McLaren racer Stoffel Vandoorne may have retired at the end of lap 33 of the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday, but the Belgian racer impressed many with his performance at Monza.
On paper, the 2017 was a disaster for McLaren. Another race and another pair of retirements for the Honda-powered team, with neither Stoffel Vandoorne nor Fernando Alonso making it to the end of the race.
Curiously, however, it was Vandoorne who carried the flag for the Woking-based McLaren’s. It helped initially that Vandoorne got his MCL32 into Q3 during Saturday’s lengthy qualifying session, although Alonso’s soft run in Q2 opened the door slightly for the Belgian.
With a 35-place grid penalty coming for the Spaniard, it made little sense to impede his teammate, as he explained on Saturday evening. ‘We needed to keep an eye on Stoffel’s position too, as we didn’t want to be in Q3 with the wrong car,’ said the former champion. ‘We didn’t want to push too much in qualifying because there was no point – we’ll start last anyway, due to the penalty – so we just saved the tyres and used the engine in a lower power mode, but we still did a decent qualifying.’
At a circuit where it was feared McLaren’s pace would ultimately be destroyed, Vandoorne edged in car into the top ten and was elevated to 8th place once grid penalties for both Red Bull’s were taken into account. But this was a wet qualifying session and the race was expected to be dry.
Although not obvious at the time, but Vandoorne’s qualifying run was hampered somewhat. His final run was nixed by a developing engine problem, forcing McLaren to change to replace several elements of the power unit. Vandoorne said, ‘It’s a shame because I really think we could have pushed our way further up. We could have taken more time to find the limit and taken a few more risks, but we didn’t get that chance.’ This resulted in a grid penalty for the Belgian, dropping him an 18th place start, just ahead of Alonso.
And yet while running, Vandoorne’s pace was not ultimately destroyed. From his lowly grid spot, the 25-year-old emerged from the usual turn one melee ahead of Jolyon Palmer (Renault) and Pascal Wehrlein (Sauber), before the other Sauber of Marcus Ericsson dropped behind on the next tour and a pitting Max Verstappen (Red Bull) brought Vandoorne to 14th by the end of lap three.
Thereafter Vandoorne sat in behind Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso and maintained a solid pace in the early-1’28s. Alonso was there too; however when Vandoorne passed Sainz on lap six, Alonso could do nothing but sit under the rear wing of his young Spanish rival, until the Toro Rosso racer pitted on lap 15. By this time, Alonso was beginning to suffered gearbox sensor issues and Vandoorne was already eleven seconds up the road.
At this stage, those ahead of Vandoorne were making stops and clearing the way for the Belgian to climb to 9th position on lap 20, at which point the speed of the McLaren began to ebb away. Fights with Kevin Magnussen (Haas), Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) and Nico Hulkenberg (Renault), Vandoorne appeared potent force and appeared quite able to keep with the midfield pack.
Peeling into the pits, Magnussen and Hulkenberg would soon depart the battle, but on this relatively low degradation surface, Vandoorne was able to keep in the early 1’27s, aided by a dropping fuel count, although getting passed Kvyat proved a little too tricky. At this stage, the only drivers quicker than Vandoorne were the leading pack and those on fresh Pirelli’s, but towards the mid-point of the race, the McLaren’s pace began to fade. ‘It’s a similar issue to yesterday, and it’s a shame because we changed the engine overnight for a brand new one today. To have another problem in a race which was going very well is obviously frustrating.’
Passed by both Williams’ of Lance Stroll and Felipe Massa, Vandoorne was beginning to struggle to hang on and eventually pitted at the end of lap 33, but despite the non-finish, it was a very positive performance by the Belgian. ‘From my side, it had actually been a really positive weekend in terms of my driving and the performance I’ve put in – it’s been very strong. The last few races have been very strong for me, in fact. It’s just such a shame to finish with another retirement, and not have any reward for all of that. And we’ve had another issue today, but we have to move on.
‘I guess it’s possible I’ll have another grid drop in Singapore, although we don’t yet know exactly what the issue was today, despite it looking like a similar problem. We’ll have to wait and see.’
McLaren’s Racing Director, Eric Boullier, was certainly very pleased with Vandoorne’s run while it lasted. ‘His performance all weekend has been stellar, and this afternoon he was running in the top ten for the duration of his race – at one point as high as seventh from 18th on the grid.’
However when addressing the technical issues suffered by Vandoorne over the weekend, Boullier was less forgiving. ‘It’s both frustrating and a huge shame that once again engine reliability issues have meant that he was not only forced to waste the opportunity to start the race in eighth place on the grid, but that all the hard work he would ultimately put in to make progress through the pack and aim for points would be rendered pointless.
‘For the whole team – who have all worked so hard to give us a fighting chance on this most challenging of tracks – it’s an utterly frustrating and disappointing way to end our Italian Grand Prix weekend and the European season.’
Alonso, meanwhile, carried on and although largely uneventful, he would have a brief tussle with Palmer, prompting some exasperated radio messages from the Spaniard. His day would also end prematurely and Also eventually retired from a distant 15th place with three laps remaining – although there may a touch of strategy at play with this.
The Grand Prix circus visits the streets of Singapore for a race around Marina Bay. With a high number of twisty sections and relatively few straights, this may be venue that plays well for McLaren, but when it comes down to it, it may still only be for minor points. But for Vandoorne, it will also be another opportunity to display his growing confidence and untapped skill.