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Formula 1

A driver F1 gave up on is its biggest ‘what if’ right now

by Matt Beer
5 min read

Next weekend, Stoffel Vandoorne will commence his Formula E world championship defence in Mexico with new employer DS Penske.

His FE champion predecessor and former Mercedes FE team-mate Nyck de Vries won’t be lining up on the grid with him. He’s got a first full Formula 1 season to prepare for with AlphaTauri.

De Vries getting an F1 chance is no injustice given his record.

Vandoorne never getting one again actually would be.

Nyck de Vries Stoffel Vandoorne Formula E Mercedes

Given De Vries has gone from being seemingly written off by F1 to being fought over by teams and Nico Hulkenberg is back in F1 after three seasons on the sidelines, it’s certainly not impossible to imagine Vandoorne, even though he’s now 30, getting a grand prix racing re-call.

But when asked at the FIA prize-giving gala last month about that prospect, Vandoorne didn’t exactly launch into rampant self-promotion.

“It’s hard to judge,” he began. “Obviously I’ve had a good season and then suddenly people start to talk about you again.

“I’ve had my opportunity in Formula 1. And not only myself but I think a lot of people in the Formula E paddock and some other championships deserve to have a chance in Formula 1.”

Diplomatic, and true up to a point. But too much of Vandoorne’s career has been too good for the entirety of his F1 story to be two seasons in a troubled McLaren team that peaked with a pair of seventh places.

What really puts the unanswered question of whether Vandoorne still has more to offer F1 into focus is not just De Vries’ AlphaTauri deal but how much excitement there was around him following his Monza stand-in heroics for Williams.

The standout elements of Vandoorne and De Vries’ CVs are the same: a GP2/F2 title and a Formula E title.

Stoffel Vandoorne GP2 ART

But Vandoorne’s GP2 crown was in his second year in the series (after he had already been runner-up in his first), by a ludicrously dominant 160-point margin. De Vries needed three F2 seasons to become champion, and wasn’t anywhere near as dominant when he did.

De Vries’ Formula E title came in the most randomised year of all as the qualifying system proved unfit for purpose by 2021. Vandoorne’s came in arguably the most meritocratic FE year yet, and – while this is always hard to judge given FE’s built-in mayhem – he was the more impressive of the pair across their three Mercedes seasons together.

None of that is intended to denigrate De Vries. He earned his F1 chance. But the fact that he did is the best evidence that Vandoorne deserves another one.

Yes, his 2017/18 seasons at McLaren were a crushing disappointment given the majesty of his junior career and how impressive his one-off stand-in drive F1 debut for McLaren had been in Bahrain in 2016. The 21-0 qualifying blitz by team-mate Fernando Alonso, who also outscored him 50-12, in 2018 was damning.

But Vandoorne was going up against the ultra-experienced Alonso in a pair of difficult McLarens that required him to repeatedly try to rewire his whole driving style while still getting to grips with F1. Perhaps Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren experience puts Vandoorne’s into a different perspective, too.

Stoffel Vandoorne Fernando Alonso McLaren F1

As Edd Straw explained in forensic detail after Vandoorne’s FE title was clinched, his F1 failure was not unjust as such. Vandoorne didn’t, at the time, have the right attitude or approach to find the best way through the problems he faced. Four seasons of working with a manufacturer of Mercedes’ calibre later, maybe he would.

The Mercedes situation does offer a caveat in the ‘case for Vandoorne’ we’re trying to make here. He was in its simulator often enough for Mercedes to form a judgement about him. It put George Russell in the car in preference to Vandoorne when Lewis Hamilton was COVID-sidelined for the 2020 Sakhir GP. It hasn’t engineered him a race seat at any of its customer F1 teams. Was he too useful to Mercedes in Formula E? Or did it have enough evidence to share McLaren’s conclusion about Vandoorne’s potential?

It was typical of Vandoorne’s character that his answer to a question that was effectively ‘surely you deserve to be in F1 right now’ was ‘lots of people do’. But he has to be the biggest F1 ‘what if’ of all those people.

Wishing no ill at all on Alonso or Lance Stroll at all, it’s good that Vandoorne still has a foot in F1 for 2023 as Aston Martin’s reserve – and a stand-in outing there would probably offer all the evidence required to answer that ‘what if’ question.

Vandoorne admits “obviously the first run would be a little bit tricky” if he did get out in Aston Martin’s F1 car, given his only on-track F1 running since he lost his McLaren seat at the end of 2018 was in the Mercedes in the 2020 post-season test.

“But I think it’s something you pick up very quickly again,” he added. “In the end it’s kind of a natural ability to get used to it.”

Vandoorne has a few more Formula E titles in him yet. World Endurance Championship and IndyCar teams ought to be calling him for the future, too. He’s actually having a great career and there’s a lot more to come regardless of whether F1 ever looks his way again.

Stoffel Vandoorne DS Penske Formula E

But every time De Vries scores a point for AlphaTauri this year, there’ll be a few people wondering what Vandoorne might still do in an F1 car – and rightly so.

“It’s not always up to us,” Vandoorne mused of whether he’ll ever get back into F1.

“A lot of it comes down to the teams, what they’re looking for.

“From my side, the only thing I can do is keep performing. That’s the best tool.”

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