Stoffel Vandoorne talks to F1i about the long wait for an F1 seat and his mindset heading into the winter as a full-time McLaren driver
It feels like Stoffel Vandoorne has been on the verge of a full-time F1 drive for a number of years. It was fellow McLaren youngster Kevin Magnussen who got the nod in 2014, so Vandoorne had to make do with impressing in GP2. However, 2015 saw the return of Fernando Alonso to McLaren and again there was no space for the exciting Belgian talent.
Another year in GP2 followed and Vandoorne dominated, but still there was not an opening for him on the F1 grid and he had to combine a reserve role - in place of the departing Magnussen - with a year in Super Formula while continuing to wait in the wings.
Following Jenson Button's decision to take at least a year off racing in F1 next season, the 24-year-old from Kortrijk finally got his chance, and since the announcement in early September he told F1i he has been counting down the days until he was able to become a central figure in McLaren's preparations for 2017.
“Yeah, definitely, I’m pleased that the season is coming to an end," Vandoorne admits. "It’s been a good season, I’ve been racing and I’ve been to every Formula One grand prix but to be here every weekend - doing all the briefings and all the preparations with the team - and then not actually driving the car is not always easy.
"Some weekends go by quicker than others but now the last one is out of the way. I’m definitely looking forward to getting a little bit of a break during the winter. It’s been a long season with a lot of travelling so spending time with family and friends would be very good but I think once Christmas and New Year is over then everything will start to move quickly. A lot of training camps, a lot of preparations with the team, spending time in the simulator and I think once we’re there it will be very quick that we’re in February at the first test.”
Having been present at every race this season - and even replaced the injured Alonso in Bahrain - Vandoorne has had plenty of time to build up his experience within McLaren. However, the Belgian admits there are diminishing returns as he has grown impatient waiting to race himself.
“You always learn. Every weekend in Formula One there’s new bits on the car and there’s new things you pick up. But at some point you just feel like you want to get in the car yourself and you want to experience what it’s like and you want to do that work as well.
"So I think everything is going to plan for next year. I know the team, I know the people I will be working with. I’d say mainly my time in the factory has been used a bit better than before because there’s a lot more preparations to do before next season. That’s just a nice feeling.
"Every time I go in now I really feel involved with the team and I’m really trying to push them. It’s the first time you really have that feeling when you’re working with a big group of people.
"Obviously I knew a lot already from all the work I’ve done with the team and everything was more or less logical but I think my relationship with the team changed a bit after Monza because I’m going to be driving the car next year so everything is a little bit more personalised if we can put it that way. It’s good to have it that way and to finally be in the car myself next year.”
While racing is now over, Vandoorne says his own year is going to remain busy as he tries to embed himself within the race team as well as training in preparation for the new season.
“We’ve got everything planned out already, there’s some in January and February as well. A couple of days at the factory as well with the team and the mechanics. Really trying to engage with the team as well is going to be important because they’re the guys working for you so you need to do a good job as well.
"I think car development is ongoing in the simulator and with the aerodynamicists. It’s a busy period, the Christmas period, for the team especially because they need to get everything ready and they need to get the car built. It kind of feels a bit logical and normal to me because I know the people, I’ve been working with them for a while so it feels pretty normal.”
One team member Vandoorne will get to know very well over the winter also allows him to benefit from Button's experience. The Belgian has taken on Mikey Collier - who has worked with the 2009 world champion for a number of years - as his trainer.
“Yeah I think for me it’s very good to be with Mikey because he’s been with the team for seven years I think. He knows the team well, he knows how to work with a professional driver, with a world champion. He’s been around for a long time, he knows the environment and for me I need someone like that who just knows the business. He knows what I need and what I don’t need so I’m looking forward to working with him.”
Collier also knows how a driver reacts lining up alongside the likes of Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in the same team, and Vandoorne is relishing the opportunity to test himself against the Spaniard. Asked if he has nothing to lose because he will be a hero if he beats Alonso, he replied: “You ask the question very differently to all the other journalists!
"It’s good to have Fernando next to me because everybody rates him very highly, probably one of the quickest guys in Formula One and every time he’s out on track he just delivers all the time. It’s good to get that benchmark. I think for me it’s good to be alongside him because if I fare well it’s going to be good for my career as well.”
Despite such a long wait and starting his debut season with high levels of expectancy, Vandoorne says there is no more pressure than he has been used to throughout his career.
"I think every season I’ve raced everyone has always expected a lot of me. A lot of times I had to start a season and they made it quite clear that I had to win a championship. I don’t really see it any different next year. Obviously it will be a big challenge, my first ever season in F1 and working alongside Fernando, but it is something I am looking forward to and I’ll do my best and try to make the most of it."