Having won the GP2 championship in dominating style in 2015, Stoffel Vandoorne has long been seen as an F1 star of the future. With speed to make your vision blur, and the talent and courage to back it up, no one was really able to get near to Vandoorne in the fight for the GP2 championship last year. But despite that stunning performance, a move up to the pinnacle of motorsport was not forthcoming this season, with the GP2 champ having to settle for a place in the Japanese Super Formula series in order to keep himself race sharp. That is until now…
With the unfit Fernando Alonso having to sit out the Bahrain Grand Prix with fractured ribs, following his huge shunt in Australia two weekends ago, Vandoorne now has the chance to prove his pedigree at the highest level, and having won here as part of his GP2 campaign in 2015 and 2014, the Belgian is no stranger to the Sakhir track, which should hopefully be one thing in his favour as he belts up for the first time as an F1 driver.
But could the new rules over radio communication being brought in for 2016, be a hindrance to the McLaren young protégé? Yes and no… as he has never driven during an age where information is showered on you as you navigate a lap, the 24-year-old will not miss this, but at the same time there will be a lot of new things that he has to take on board and remember, which could make his debut in F1 all the more taxing when he has more than just his driving to consider. Vandoorne is a seasoned professional however, and is likely to take such an obstacle in his stride, but also has an expereienced team on hand to make his first race as painless as possible..
As one of the most highly rated drivers of his generation, the spotlight will definitely be on the young Belgian, who will be hoping that the weather stays dry during the three available practice sessions so that he can get up to speed with the workings of the MP4-31. But with two time World champion Alonso in his corner, who is remaining with the team this weekend to help Vandoorne prepare for his maiden Grand Prix, he is in good hands.
The Sakhir track is a strong one for Vandoorne, and if he was going to make his debut anywhere he would probably have chosen Bahrain. After qualifying on pole for the GP2 season opener there last year, the Belgian lead from the lights before an early safety car put a cat amongst the pigeons, when those starting the race on the soft tyre compound pitted for a fresh set, whilst those on the harder compound, including Vandoorne, stayed out. The 24-year-old pushed hard to try and build up a gap to ensure he lost as little time as possible when he would eventually pit. When Vandoorne did go in to switch to the softs, the lead was duly taken over by Alexander Rossi, who was one of the early pitters. But the Belgian’s pace was supreme and he was soon making head way into the Racing Engineering driver’s lead. On the penultimate lap Vandoorne caught the American and swiftly made his move, taking back the lead and motoring to the finish line, taking victory with a five second gap to the next competitor.
Perhaps even more impressive however, was his GP2 debut back in 2014. Vandoorne made the best possible start to his campaign and set tongue’s wagging as he stormed to victory in the first race of the season. Having qualified second, Vandoorne took the lead from pole sitter Jolyon Palmer as the lights went out. Despite the deployment of the safety car and a race restart after a high speed crash at turn 4, Vandoorne was able to keep his lead, managing his tyres superbly to take the win with a 1.5 second lead.
Both these results show just how calm under pressure Vandoorne can be, and that he has a keen mind for strategy when things do not go according to plan during a race. All of this stands the Belgian in good stead for Sunday’s race, and signals that a strong showing should be on the cards for the 2015 GP2 champion this weekend.
The only factor that could put a dampener on Vandoorne’s debut is that he is likely to receive a five place grid penalty before he has even set a wheel on track, as Alonso’s car will receive a new PU for this weekend after his initial one was damaged beyond repair in Australia. It is a setback but just another obstacle that the cool, calm and collected Belgian will no doubt brush aside as he embarks on what could be one of the most important weekends of his life!
It has been confirmed that the 24-year-old will drive with the number 47 aboard his MP4-31.
It’s a new Vandoorne, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for Stoffel….and it feels good!