Q&A with McLaren Young Driver: Stoffel Vandoorne
We caught up with McLaren Young Driver and Formula Renault 3.5 championship contender, Stoffel Vandoorne, during his first grand prix attending as part of the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team. The 21-year-old Belgian racer, speaking at his home grand prix, let us in on everything from his season so far to how it feels to be part of the McLaren family.
This race, the 2013 Belgian Grand Prix, is the first grand prix you’ve attended as part of the McLaren team; how does it feel to pull the McLaren shirt on for your home grand prix?
SV: It feels fantastic to be in McLaren team kit, yeah! And of course it’s really nice to be here in Belgium, my home country, and really show my people that I’m part of the McLaren family. As I say, it’s my home grand prix – although I live totally on the opposite side of Belgium actually – and, although I’m not driving myself unfortunately, hopefully in the future there will be a chance for me to race in front of my home crowd in an F1 car.
Do you remember when you were presented with the opportunity to enter the McLaren Young Driver Programme? How did it come about?
SV: Yes, I remember the moment really well – it was more than two years ago now. My first contact with McLaren was with Matt Bishop [McLaren Group Head of Public Relations and Communications]. I was introduced to Matt by Alex Wurz, who I met when he [Wurz] was doing some work for the FIA Institute Young Driver Academy, which I was part of at the time. I have a lot of respect for Alex, by the way; he’s a very smart guy. Also, which was fortunate for me, Alex and Matt are old friends from when Alex used to be an F1 driver and Matt used to be an F1 journalist. Anyway, after I’d met Matt, I kept writing and emailing my Formula Renault 2.0 race reports to him, and he began to forward them on to Sam Michael [McLaren Sporting Director] and Phil Prew [McLaren Principal Race Engineer]. That was in the middle of 2011, as I say, and that was when my McLaren chapter first started. And, then, at the beginning of 2012, Matt invited me to the McLaren Technology Centre and introduced me in person to Sam and Phil – just a general chat – after which they all continued to follow my progress for the rest of the year. I still kept sending in my Formula Renault 2.0 race reports through, after every race and every test, now to Sam and Phil as well as to Matt. And, at the end of 2012, when I won the Formula Renault 2.0 championship, Sam called me and asked me if I wanted to join the McLaren Young Driver Programme. I said yes, of course, and I’ve now met Martin Whitmarsh quite a few times too. I want to say a big ‘thank you’ to Martin in particular: even though he’s really busy as McLaren’s F1 Team Principal, which is a massive job, he usually has time to say hi to me whenever I visit the McLaren Technology Centre, which is really nice of him. He’s a great guy.
Do you feel you’ve already gained real benefit from the McLaren Young Driver Programme so far?
SV: Yes, definitely. It’s a brilliant programme. Its purpose is to prepare young drivers for F1, from every point of view, and I’ve definitely gained a lot of benefit from it already, especially on the physical fitness side – they know exactly how fit you have to be to drive an F1 car. Over the six months I’ve been with McLaren I’ve made big progress in that area, and I’m confident that I can improve even further from now on too. Also, on the technical side, it’s really good to be having discussions with the McLaren engineers – to really learn about race engineering – as well as to just chat about racing with them in general. Once a driver arrives in F1, he simply doesn’t have the time to learn all those things, so that’s the main thing about the McLaren Young Driver Programme, to prepare young drivers so that they can get as ready as possible for their F1 careers. F1 is such a hard world that, the better you’re prepared, the better performance package you can deliver, the longer you’re going to stay in Formula 1, and the stronger results you can deliver on track.
You’re now managed by Richard Goddard, Jenson Button’s manager, aren’t you?
SV: Yes. Richard is a very wise and intelligent man, and he’s helped me a lot already. And, apart from Richard himself, it’s of course really nice that I’m in the same driver-management family as Jenson, who’s a brilliant driver who I have a massive amount of respect for.
What are your career ambitions?
SV: Like almost every single-seater racing driver, they want to be an F1 world champion. At the moment that’s still quite far away for me, I know that, but I’m trying to work my way up there. I’m currently driving in World Series by Renault 3.5, which is a very good formula. And this season is going quite well for me so far. So, hopefully, one day I’ll be able to take the step up to F1 and then be able to fight for an F1 world championship. But I’m certainly not under-estimating what a big task that will be.
Currently in the World Series by Renault 3.5 championship you’re battling at the top with Kevin Magnussen. From a McLaren fan’s perspective it’s very exciting to see – how does it feel to be going up against another member of the McLaren Young Driver Programme?
SV: That’s right: Kevin and I have had some really good battles on track this season, and we’re each other’s main rivals at the moment, and I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a very good driver. And, yes, probably it’s going to be a McLaren Young Driver who’s going to be the winner of the Formula Renault 3.5 championship this year, which is great for McLaren. Hopefully that’ll be me, of course! But, yes, Kevin has been and continues to be a really strong opponent this year, and I’ve had some great races with him. Kevin is in his second year of the series and I’m in my first, so maybe he has a little bit more pressure on his shoulders to win the championship, because of his greater experience in the 3.5-litre cars. But I don’t want to use that as an excuse because, although I’m only in my first year in the Formula Renault 3.5 championship, my goal is absolutely to win races and to try and win the championship first time out. At the moment I’m lying second in the championship table, but there’s still a lot to play for. So I’m sure that, if everything fits together for us, if I can continue to work well with everyone at the Fortec team, then everything is still possible and it can be possible for us to win the championship.
If you weren’t a racing driver, what would you be doing?
SV: I have no clue at all! I tried almost every sport but every time I stopped it because I enjoyed karting much more. I actually grew up with karting since I was six years old, so I don’t really know a different world than that, and I don’t really know what else I’d be doing without motor racing.
Are you a fan of any other sports?
SV: Yes, I’m a cycling fan. It was good to meet [leading Tour de France cyclist, from Belgium] Maxine Monfort at the Belgian Grand Prix – it was the first time I’ve met him and it’s really nice to meet people like that. And of course cycling is also one of my main training methods that I do, and I enjoy it very much.
Do you think it’s important to connect with racing fans?
SV: Yes, definitely, and I think social media is one of the key things a sports person has to do these days, especially in big sports. It doesn’t matter if it’s F1, tennis, golf, or whatever sport you’re talking about, it’s very important because it’s how you keep in touch with fans and it’s how you promote yourself these days. Almost everybody knows Twitter and Facebook, and it’s important to share your career with the fans on those platforms. So I’m pretty active on both Facebook and Twitter, actually.
Who’s your favourite driver of all time?
SV: Ayrton Senna.
And your favourite circuit?
SV: Spa, it has to be!