Stoffel Vandoorne: why winning is everything
At McLaren we want to win every race we enter. But what’s it like when winning isn’t just something you want to do, but something you have to do?
Few drivers appreciate that quite like Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren’s new reserve driver. Lacking a big-name sponsor for his early single seater campaigns meant that he had to win – and keep winning – in order to progress.
“I’ve had to get the results because I needed the prize money every time to take the next step,” he says. “McLaren have been a great help since I joined the Young Driver Development Programme last year; I’ve learned a lot and matured.”
Like all modern racing drivers, Stoffel started out in karts – “A long time ago! I was about six years old,” he says. Not that long ago, then – he’s only 21…
“My family doesn’t really have a motorsport history, my dad is an architect – and he designed the restaurant at a karting track. So we knew the boss pretty well and it was him who first put me in a kart – a mini-kart, obviously, because I was very small at the time! And I fell in love with it from the first moment. Every time my dad went there for his work I wanted to go there with him and drive.
“From there on I started making progress, doing some races, and I won quite a few of them. I moved quite late into Auto Karting because we didn’t have much money for racing at the time, but we found some sponsorship. I did two serious years in that, winning the Belgian Championship and then I finished second in the World Championship.”
Stoffel confirmed as 2014 reserve driver
Even so, funds to make the transition to single-seater car racing weren’t immediately forthcoming. With the global economy in retrenchment, few companies were willing or able to support up-and-coming drivers. But at the end of 2009 an opportunity arrived in the form of a competition organised by the Royal Automobile Club Belgium: the prize, which Stoffel won, was a funded drive in a European race series.
For 2010 Stoffel took a place in the Auto Sport Academy, a prestigious French racing school formerly known as La Filière – the very establishment that promoted the likes of Alain Prost to superstardom.
“I won the F4 Eurocup 1.6,” he says, “and used the prize money to pay for the following year in Formula Renault 2.0, where I finished third in the Northern European Championship. For 2012 I joined the team that had won the Eurocup the year before [Josef Kaufmann Racing] and I won that title – 2012 was a very successful year – which helped me make the step into Formula Renault 3.5.
Last year Stoffel joined the McLaren Young Driver Development Programme, having been introduced via former McLaren third driver Alex Wurz.
“I was part of the FIA Institute Young Driver Excellence Academy, in which Alex is one of the performance managers,” he says. “I got to know him there and he introduced me to Matt [Bishop, McLaren Group Head of Communications and PR] and I began to send them my Formula Renault race reports, which Matt then forwarded to Sam [Michael, McLaren Racing Sporting Director]. That’s how the relationship with McLaren began and it’s going pretty well so far. They followed me for about a year before deciding to take me on.”
Profile: Stoffel Vandoorne
In 2013 Stoffel finished runner-up to fellow McLaren Young Driver Development Programme member Kevin Magnussen in Formula Renault 3.5, setting up a move to the GP2 Series, Formula 1’s main feeder championship, this year. But that doesn’t mean the pressure is off. To get that coveted F1 break he has to beat a full grid featuring the best new talent motor racing can offer – all of whom are equally determined to reach F1.
“I think it’s important to have that pressure to win while you’re moving through your career,” says Stoffel, “because when you get to the top, to Formula 1, if you drive for a team like McLaren you’re expected to win and to challenge for the World Championship.
“I prefer it that way. I always want to be on the top step of the podium because it’s an amazing feeling. It’s so difficult to describe – but when you lose, you really feel it, you just can’t live with it.”