second in the world championship. He then landed support from the RACB’s young driver programme, which allowed him to move into cars in 2010.
He duly won the F4 Eurocup championship that supported Renault 3.5 events. The €100,000 prize helped him move up to European Renault 2.0, and he also earned a place in the FIA Driver Academy. He was fifth in his first year and beat Daniil Kvyat to the title in 2012.
An introduction from FIA driver mentor Alex Wurz led McLaren to take an interest in his progress, and at the end of 2012 he was formally signed to the team’s young driver programme. He also hooked up with Richard Goddard of Button’s management company, The Sports Partnership.
In 2013 Stoffel battled with fellow McLaren man Kevin Magnussen in Renault 3.5, ultimately finishing second in what was a strong performance by a rookie: “I had a close fight with Kevin, but he was in his second year and had made all his mistakes in his first! I was the one who kept him honest.”
Last year he moved into GP2 with ART, for whom McLaren junior Lewis Hamilton raced in 2006. He won the opening event in Bahrain, but then hit a difficult patch, impressing team boss Frédéric Vasseur with his resilience under fire. He bounced back to score three more feature race victories, while finishing the season with a string of four poles.
“We showed we were the guys to beat in the second half,” he says, “and scored more points than anybody after Austria. We just missed out at the beginning of the year.”
Having also impressed McLaren with his limited F1 running he is more than qualified to move up, but instead he’s heading into a second year of GP2 with ART. After that the way forward is not yet clear.
“There’s never a guarantee that you’ve got a place in F1, so let’s see what will happen. That’s why I’ve got Richard, to try and manage all those things. I just have to try to win races and show that I’m ready for it.”
Career in brief
Born: 26/3/1992, Kortrijk, Belgium
2008 Belgian KF2 karting, champion
2009 CIK World Championship, 2nd
2010 F4 Eurocup, champion
2011-12 Formula Renault 2.0, Eurocup champion in year two; signed for McLaren
2013 Formula Renault 3.5, 2nd
2014 GP2 Series, 2nd