Where does Stoffel Vandoorne feature in McLaren’s future?

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Amid all of the speculation about McLaren’s driver line-up for the 2015 Formula 1 season, Stoffel Vandoorne appears to be something of a forgotten man. The Belgian has quietly gone about his business during his rookie GP2 season, currently ranking third in the championship with two wins to his name, but where does he feature in the future of his parent team, McLaren?

The seats at Woking are currently coming under a great deal of scrutiny ahead of Honda’s return as an engine supplier in 2015. This new partnership is intended to take both brands back to their glory days of the late 1980s; a much needed change for McLaren after two disappointing seasons.

The phenomenon that is silly season has a tendency to circle around one team or driver. In 2012, it was Lewis Hamilton. 2013 saw Kimi Raikkonen take a turn as the center of attention. This time around, it’s McLaren and Fernando Alonso who share the honors: will they or won’t they join forces for 2015?

Alonso does have a firm contract with Ferrari for next season, but the Spaniard is rumored to have an out clause if the team finishes lower than third in the constructors’ championship. With Williams hot on the Italian marque’s heels, this could yet be triggered. Then again, other paddock speculation has suggested that he may be set for a huge pay rise to commit to the team. Luca di Montezemolo simultaneously denied both stories earlier this week.

It is common knowledge that both McLaren and Honda want a big name driver to spearhead their joint charge. What is unclear is whether or not both parties are willing to wait until 2016 to secure this. Next year may be a bit too soon to get Alonso or Sebastian Vettel – who has apparently been subject to an “outrageously high” offer – on board. There will be exclusivity, but there may also be the unavoidable teething problems that come with any new partnership.

The Alonso-to-McLaren rumor is one that I, like many, have been following closely for some time. Earlier this year, I confidently said that I was 95% sure that he wouldn’t race for the British team in 2015. I’m now a little less sure following conversations in the paddock, but if I had to put my money on a line-up at Woking for next year, it would still be for the same again: Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen.

Beyond that? Who knows. However, Vandoorne will be hoping to make himself a firm part of the future of McLaren.

Like Magnussen, Stoffel is a McLaren junior that has been nurtured by the team for some time. The Belgian has impressed in every series that he has raced in, finishing second in last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 championship behind – of all people – Magnussen. For a rookie campaign, it was very impressive, but instead of gunning for glory in 2014, McLaren opted to move him across to GP2.

Vandoorne made a sensational start, winning on his debut in Bahrain, and has put in a number of impressive performances since then. When he claimed that win in Sakhir, many of the top figures at McLaren – Ron Dennis, Eric Boullier, Sam Michael – came down to the podium to congratulate him. Clearly, his stock within the team is high.

So surely the plan must be to replace Button with Vandoorne when the Briton opts to retire? It really does depend on how McLaren sees its future with Honda. Would it be worth spurning one of its proteges, either Magnussen or Vandoorne, for a few years with Alonso? Or a longer term deal with Vettel? Or perhaps even Valtteri Bottas? According to two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen, the Finn is also in McLaren’s sights.

It’s the issue of having ‘too much talent’ (if such a case exists). Last season, Sergio Perez was dumped by McLaren after just one season. Then-team principal Martin Whitmarsh tried to soften the blow by saying that if the team had three seats, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Checo has since gone on to Force India, and told us that the move was a ‘blessing in disguise’ earlier this year.

McLaren and Honda will need to sit down and decide the direction in which they want to take the team. Is it worth gambling on a big name to throw away a young and talented driver?

Whatever the team’s future, be sure to keep an eye on Stoffel Vandoorne. He has the makings of something very special.

IMSA: Rolex 24 Team Preview – GTLM

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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MotorSportsTalk’s Kyle Lavigne continues the team preview of entries for the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class. At nine entries, it is the smallest of the three classes entered in this weekend’s Rolex 24 and down from last year’s 11 entries, but past events indicate it may be the event’s most competitive class.

The 2017 Rolex 24 saw four different marques from four different teams battling for the GTLM win late in the race, with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing taking the win with Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais. And in 2016, Corvette Racing saw its No. 3 and 4 entries duel to the checkered flag, with Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, and Marcel Fassler victorious in the No. 4 machine.

Below is a breakdown of the teams entered in the GTLM class.

Corvette Racing
Car: Corvette C7.R
No. 3 (Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia, Mike Rockenfeller)
No. 4 (Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, Marcel Fassler)

Outlook: Corvette Racing has been a perennial powerhouse in GT racing over the entirety of the 21st century, and that isn’t something that’s likely to change. Coming off their 13th championship last year – Garcia and Magnussen took home last year’s GTLM driver’s crown – Corvette Racing now hunts for its fourth Rolex 24 triumph.

With an unchanged package that is proven to be both fast and reliable, Corvette Racing looks set to again feature prominently in the GTLM battle. Barring problems, both cars should be battling up front for the win.

BMW Team RLL
Car: BMW M8 GTLM
No. 24 (Jesse Krohn, John Edwards, Nicky Catsburg, Augusto Farfus)
No. 25 (Alexander Sims, Connor De Phillippi, Bill Auberlen, Philipp Eng)

Outlook: Of all the GTLM entries, BMW Team RLL sees by far the most change to its program. Out is the M6 GTLM and in is the brand new M8 GTLM. Jesse Krohn, Nicky Catsburg, Augusto Farfus, Philipp Eng and Connor De Phillippi are all new drivers to the team, while veteran Bill Auberlen will only contest the four Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018.

At the Roar Before the 24, the program appeared to lack speed. Sunday qualifying, to decide pit stall and garage selection, saw the No. 25 qualify the better of the two BMWs, but one second slower than the next quickest car – the BMW set a 1:45.056 for seventh in GTLM, behind the Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, which set a 1:44.037.

It remains to be seen if there is more speed in the BMW machines, but they remain the most unproven of the GTLM entries. A victory seems out of reach at the moment, but that could change if the package improves.

Risi Competizione
Car: Ferrari 488 GTE
No. 62 (Toni Vilander, Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Davide Rigon)

Outlook: Risi Competizione came excruciatingly close to winning last year’s Rolex, but a late-race battle between James Calado and Dirk Mueller, of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, saw Mueller come out on top, while Calado was shuffled back to third by the time the checkered flag fell.

They did not win an event last year, but this is a team that knows how to win big races – they have previously won the Motul Petit Le Mans – and should once again prove to be a major player in the GTLM battle.

The only major change comes in their driver lineup, with Alessandro Pier Guidi and David Rigon joining the lineup and Giancarlo Fisichella departing. But, with Calado and Toni Vilander returning to anchor the driving team, this change is not expected to slow the team down. Expect them to battle at the front all race long.

Ford Chip Ganassi Racing
Car: Ford GT
No. 66 (Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, Sebastien Bourdais)
No. 67 (Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook, Scott Dixon)

Outlook: Ford Chip Ganassi Racing returns to the Rolex 24 as defending race winners – Hand, Mueller, and Bourdais delivered the victory in 2017. Further, they return with the same driver lineups and car they used. In short, every indication is that they enter this year’s event as favorites to repeat.

The Roar Before the 24 gave further evidence of this. Both of the cars were among the quickest in every session at the Roar, and Sunday qualifying saw its No. 66 end up at the top of the board, with the No. 67 in third.

The GTLM field is strong all the way around, but this team is likely the favorite entering the event.

Porsche GT Team
Car: Porsche 911 RSR

No. 911 (Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy, Frederic Makowiecki)
No. 912 (Laurens Vanthoor, Earl Bamber, Gianmaria Bruni)

Outlook: Porsche GT Team brings with it a star-studded driver lineup that features former class winners of the Rolex 24, former overall winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and a ton of all-around talent.

The team finished a close second at last year’s Rolex 24, with the No. 911 entry, behind the race-winning Ford from Chip Ganassi’s stable. Later that year, they visited victory lane – Porsche finished 1-2 at Lime Rock Park, with the No. 911 taking the victory – proving that the mid-engine 911 RSR is more than up to the task and gives the team everything they need to be contenders.

Porsche will have a fight on their hands, but this is a team that expects to compete for a victory, and they did win this event in 2014. They round out a titanic GTLM grid and should be a fixture throughout the day.

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