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.