It would be hard to argue that so far, life after Formula 1 has worked out pretty well so far for Stoffel Vandoorne, but the Belgian has every reason to believe that with a Mercedes Formula E contract in his pocket, the best is yet to come.
In an exclusive interview with Inside Electric, Vandoorne reveals how his debut Formula E season was at times ‘painful’ and how his HWA team achieved respectability following their initially steep learning curve.
Rewind to September of 2016, and the 25-year-old Vandoorne’s future appeared at the time to be extremely bright. Having just been announced as Jenson Button’s replacement at McLaren, the Belgian would begin his F1 career alongside the enigmatic double champion Fernando Alonso. Who better to test yourself against?
Beat him and your future is set. Run him close, and you’ll live to fight another day but with a decent boost to your reputation.
Vandoorne’s stock at that time was high and he had every reason to feel confident going toe-to-toe against Alonso. He had little reason to anticipate the two years of intense struggle that would follow.
His GP2 title-winning season from 2015 was amongst the most dominant ever seen, and a year spent racing in Japan’s highly competitive Super Formula series served yet further to showcase his abilities.
The unfortunate truth is, that besides a few notable performances, Vandoorne’s F1 career was a disaster. The Belgian scored less than 20% of Alonso’s points during their time together, and he suffered the indignity of being out-qualified at every race in his final season.
Following the conclusion of the 2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a frustrated Vandoorne described his McLaren MCL32’s handling as “like a rally car” and his relief at reaching the season’s end was understandable to anyone who witnessed his struggles.
A racing driver’s career though can turn around quite quickly. Having been dropped by McLaren, Vandoorne finds himself now leading Mercedes’ Formula E challenge just two years on, and is involved in the German manufacturer’s F1 efforts too through his simulator work.
“Toto [Wolff] gave me a call, I think it was around Monza  and he asked if I would be interested to join HWA for the Formula E program,” said Vandoorne.
“When a team like that offers you this chance, you grab it with two hands. I didn’t really have to think about it.
“McLaren had an option on me, which obviously they didn’t take. My time in F1 was not easy, for various reasons, it was probably the worst timing to be at McLaren.
“It’s a shame that it didn’t work out, but that’s the way it is, I need to move on now and I’m just looking forward to a good future.”
Like most drivers who switch from F1 to Formula E, Vandoorne found the first few races challenging. Add to that his team, the Mercedes-affiliated HWA squad, were also finding their feet and it’s no surprise Vandoorne has a few interesting stories to tell from his first season in the all-electric championship.
“I remember being in Saudi [last season] and we had no clue basically what we were doing…
“I remember being in Saudi [last season] and we had no clue basically what we were doing. The mechanics were working until 4 or 5am, they had one hour of sleep before going into race day,” said Vandoorne.
“[We] made some mistakes. I remember in Santiago, we didn’t make it to the end of the pitlane in superpole so our lap got disqualified. It’s just small things which are actually very tricky when you’ve never done the championship before. Hopefully, we’ve been able to learn from that.”
With the HWA team effectively acting as a precursor to the new works Mercedes outfit, the majority of engineers and mechanics have stuck around and will now work together with staff from Mercedes’s Brixton-based powertrain division.
Vandoorne believes that those familiar faces this season will be a huge benefit to him as he expects that morphing from a customer team [using Venturi’s ZF-engineered powertrain] to becoming a fully-fledged manufacturer will bring with it a new set of challenges.
“We carry over a lot of things to this season, especially the experience. The technical core, the engineers that are running the cars, are familiar faces because they run the cars all of last year,” said Vandoorne.
“What is very different now is that we go from a customer status to a full manufacturer. That means the back end of our car is obviously a Mercedes HPP [Mercedes High-Performance Powertrain] so there’s a lot of new faces from that side.
“The people who’ve developed that powertrain and the software as well, it’s a whole new group of people which is another relationship that has to be established, that has to develop.”
Much has been said about Formula E’s steep learning curve in the past, and drivers with considerably more experience than Vandoorne have taken time to adapt. Even Jaguar, now frequent podium visitors, finished bottom of the team’s championship during their first season.
Vandoorne believes though that the ‘painful’ weekends he and the HWA team went through last season were necessary for everyone involved to get on top of Formula E.
With a brace of podium finishes crowning Mercedes’ remarkable debut weekend last month in Diriyah, it looks as though the likeable Belgian’s hard work and persistence may finally be about to pay off.
“I would say every weekend you learn. The first [races last season] were very tricky from both sides. We had a lot of technical failures, I made a few mistakes myself, a couple of crashes that hurt [the team’s] learning as well,” said Vandoorne.
“We had to run through those [difficult races] to really hit a bit of reset and come back stronger…
“We had to run through those to really hit a bit of reset and come back stronger. Rome [where Vandoorne finished third] was the first weekend we didn’t have any technical failures and straight away we were up there.
“It was painful at the start but towards the back end of the season we were consistently scoring points and more or less maximising the potential we had.”
A painful start indeed. After a demoralising end to his F1 career, it appeared Vandoorne’s wretched luck had carried through into Formula E. Four DNF’s and no points to show from his first six races was tough to take.
But that reset, as he recalls, came at a crucial time. Everything came together in Rome and a surprise podium finish kicked off a run of seven points finishes from the remaining nine races to leave Vandoorne with a respectable tally of 35 points by season’s end.
Now, with an ambitious and motivated rookie team-mate (recently crowned F2 champion Nyck de Vries) alongside him, Vandoorne feels that Mercedes are now relying on him to take those learnings and lead the team forward.
“I have a season of experience now with the team and for sure they are relying on me a lot for my feedback. I feel responsible in bringing Nyck up to speed too because it’s not an easy championship to come in and understand all the little tricks,” said Vandoorne.
Even though I had a huge amount of experience in motorsport with F1, Formula E is quite different…
“I realise now how different it is compared to last year. Even though I had a huge amount of experience in motorsport with F1, Formula E is quite different. I can focus on a lot of different things now in Formula E, more things than I used to focus on when I started in the series.
“I think it’s important for the team to progress [and that] we’re able to push each other. We see in a lot of the teams, two strong drivers help to make everything move forward.”
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