Upon joining McLaren’s junior driver programme in 2013 Stoffel Vandoorne moved a step closer to achieving the dream of every young racing driver: becoming a Formula One world champion.
When he was installed as McLaren’s test driver in 2016 and then Fernando Alonso’s team-mate in 2017, it seemed that perhaps the hardest part of the journey, where so many other thousands fail, had been navigated. He was not only on the grid, but at one of the sport’s iconic teams.
But it was a fairytale that quickly descended into a nightmare.
“The two years I raced for McLaren were probably, for the team, the two worst years they have had in history,” Vandoorne tells City A.M.
“I was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but on the other hand, they gave me the opportunity to race in Formula One, they supported me a lot during my junior career.
“Nearly everything was perfect. I won nearly all the championships before F1, McLaren were on the way up before I joined, it looked like everything was going in the right direction, but it didn’t turn out that way.”
The team were plagued by performance and reliability issues during the Belgian’s time there, and a change from Honda to Renault engines in the 2018 season exposed technical and aerodynamic issues with the car that could no longer be blamed on the power unit.
The lack of progress was enough to make former world champion Alonso call time on his F1 career, but Vandoorne was not kept on either.
In his first season the Belgian tallied 13 points, just four fewer than Alonso, but in 2018 he was further adrift with 12 compared to the Spaniard’s 50.
It was a tough first taste of F1, but the cause of the team’s failure rested more with the management than the drivers.
“During my time at McLaren there was a lot of change,” the 27-year-old says. “When the team doesn’t perform, the management always changes and that’’s been the case over the past couple of years. It’s just part of the business. People get turned around, especially in times where results aren’t coming.”
The departure of Ron Dennis at the end of 2016 signified the start of huge change for the team, with the long-serving Dennis replaced by current chief executive Zak Brown.
Last season Brown blamed a lack of communication between senior figures for the team’s shortcomings and has this year appointed a number of high-profile new personnel, including James Key as technical director, Gil de Ferran as sporting director and Pat Fry as head of engineering.
Results are not expected to be instant, and McLaren’s farcical failure to even qualify for the Indy500 last month, scuppering Alonso’s latest attempts to claim motor racing’s Triple Crown, suggest that there are still some underlying issues within the set-up.
Vandoorne has moved on to pastures new, although he has not given up on his Formula One dream yet.
“I would have preferred to have a chance in better circumstances, and yes, in a way I would like to have a second chance” he says.
“But Formula One is not a specific target, I don’t want to return at any cost. If an opportunity comes up, I’ll evaluate it, but I don’t think there are many opportunities that will give me a better position than the one I have now.”
The 27-year-old is currently racing for German outfit HWA in Formula E and all but guaranteed to keep his seat when the team morphs into Mercedes next season.
He is also eyeing up the possibility of competing in the World Endurance Championship simultaneously as he bounces back from his F1 stint.
While that remains merely an idea, this week he is due to make his debut in the Le Mans 24 hours, the series’ most notorious race and final of the season.
Vandoorne is replacing Jenson Button at SMP Racing and last month had his first foray into the series with a six-hour endurance race at Spa, where his team finished third.
“Spa was the first time I jumped in the car, so it was a big learning curve before Le Mans,” he says.
“It will be a huge experience. It’s a very long week – almost two weeks – and exhausting. A lot of people say come race day they are tired, so my priority is to make sure I don’t have too much on my plate.”
His team are aiming for another podium finish as a realistic target, with the two Toyotas, one of which will be driven by Alonso, “in a league of their own”.
It will round off a year of new challenges for Vandoorne, who describes a Formula E car as “very different to anything you grow up with” and will this weekend race a sports car with two team-mates.
Just as McLaren have began building for the future with new management and drivers, Vandoorne is also getting his career back on track.