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Peers predicting strong debut for Vandoorne

01 Apr 2016

The spotlight will remain firmly on McLaren when Friday’s running begins at Sakhir, after Fernando Alonso’s broken ribs from his Melbourne accident grabbed headlines yesterday. Replacing him for the weekend is the team’s highly-rated reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne.

Vandoorne will arrive hotfoot at the Bahrain International Circuit after an overnight flight from Tokyo, following his call-up from McLaren to stand in - and make his F1 debut - for the injured Spaniard.

Two men who know the Belgian GP2 champion well are Renault’s Jolyon Palmer and McLaren team mate Jenson Button. Both rate him highly, and suggest he could not make his debut on a better track.

“I was on pole for the GP2 race here in 2014, but he won it easily,” Palmer said. “He got ahead at the start and blew me away.”

As Palmer lagged with wheelspin, Vandoorne burst his ART car into a lead he only lost during his pit stop, leaving Palmer to an afternoon of fighting back into contention. The Briton, who went on to win that year’s GP2 championship, had to be content with third place, behind runner-up Julian Leal.

“Stoffel is without question the best driver I have raced against,” Palmer continued, “and I really hope that we can be in a position to go wheel-to-wheel again this weekend.”

Last year Vandoorne got his GP2 campaign with ART Grand Prix off to the best possible start in Bahrain with a dramatic victory after overtaking erstwhile leader Alex Rossi with a lap to go, and repeated in Sunday’s Sprint race. That helped set him up for his subsequent title run.

Palmer’s Renault boss Frederic Vasseur, who ran Vandoorne at ART Grand Prix, said of him, “He is the best driver I have ever had in my team.”

And that from a man who also ran Lewis Hamilton, now a three-time F1 world champion…

“He will be a very busy boy this weekend,” Button said. “We have an awful lot of work to get through, but he knows this track really well and won here in 2014 and again last year.

"He's worked with this team a lot and he has tested quite a bit so he understands the car, he understands the team and the way of working. He hasn't driven this car yet, so hopefully he can learn quickly and we can trust in his feedback. It's very important that we have both cars running to use the information for qualifying and the race.

"He'll be all right, there'll be a couple of things which are tricky but they will run through those on Friday and Saturday. The good thing for him is that there is no real pressure on him this weekend.”

McLaren race director Eric Boullier was also optimistic.

“He is fit and very well prepared, and was going well in Super Formula testing this week with the Dandelion-Honda and had set the third fastest time. He knows this track very well, and I am sure he will do an excellent job for us.”

Former McLaren racer Kevin Magnussen also had good things to say.

"He is good enough to be in Formula One so he will have a good race I'm sure," the Dane said. “I know he deserves to be here so I'm happy to see he got a shot.”

The only downside is that because he is taking over the MP4-31 built around a new tub and powertrain for Alonso, Vandoorne will likely take a five-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Alonso admitted that he is disappointed not to be able to race, but pledged to help Vandoorne all he can.

“The team told me, ‘You will fly back home,’ and I said ‘No way,’” Alonso revealed. “I want to hear the cars, I want to help Stoffel, I want to see the new updates in the car, how they work, so they are completely fine on that.”