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.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”