22-year-old Stoffel Vandoorne is competing for the ART Grand Prix team in the 2014 GP2 Series season, and currently sits third in the championship. The Belgian driver began the year with a victory in Bahrain, but it has been a year of ups and downs for the Belgian.
“It’s been a bit up and down,” reflects Vandoorne to The Checkered Flag. “It started really well in Bahrain, but after that we had a couple of down moments. We did learn a lot from these moments and since a couple of races we are back at the front and been fighting for victories. We’re on a good flow now and we’re looking strong to finish the season with good results.
“I wanted to win GP2 in my rookie year. It is still possible, but realistically it will be very difficult. Anyway, GP2 is never over until it is over; we have seen this in previous years!”
Jumping from finishing runner-up in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series in 2013, he admits to having had to adapt his driving style somewhat. Whereas tyre wear is not an issue in FR3.5, it has been necessary for the Belgian to conserve his Pirelli tyres during the races in GP2.
“I’ve had to adapt a bit, but that’s normal when you change car and tyres,” said Vandoorne. “It was more about understanding the tyres during a race, how they degrade and so on. A lot of people go quick over 1 lap, but the key is to be quick and managing tyres over the race distance.”
The GP2 season began in the desert of Bahrain, and for the second season in a row, took victory in the first race of the season. He followed up his debut win at Monza in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2013 with a Feature race win at the Bahrain International Circuit in GP2 this year.
“It’s always a nice feeling to win the first race, especially in FR3.5 after coming from FR2.0, it felt amazing,” said Vandoorne. “Maybe if I get to F1 one day I can also win the first race!
“It was a good race for sure. Actually we didn’t do anything special. I had a good qualify starting from 2nd. I won the start and from then on it was all about managing tyres. Still, I had to keep cool, as it was the first time under race conditions. We performed a good strategy and found our way to victory.”
Unfortunately for Vandoorne, the Sprint race did not go to plan with an early trip to the pits for a new nose cone required, while in Spain and Monaco he failed to score a point. He rues the points he conceded in that time to championship contenders Jolyon Palmer and Felipe Nasr, but felt that he had learned some vital information about how to race in GP2 at the same time.
“We had some bad luck and made some mistakes during those weekends,” said the Belgian. “We lost out a lot of points to Palmer and Nasr during these events, which isn’t good. On the other side, we learnt a lot out of it and after those 2 events we started to perform really well. I think the team and myself now understand much better how to set up the car and getting the best out of it. In GP2, everything has to be good from the start because you have very little practice time.”
It all improved for Vandoorne when GP2 arrived at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, with his first podium and points since the season opener in Bahrain. He followed that up with another podium in Great Britain at Silverstone.
“It was an ok weekend [in Austria]; pretty good after the 2 bad weekends. For the first time since Bahrain I felt I could fight for a top position and that was a good improvement.
“But I’m not too happy about the race in Silverstone. We finished 3rd in the feature race, but a long way from 1st. The car was pretty good in qualify but we missed pace during the race, [which was] very strange because usually we are one of the quickest in the race. Again, we understood why and got better next rounds.”
Germany saw Vandoorne score points in both the Feature and the Sprint race of a GP2 weekend for the first time, and he did it with two podium finishes in very different races. He finished second to Mitch Evans in the dry Feature race, and then finished third behind Stefano Coletti and Nasr in the wet-dry Sprint race. He was happy to finally score points in both races, and admitted he had needed to work on his starts to give him this opportunity.
“It was a delight. I think the main reason I didn’t score good points on a Sunday was my starts. I never really had good starts up until then, and been working on it a lot with the team. Since Hockenheim, we’re much better and that makes a big difference to your race.
“The track was wet [on Sunday], and I like tricky conditions. I felt pretty cool and after a couple of laps I found myself leading the race. Unfortunately a safety car mid race bunched up the pack when everyone had the slicks on and Coletti and Nasr passed me on the warmer tyres. Otherwise, we would have had a good shot at victory.”
Hungary saw Vandoorne take his second victory of the season in the Sprint race, but only after losing out in the Feature race to a possible podium due to the untimely appearance of the safety car. He appreciates that is the nature of racing, but was happy to make amends in the Sprint race.
“That’s racing sometimes,” reflected Vandoorne about the Hungaroring Feature race. “We knew this would happen someday and it did happen. Nothing we could do really. Luckily we got into the Top 8 so a good starting position for the sprint race
“The sprint race was good. I started second and had a good start taking the lead. I managed the tyres well and pushed in the last five laps for fastest lap of the race. I did it in the very last lap, which is pretty cool!”
The Belgian currently sits third in the GP2 Series championship, but is 83 points adrift of Palmer and 40 points behind Nasr. He hopes to have a strong end of the season, with races at Spa-Francorchamps, Monza, Sochi and Abu Dhabi to come. He appreciates it will be difficult to make a championship challenge, but he will not give up.
“We’re in a strong position and just won the last race, all we need to do is make no mistakes and then we will be able to win more races,” insists Vandoorne. “Mathematically it is still possible [to win the title] so I will keep pushing for sure. We have seen last year that it’s never over. It will be hard, but second place is in reach.
“I would say every year in a drivers career is very important, but the closer you get to F1 the better you want to do as it puts you in a better position for a race drive. I’m focusing hard on GP2 and my reserve role at McLaren at the moment. We’ll see what 2015 brings, but first some more GP2 victories would be nice!”
Vandoorne is also the McLaren Mercedes third driver in 2014, and has been hard at work back at the Woking factory. He feels he would be ready to step in to drive should either Jenson Button or Kevin Magnussen be unavailable for any reason. He also had some time in this years’ car in some post-race tests, and feels like he learnt a lot in that time.
“I’m using a lot the simulator; which helps me to get into the track before a race weekend,” said Vandoorne. “I also have a lot of briefings with top engineers, which is always very helpful for my GP2 season. Beside GP2 I’m involved in a big part of the F1 programme as I am the reserve driver. Whenever I would need to jump into the car, I’m absolutely ready and prepared.
“The two tests went really well for me. We’ve managed a lot of laps and that’s always the key on a test day to complete the programme. A lot of data is gathered for the engineers in order to improve the car. I felt good with the car straight away, and it’s great to work with a team like McLaren. In F1 there are so many things to learn, and I think every day you get back in the car you take some new information. Development never stops.”