Eric Boullier on Stoffel Vandoorne
On the eve of the 2014 GP2 season, McLaren’s Racing Director, Eric Boullier, previews the chances of McLaren’s Young Driver Programme member, Stoffel Vandoorne.
Stoffel will drive his first GP2 race of the season – and of his career – here in Bahrain this weekend. How do you think he’ll get on?
“Obviously, no-one can predict the future, even the near future, so I don’t know. Having said that, Stoffel did pre-season GP2 testing last month, in Abu Dhabi [March 11-13] and also here in Bahrain [March 19-21], so I’m sure he’ll be in the mix.”
What particular challenges do debutant GP2 drivers face?
“As you say, Stoffel is a debutant GP2 driver, but he’s always succeeded in every race series he’s turned his hand to in the past, so I’m sure he’ll succeed in GP2 also. This time a year ago [April 6, 2013], for instance, he was a debutant World Series by Renault 3.5 driver, and he won his first race from pole position, at Monza, which was a massively impressive achievement for a World Series by Renault 3.5 rookie. I’m not saying he’ll do that again here in Bahrain in GP2; no, what I’m saying is that he’s a fast learner, which is what you need to be when you’re embarking on a new series. Specifically, this year, he’ll have to adapt to the characteristics of the Pirelli tyres, because World Series by Renault 3.5 cars use Michelin tyres, and the Pirellis used by GP2 cars and Formula 1 cars demand a significantly different in-cockpit approach.”
You say Stoffel is a fast learner – will he learn how to drive on Pirellis quickly?
“As I say, Pirellis demand a significantly different in-cockpit approach [from Michelins], but Stoffel is technically minded, and methodical in his thinking, and he’s been working very hard with his team, ART, to get to grips with them.”
You mentioned ART – will they be competitive this year?
“ART’s team principal, Frédéric Vasseur, is very capable and experienced, as are all his staff, in particular Sébastien Philippe [team manager] and Guillaume Capietto [technical director]. By their own very high standards they haven’t enjoyed quite as much GP2 success in recent years as perhaps they’d have liked, but they’ve always been there or thereabouts – they finished fifth last year, second in 2012, fifth in 2011 and third in 2010. But they know how to win: they won the inaugural GP2 championship with Nico [Rosberg] in 2005, and followed that up with a second GP2 championship the following year with Lewis [Hamilton], and in 2009 they won the GP2 championship again, with Nico [Hulkenberg].”
Rosberg, Hamilton and Hulkenberg have all gone on to successful Formula 1 careers – can Stoffel do the same?
“Questions like that are peremptory and therefore unhelpful, to be frank. I always say to young drivers, ‘Don’t try to run before you can walk.’ So all I’ll say now is that Stoffel has all the natural ability and personality traits required, and, if he gets the breaks as well, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t go all the way.”
Is he McLaren’s reserve driver in Bahrain?
“No, because he’ll be too busy racing in GP2 – not one race but two – and we want him to be able to focus on both those races without being distracted by his McLaren duties. So our reserve driver here in Bahrain will be Oliver [Turvey]. We’re very fortunate at McLaren to have great strength in depth as far as test drivers are concerned – don’t forget that in addition to Stoffel and Oliver we also have Gary [Paffett], who’s a hugely successful DTM driver in his own right, having won no fewer than 20 DTM races over the years as well as winning the DTM championship in 2005. But Stoffel will be McLaren’s reserve driver for the Chinese Grand Prix, where there won’t be any GP2 races, and for many other 2014 grands prix besides.”
What do the duties of a McLaren reserve driver entail?
“Well, first of all, they entail what it says on the tin, to coin a phrase: in the unlikely and undesirable event that Jenson [Button] or Kevin [Magnussen] should be injured or otherwise indisposed, our reserve driver would take over. All Formula 1 teams have reserve drivers for that very reason, but, thankfully, because Formula 1 is so safe these days, they’re very rarely called upon to take over. But, despite that, they’re very busy during grand prix weekends: in Stoffel’s case, especially as he’s so technically minded, he makes very valuable contributions to all our technical meetings and debriefs, in an effort to optimise car set-up for both Jenson and Kevin. McLaren’s engineers really like working with him, in fact.”
Has Stoffel driven the McLaren simulator?
“He has, yes, many times. It’s one of his prime duties, in fact. Some drivers, even experienced drivers, tend not to enjoy simulator work, but Stoffel enjoys it and does it well. Just the other day I saw that he’d tweeted as follows: ‘I spent my day on the @McLarenF1 simulator, doing what I love most: driving.’ It was his birthday. He’s utterly committed to his simulator work, be in no doubt of that.”
Will he do some of McLaren’s in-season testing?
“Again, yes, he will, and again it’ll be one of his prime duties this year. In fact he’ll be testing the McLaren MP4-29 here in Bahrain next week – his first Formula 1 test – and I’m sure he’ll acquit himself very well.”
Follow Stoffel on Twitter on @svandoorne.