Formula 1

Stoffel Vandoorne opens up on his tough stint with McLaren in F1 and his crossover to Formula E

When Stoffel Vandoorne stepped into the Formula One cockpit for the first time, there were high hopes the talented Belgian driver could become a future world champion.

Vandoorne held a mightiliy impressive CV heading into his F1 career, having already won the F4 Eurocup, Formula Renault Eurocup and GP2 series. 

It was time for the next step. In March 2016, the lightning-quick Vandoorne made his F1 debut for McLaren at the Bahrain Grand Prix after replacing the injured Fernando Alonso. And he immediately bolstered the hype surrounding him thanks to a 10th-placed finish – becoming the first reserve driver to score points on debut since Sebastian Vettel in 2007. 

Stoffel Vandoorne is looking to make a name for himself in Formula E after moving over from F1

Stoffel Vandoorne is looking to make a name for himself in Formula E after moving over from F1

Ahead of the 2017 season, it was announced that Vandoorne would be replacing Jenson Button in the McLaren hotseat – partnering formidable figure Alonso.

But things took a turn for the worst, and following just two seasons with McLaren, Vandoorne quickly found himself looking in from the outside again – and is now concentrating on making a success of it within Formula E.

Despite the anti-climax of his F1 career, Vandoorne harbours no regrets but does believe the timing in motor racing’s most illustrious format was all wrong for him.

‘I am very grateful that I have had the opportunity to be involved in F1, it is not a given to many drivers to have the opportunity to go and race there,’ Vandoorne exclusively told Sportsmail.

‘Just in terms of a timing perspective, it was probably the worst time to be there with McLaren. They were obviously in a difficult time. 

‘A lot of problems within the team, the car was not competitive, there was some politics on the management side going on. It was just not the ideal timing. 

‘I had so much support from McLaren from my junior series, and they really built my career let’s say. And they gave me the opportunity to race in F1, but I got the seat probably at the wrong time, and the performance was just not there.’

Behind the scenes, Vandoorne was fighting a losing battle amid turbulent times at McLaren – with the British-based constructor giants at war internally while they were also at odds with their engine-provider Honda.

The car wasn’t living up to the required standards, and as a result unreliability in the engine plagued Vandoorne’s and McLaren’s chances.

Furthermore, the presence of Alonso at McLaren made things a whole lot tougher for Vandoorne – with the great Spaniard expressing his grievances about spending his twilight days near the back of the grid.

Vandoorne endured a rather miserable time at McLaren in F1, lasting just two years in the seat

Vandoorne endured a rather miserable time at McLaren in F1, lasting just two years in the seat

Alonso was always viewed as the main man at McLaren, and Vandoorne’s head-to-head record against the Spaniard made for wretched reading.

And after just two full seasons in F1, McLaren decided to part ways with Vandoorne having finished a lowly 16th both times in the drivers’ championship.

But when one door closes, another one opens and Vandoorne has been getting his career back on track within Formula E – the all-electric racing series that is accelerating at a rapid pace.

Vandoorne has been racing in FE for three seasons now, currently representing Mercedes-EQ, while he is also on stand-by as a reserve driver for the German constructor’s F1 team.

The 29-year-old watches F1 from afar now on race days but due to his partnership with Mercedes, he still keeps a close eye on the drama that unfolds.

Mercedes have been second best to Red Bull for the majority of the season so far, but Lewis Hamilton’s triumph at Silverstone has dragged them back into the equation and he is hunting down Max Verstappen again.

And Vandoorne insists that Mercedes, who had lost the previous five Grands Prix to Red Bull, can never be written off.

‘It has been a very close fight,’ Vandoorne added. ‘Recently, Red Bull have been the better team to be honest. They have had a bit more performance than Mercedes. I think the regulation changes probably hurt Mercedes a bit more than it hurt Red Bull. 

‘But it is still a world championship winning team, and you can never forget them. They are a very strong group of people. I know there is a lot of effort going into this, and I think there will be races where they will still be the team to beat. But it is not going to be easy, it will be a very, very close fight between both of them for the remainder of the season.’

Vandoorne insists F1 giants Mercedes can never be written off in the constructors' title race

Vandoorne insists F1 giants Mercedes can never be written off in the constructors’ title race

Vandoorne is still clearly invested in F1, thanks to his partnership with Mercedes, but does he still see a future for himself in the sport many tipped him to become a star in?

‘I really see my future in FE to be honest. Obviously I am quite lucky to have both sides of the pie, with the reserve driver role and the FE side, so it is good to be involved in both. 

‘Basically my main focus is the FE programme, because that’s my racing programme. But it is still good to be involved in the F1 side because it has helped me to bring some of the knowledge into the FE team.

‘Mercedes are obviously a very established and successful team, and there are a lot of positives and experiences you can take away from there.’

The transition from F1 to FE certainly isn’t the easiest, and Vandoorne was quick to echo that sentiment.

The fuel-powered F1 machinery has obvious advantages in regards to top speed and pace on the straight circuits. 

F1 cars can reach a maximum speed of up to 230mph, while FE cars possess figures of approximately 174mph. The power unit output from F1 cars is substantially higher too.

But while F1 can boast about the speed and power of their cars, FE is making a challenge of it and isn’t going anywhere.

Since its inception in 2011, with the founding idea to race through the streets of the most iconic cities in the world, FE has grown from strength-to-strength and is continuing to attract a big audience thanks to finding a niche.

Vandoorne (L) admitted that he found the experience of driving a Formula E car 'bizarre' at first

Vandoorne (L) admitted that he found the experience of driving a Formula E car ‘bizarre’ at first

While the city circuits clearly appeal to fans, the interactive elements of FE are making the difference too.

One niche idea that FE has taken on board is the ‘Fanboost’, a remarkable innovation that sees a public vote determine which five drivers get an extra boost mid-race. 

Other unique ideas include ‘Attack Mode’ – a temporary power boost used by all drivers to make overtakes much more common – which is very similar to the addition of DRS in F1, while the Super Pole shoot-out adds a bit of extra spice with the top six drivers from qualifying proceeding to a single lap race to secure pole position and an additional three points.  

‘It is a massive difference,’ Vandoorne added when detailing the transition from F1 to FE. ‘The cars are completely different, and I would say the whole way you drive is quite bizarre. When you’re coming from all the junior series ranks, then you get to Formula One, every step you do kind of makes sense. Because every step up, the car has more power, more downforce, and the way of driving is very similar. 

‘Formula E is a lot different, like I had to learn how to brake again because we have the regen on the rear of the car, so we are basically not using rear brakes. We are using the regeneration of the motor to slow down the car. So that feeling is very strange in the beginning when all of your career, you have not used electric cars.’ 

Speaking about the innovative ideas in FE, like ‘Fanboost’ and the Super Pole shoot-out, that make the sport so unique, Vandoorne said: ‘It adds a lot of extra strategy to the race. Now I am used to that, but in the beginning I found it quite strange to deal with those things. 

‘But it has also been very interesting to see how different teams are dealing with it, how split the strategies can be. When you take Attack Mode, when you don’t take Attack Mode. It’s spicing up the racing let’s say.’

The Belgian has been in FE now for three years, and in just his second season, he was fighting at the top of the leaderboard – finishing second behind DS Techeetah’s runaway champion Antonio Da Costa.

Vandoorne celebrates after placing third in Rome in 2019 while racing for HWA Racelab, who have since rebranded to Mercedes-EQ

Vandoorne celebrates after placing third in Rome in 2019 while racing for HWA Racelab, who have since rebranded to Mercedes-EQ

Vandoorne has now established himself within FE, but it wasn’t the most straight-forward journey into the sport for him, starting out at the same time as the team he drove for in his debut season – HWA Racelab before their rebranding to Mercedes-EQ.

When asked whether it took him a long time to adapt to FE, Vandoorne replied: ‘The problem is I came into Formula E with HWA, and they were a complete new team as well. So I think the process probably could have gone quicker with a more established team, because they would have taught me from the word go how to drive the car. 

‘They would have had much more experience with the car set-up, whereas HWA was starting this project. I mean I perfectly knew what I was in for, trying to build a complete new team, starting from zero. 

‘There were weekends we got it right, and there were weekends where we got everything wrong basically. It was painful at times, but it also shows how far we have come as a team today with Mercedes.’

It has been some learning curve for Vandoorne, with many ups and downs along the way, and this season certainly hasn’t been easy.

Inconsistency has hurt Vandoorne’s and Mercedes’ chances, and heading into this weekend’s London meeting at the Royal Docks and ExCeL London exhibition centre – – which is the world’s first indoor/outdoor race – the 29-year-old is languishing in 13th.

But with four races remaining, the final two coming in Berlin in the middle of August, there is definitely the chance for him to rise up in what is turning out to be a bunched up leaderboard – with just 22 points separating Vandoorne in 13th and third place.

Whatever the outcome though, Vandoorne is relishing his new chapter in FE and has put his F1 demons firmly behind him.

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