Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne is just 21-years-old and has already begun making a name for himself. He has a McLaren junior driver contract in his pocket, and is their official third driver for the 2014 season. He has also joined the GP2 series with the ART Grand Prix team, having spent a year in the Formula Renault 3.5 series with Fortec Motorsport.
“I really want to win this championship,” said Vandoorne to The Checkered Flag after the conclusion of the first GP2 pre-season test in Abu Dhabi. “It’s going to be a massive challenge, but I’m working very hard with my team ART GP to get the best out of it. I’m looking forward to the start of the season!
“It was a general decision between McLaren, my management and myself [to move to GP2]. We found this is the best path for my learning process and it will prepare me better for F1.”
Vandoorne goes into his maiden season in GP2 on the back of finishing second to Kevin Magnussen in the 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 series, having come into the series having won the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 championship in 2012. He won on four occasions, including at his home track at Spa-Francorchamps, and took the championship fight down to the final event in Barcelona before ultimately missing out on the title. But the Belgian driver has mixed emotions when looking back.
“It was a successful season for sure. On one side I’m happy about my debut year, but on the other side, I’m a bit disappointed as well. To start the season I didn’t really know what to expect, but my ambitions were high. During the course of the season, it became clear we could fight for the championship, so finishing 2nd is not what I wanted.”
When making a comparison between the Formula Renault 3.5 car of 2013 and the GP2 car of this year, Vandoorne commented how much more he has to manage the GP2 car due to the tyres the series utilise, especially over race distances.
“The car itself is not so different, but the tyres make it a much bigger challenge. (Almost) Everyone can go quick over one lap, but the difficulty is make the tyres last for a full race distance. This is the biggest difference to Formula Renault 3.5, where you can push nearly every lap.
“Over a race distance, you have to drive carefully in GP2 to save tyres. Over a qualify lap, it’s quite similar, and you push to the max.”
When talking about how he has developed over the past few years, Vandoorne stated that with the developing technology in motorsport, he is always learning and growing as a driver.
“I think you learn all the time, and there are always new things you discover, especially in a world like motor racing where the technology changes a lot.
“If I compare myself now to a few year ago, I can say I made a big step forward, both on track and of track.”
Vandoorne is proud to have been signed to the McLaren Driver Young Programme, and admits it’s a big chance for his career development. The third driver role sees him backing up the regular race drivers Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen.
“It all started a long way ago in 2011. I was member of the FIA Young Driver Academy and Alex Wurz presented me to Matt Bishop at McLaren (Head of Marketing). I kept sending my reports to Matt after every race, and he eventually forwarded them to Sam Michael and Phil Prew. During the 2012 season, they followed me really closely and at the end of that season they decided to take me on the McLaren Young Driver programme. It’s been a huge help since, and I feel I have made big progress since. Being McLaren’s reserve driver this year is a great chance I get, and I will learn a massive amount during this season.
“I will be driving the McLaren F1 car this season, and I’m really looking forward to that moment! First of all, I’m the reserve driver, so if anything would happen to Jenson and Kevin, I will jump in. Beside that, there is still a lot of things I’m involved with. I do a lot of simulator work to assist Jenson and Kevin during tests or race weekends.”
When asked about 2014 in the GP2 series, Vandoorne was unsure on just who he could be fighting for the championship he desperate wants to win.
“It’s very difficult to predict who will be fighting for the championship. On paper, there are always a lot of guys that can do that, but we will have to wait until the season starts. I enjoy it that people see me as a championship driver this season!”
The GP2 pre-season testing resumes between the 19th and 21st of March at the Bahrain International Circuit, before the season proper begins at the same track between the 04th and 06th of April.