Vandoorne's path to the brink of Formula 1

Vandoorne's path to the brink of Formula 1

15 October 2015 – Last weekend, McLaren protégé Stoffel Vandoorne secured the 2015 GP2 crown at Sochi Autodrom in Russia. GPUpdate.net charts the Belgian's time in the series, which has put him on the brink of Formula 1.

Stoffel Vandoorne did not just win this year's GP2 Series, he dominated it. He crushed opponents in what has been a strong year for the category by blending speed, precision and racing nous to near-perfection in a championship where such traits are difficult to achieve.

Vandoorne sprinted to victory on his GP2 debut in Bahrain last year but a few errors and strategic blunders left him and his ART Grand Prix team trailing DAMS rival Jolyon Palmer, who deservedly won the crown.

Nonetheless, Vandoorne was the man to beat from the mid-point of the season and was unquestionably the most impressive rookie since Nico Hülkenberg's 2009 triumph in the pre-Pirelli, experience-heavy era, pipping F1-bound Felipe Nasr to become Vice-Champion.

Vandoorne began 2015 as the favourite, but few anticipated that he would deliver on McLaren's request to not just win but dominate the championship.

Vandoorne commenced his season with four straight Feature Race wins – none of them simply a 'cruise and collect' drive – and backed them up with a trio of Sprint Race podiums. Only one more win has followed in the 11 races since, his sought-after home victory in Belgium, yet in that period he amassed six podiums and finished outside of the points just once, when ART missed the sweet spot at Silverstone.

ART team manager Sébastien Philippe has overseen Vandoorne's spell at the French outfit and believes that the 23-year-old is a special talent.

"If you look at his racing career, and what he has done since the beginning, I'm not sure there are a lot of drivers who have shown that much," Philippe explained to GPUpdate.net.

"He has been winning races in all categories he has been in, winning races on all tracks, and finished runner-up in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2 in his first year, which I think is amazing."

Vandoorne was an instant front-runner in GP2 though a period of tricky results followed his initial success. Philippe points out that the nuances of Pirelli's tyres, with Vandoorne having been accustomed to different Michelin rubber in Formula Renault categories, was one factor which led to a period of adaption.

"A long time ago when you had a driver like Lewis [Hamilton] winning in his first year in GP2 [with ART in 2006], it was not the same, because now you have drivers with three or four years of experience," he explains.

"At the beginning he [Vandoorne] was there. He won his first race with us. But you need to adapt to the tyres and everything. It took, let's say, five races at the beginning of last year to know each other, for him to know the team, for us to know Stoffel and to bring everything together.

"The first half of last season was already great for a beginner. Then from last summer he has been always at the front. Stoffel almost did it [win the title] last year, and I think without some small mistakes from the team or him, we could have done it already last year."

Along with the speed, Vandoorne's consistency in a single-spec championship, which includes reverse grids and a propensity for contact, has been remarkable.

Vandoorne has never qualified outside of the top 10 and only once this year – in a wet, split-group Monaco session – has he missed out on a front row berth. 

Such consistency has also been in evidence in race-trim. Vandoorne has started 40 races in the category and has finished every one of them. Out of 20 Feature Races he has finished outside of the points in only two. Of the remaining 18, eight have been victories, another seven have been podiums and two of the three others would have been but for pit-stop problems. He has finished all of the 1128 racing laps since the start of 2014.

"We can be only impressed by what he has done, particularly in qualifying, and consistency with race results," says Philippe. "He finished all the races, qualified on pole or the front row, making many podiums.

"I think the main thing is that he is strong in almost each compartment of what you need in a driver. He is fast, consistent, clever, strong under pressure, good with feedback. I think his main quality is that he doesn't have a lot of weak points!"

Vandoorne has only had car-damaging contact once at a race weekend (when running into a rival led to a broken front wing in Bahrain last year) and it is this aspect of his approach, in a series often maligned for contact, which astounds Philippe.

"He had a very small crash at the beginning of last year in the first test in Abu Dhabi, and I think this was the first and last time he has spun or went out of the track!" Philippe explains.

"This is really strong from him, being able to keep this pace without making any mistakes. It is really unbelievable what he has done. He has also been very strong to bring all the team with him, building a very nice relationship with his engineer. I can say only good things on him!"

Unfortunately for Vandoorne his prospects of becoming the first GP2 Champion to graduate to Formula 1 since Romain Grosjean in 2012 appear slim. McLaren has opted to retain Jenson Button alongside Fernando Alonso while only Manor Marussia, newly aligned with Mercedes, has possible vacancies.

Having guided Vandoorne to the title, Philippe is frustrated that the youngster's progress could be stunted.

"It would be a huge disaster if Stoffel was not going to be in Formula 1 next year, after doing such a great job in the categories under Formula 1," he adds. "If he cannot go into Formula 1, there is something wrong. It would be a disaster and unfair.

"We know how hard it is, and all the doors are closing at the moment, so I'll be very disappointed if this is not going to happen. Until it is all over, we need to remain optimistic for him – I wish him all the best."

Vandoorne reciprocated the feeling towards ART, having spent two reputation-enhancing years with the tightly-knit squad.

"To be crowned with two rounds to spare, it shows all the work we've done this season and how good it's been together with ART," he comments.

"We've achieved great things over the past two years. We've broke nearly all the records this season. It's one that I will definitely remember forever."

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