When McLaren-Honda announced their 2015 driver line-up of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, with Kevin Magnussen as the reserve driver, another driver within the McLaren ranks was not mentioned at all during the press release.
But fear not Stoffel Vandoorne fans, the twenty-two-year-old is still firmly in McLaren’s thoughts, still part of the team, but will be allowed to focus on improving upon his runners-up spot in the GP2 Series in 2014.
“McLaren is one of the greatest names in global motorsport, and to be a part of the McLaren Young Driver Programme is an honour and a privilege,” said Vandoorne in February 2013 when news of his McLaren deal was revealed.
“I fully intend to do my very best to maximise this opportunity in terms of both learning and results for years to come.”
It is hard to believe that the Belgian has only been racing single-seaters since 2010, but has achieved so much in that time. In every full season he has run, he has never finished outside the top five in the championship.
In his debut year, racing for Autosport Academy, he clinched the F4 Eurocup 1.6 Series title, winning six times in fourteen races and collecting nine podiums. He moved up to the 2.0 litre categories for 2011, racing for KTR in both the Eurocup and NEC Formula Renault series, finishing fifth in Eurocup and third in the NEC standings.
Moving to Josef Kaufmann Racing for 2012, Vandoorne took his second career title, winning the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 Series crown, beating new Red Bull Racing driver Daniil Kvyat along the way. He also continued racing in NEC, again with Josef Kaufmann Racing, and won five of the seven races he competed in.
For 2013, he moved up to the Formula Renault 3.5 Series championship, and was victorious in his opening race for Fortec Motorsports despite a heavily flat-spotted tyre.
“He has the attitude and drive to make his mark on the championship and I’m extremely confident he will be one to keep an eye on next season,” said Fortec Team Manager Jamie Dye ahead of his 2013 season, while the driver who Vandoorne replaced in the team and the 2012 series champion Robin Frijns, expected big things from the Belgian, saying “I think Vandoorne is going to do well, he was really quick in my car in testing.”
Three more victories, one at his home circuit of Spa-Francorchamps before a dominant weekend at Moscow Raceway, brought him second place in the standings behind Magnussen.
In 2014, as well as joining McLaren as reserve driver, Vandoorne moved to the GP2 Series with ART Grand Prix, and won the first race of the season in Bahrain, becoming the first driver to win both their debut races in Formula Renault 3.5 Series and GP2 Series in consecutive seasons.
“I plan to take my responsibilities as McLaren-Mercedes’ official Formula 1 reserve driver very seriously indeed, since I very much enjoy immersing myself in the technical aspects of Formula 1 grand prix weekends,” said Vandoorne.
“GP2 is a prime feeder series for Formula 1, and GP2 cars are both powerful and fast. ART has an excellent track record in GP2, and I’m extremely grateful to Nicolas Todt and Frederic Vasseur, the team’s two owners, for giving me this brilliant opportunity.”
Although his next few races were troublesome, towards the end of the year he was on the pace, earning a record-breaking four consecutive pole positions and taking wins in Hungary, Italy and Abu Dhabi as well as podiums in Germany, Belgium and Russia. He was particularly unlucky in Sochi, when an ill-timed safety car cost him a certain victory as he led comfortably.
His battle for second place in the championship with Carlin’s Felipe Nasr went down to the wire, but the Belgian came out on top by just five points. But for a series debutant, you have to go back to Nico Hulkenberg back in 2009 to see such an impressive display for a first year driver. Certainly in the Pirelli era, there has been no better rookie.
“You progress every year really, especially this year,” said Vandoorne to Autosport during the 2014 season. “It’s probably the season I’m [most] involved in the technical side, which is very important with all the changes in Formula 1.
“GP2 is complex with the tyres, which is similar to F1, as well as setting up the car. It’s a very good feeder series and preparation for F1.”
McLaren’s Racing Director Eric Boullier believes that Vandoorne is already ready for Formula 1, but was not prepared for him to join a team lower down the grid, rather insisting that he continues his career development in the junior categories.
“I think if you have to go to F1, first he needs to feel ready, and I am happy that he feels ready,” said Boullier to Autosport. “He also needs the opportunity to step into F1, but not in any condition [at all costs].”
It was perhaps a surprise to some that it was Vandoorne that was given the first chance to test but the fact the team felt he was ready to test showed how much they believe in the Belgian. Even though the team had a troublesome time in Abu Dhabi, Vandoorne believed he got some decent feedback as Honda look to resume their partnership with McLaren.
“The purpose of the test is to understand the collaboration between McLaren and Honda – it’s the first time we’re on the track working together so the whole operational stuff is quite a bit different,” said Vandoorne at the test.
“During those laps I could already give some feedback, but obviously it was all about building up the power, so we haven’t run the engine in full-power mode yet.”
The fact that his potential rivals for the GP2 Series crown in 2015 are already expressing they need to ‘gang up’ on Vandoorne says just how highly he is rated amongst his peers.
“Stoffel is pretty impressive, and he’s going to have a target on his back right from the off,” said GP3 Series champion Alex Lynn to Autosport as he looks to begin his GP2 career with DAMS in 2015. “I think me and Pierre [Gasly] need to gang up on Stoffel. We’ve got to try to stop him somehow and I think we’ve got a good chance.”
As well as Lynn and Red Bull-backed Pierre Gasly, there is also Ferrari Driver Academy driver Raffaele Marciello to contend with for Vandoorne in 2015, as well as the other impressive rookie of 2014 Arthur Pic, and there is a chance that Lotus Junior driver and 2014 FIA European Formula 3 Champion Esteban Ocon could join the party.
But Vandoorne could be good enough to beat them all. He is one of those drivers that are destined for Formula 1, and he could just make his bow as soon as 2016.