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Ready and waiting - exclusive Q&A with McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne

23 Sep 2016

McLaren’s much-lauded reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne will finally become a full-time F1 star next season when he partners Fernando Alonso in the British team’s race line-up. After showing what he can he do in his one-off (point scoring) outing in Bahrain earlier this year, Vandoorne now can’t wait to prove his potential over the course of an entire campaign…

Q: Stoffel, you have been a name known in the F1 paddock for quite some time now and finally you have been rewarded with a race seat at McLaren for 2017. Did you ever think that it would never happen?

Stoffel Vandoorne: No, never. Yes, of course, it is a big relief that finally in 2017 I will be a fully-fledged Formula One driver - that McLaren-Honda is giving me that opportunity. I have spent so much time with this team already and had a lot of success already in the junior series. The team has really been preparing me for Formula One for years - and now we both want to get rewarded.

Q: You could perhaps have been in the seat for the start of this season, but then Jenson Button stayed on. What kind of discussions did you have with the team about why they chose not to partner a rookie with Fernando Alonso for 2016? They’ve not been shy of such things in the past - think of Lewis Hamilton…

SV: I don’t know what discussions were going in behind the scenes, but I remember a year ago when I was finishing GP2 that, of course, there were a lot of rumours around that I might get the drive already for 2016. Alas it didn’t happen back then, but yes, I remember all the hype surrounding it. And to be honest I was a little disappointed at the beginning - it was a tough moment for me to understand that F1 would have to wait another year. But I kept my head cool and won the last two GP2 races that season and actually broke the record in that series. I knew it was best to give the answer on the track. Sure, time is always pressing in a driver’s career, so I knew it had to be next year - as it was probably my last chance of getting to F1.

Q: Your racing career followed a fairly normal path in Europe through to GP2, but then you headed east for a season in Japanese Super Formula. What was the thinking behind that? To gain popularity in Japan?

SV: Firstly, I’ve won almost everything in Europe, so what else was there to do? Secondly, McLaren tried to keep me busy - keep me in the racing loop. And thirdly, yes, the series is very popular in Japan and it got me close to the Japanese working procedures. McLaren and Honda is still a very recent cooperation and in that way it gave me the chance to work with Honda engineers and understand how they ‘tick’! (Laughs) I am sure that will help me in 2017. And probably, yes, to introduce me to the Japanese fans.

Q: Jenson will remain a member of the team next year - a three-driver line-up almost - and McLaren have left the door open for him to possibly return to the grid in 2018. Does that mean extra pressure for you? If you don’t perform Jenson is back in the cockpit again?

SV: No, I don’t see that situation as extra pressure. I have a long-term deal with McLaren. Hopefully we soon will be able to get back to the competitive level where McLaren used to be. In terms of next year, yes it is a special structure - but I think it is one of the best. Myself and Fernando are going to race - and then it is good to keep Jenson as well. He is the most experienced driver in F1 now and he will be involved with the team, be it in the simulator or coming to a few races.

Q: So there is no possibility that he could jump in the car?

SV: …at least that’s not what I am thinking at the moment, no. And I am fully thinking about the opportunity that I get - there is no room for non-issues. I want to succeed and am very much looking forward to that.

Q: There are big rule changes next season, and you will arrive on the grid in Melbourne with only a little more experience – just a few days of winter testing – than you have now. Is there any plan to get you in the cockpit once your season in Japan finishes at the end of October? You have a lot to learn…

SV: No such plan. And regarding the regulation changes next year, this is a probably a nice opportunity to perform well for me, as I don’t come with the ‘baggage’ of the old F1 car experience. But then F1 drivers are all so massively talented that any change will be immediately absorbed and implemented. The reality of F1 is that almost every race, cars are changing with updates - so drivers are used to that. And those who are right now in F1 are those who have shown that they can adapt very quickly - otherwise they wouldn’t be here. Actually when I think about it, yes, it could actually be a bit of an advantage for me to have a big reshuffle next year.

Q: It has no doubt been tough for you to sit on the F1 sidelines this year, but given McLaren’s performance, do you think it might have been a blessing in disguise? Poor results could have ‘burned’ your career…

SV: Ha, that is very difficult to answer. Fact is that I didn’t race this year - and fact is also that the team is improving massively - so let’s see what that makes the 2017 season. But for sure it is always better to join when the team is on the rise, no doubt about that.

Q: When you stepped in for Fernando in Bahrain you immediately finished in P10. Was that the final icing on the cake that secured your F1 career?

SV: I don’t know anything about final icing, (Laughs) but sure it helped. But I think it is fair to say that in everything I’ve raced before everybody was aware of my talent. But, sure, having had that opportunity has helped my chances because even if everybody knows that you are a very talented driver they still want to have proof of how you perform. And F1 is very different to anything else. And then there was how I handled the circumstances of getting the call at the very last minute - getting into Bahrain very late, in fact straight from the airport into the car - and then seeing how I worked. That was a big relief for the team - and for me! (Laughs) And the real icing was that I delivered the first points for the team this season!

Q: It is not easy to join an iconic team when they are struggling. Jenson has always been the perfect ‘salesman’ in McLaren’s difficult situation: he can almost always spin defeat into something positive. Do you have that quality - or do you hope it will not be needed in 2017?

SV: Ha, let’s wait until 2017 - to see if it is necessary, and if I have that gift. (Laughs)

Q: Coming into F1 racing is one thing - staying there is another. What is your master plan for that?

SV: Keep doing the job that I’ve always done. This is an environment where you have to perform and I am used to that demand. So no surprises in that respect. I had to win championships to move forward, otherwise I would not be here. You might say that I grew up in a pressure environment. Yes, F1 is a bit more in every respect, but I have enough self-confidence to know that I can handle it.