Yesterday’s announcement that Stoffel Vandoorne is to split with McLaren at the end of this season was inevitable given the results on offer in 2018.
However that does not make it any less sad for a driver whose career seemed so promising, yet has turned sour.
The downturn for Stoffel Vandoorne’s reputation has been sharp. The Belgian has rarely looked at ease with McLaren’s uncooperative MCL33 machine, but while the news of his dismissal emerged this week, one can’t help but wonder if the decision was delivered to him much earlier, coinciding with his decline in results, particularly in qualifying.
Like all other things in sport, life and everything else, so much of success in motorsport is about confidence and belief and it was Vandoorne’s quiet confidence and belief in his abilities that made him such a potent threat on the long ladder to Formula One.
While the true value of championships that use spec cars must be always questioned, the fact is Vandoorne has pace and intelligent racecraft. Making his Formula One and McLaren debut at Bahrain in 2016, when he substituted for a sidelined Fernando Alonso, the Belgian looked comfortable in a McLaren that was enjoying a quicker and more efficient Honda power unit package. That weekend, Vandoorne scored a point (the first McLaren driver to do so in 2016), yet apart from some peaks last year, he has rarely looked quite a sharp as he did that weekend and even then, his and McLaren’s almost drunken stumble since June of this year has been rather startling.
Yet there is a part of that analysis which paints Vandoorne rather unfairly. Whereas Alonso has roundly beaten his younger teammate in the near two seasons they have had together, Vandoorne’s deficit has not been so significant as many would think. Certainly he has closer to Alonso than Kimi Raikkonen has been to Sebastian Vettel or Valtteri Bottas to Lewis Hamilton, but that quartet regularly occupy the top four, where interlopers – even Red Bull coloured ones – don’t often penetrate.
That three-tenths that covers Alonso and Vandoorne could cover the front two rows on a Grand Prix qualifying Saturday, but it can also cover a large portion of an intense midfield fight that also includes Sauber, Toro Rosso and – circuit depending – variations of Renault, Force India and Haas. It is true that the first person one must beat in motorsport is your teammate and Alonso has may sure of that, but that gap is not obvious as it might initially seem.
There is another angle though, albeit one filled with cynicism and suspicion. In the same way Kevin Magnussen – a Martin Whitmarsh protégé – was eventually ejected in late 2014 by the returning Ron Dennis, so Vandoorne – a Dennis protégé – has been let drop by Zak Brown, currently McLaren Racing’s CEO. Vandoorne’s place, meanwhile, is going to talented British racer Lando Norris – a Brown protégé no less, although there is a touch base covering in Brown’s move to promote Norris.
If what I have heard is correct, then McLaren’s 2019 option on Norris was fast running out and Toro Rosso have repeatedly signalled their interest in the young Englishman. Coming from an almost entirely spec-series background, it will be interesting to see how Norris takes to a category that is ever changing. Although Norris did compete in Formula 3 last year, by then it was almost largely spec cars in all but name.
There are those who will claim that spec series make for a level playing field for drivers, but I am yet to be convinced. Indeed if I am to be brutal about, anyone who believes that they produce a level playing field is, quite frankly, living in la-la land. As has been witnessed in recent seasons, when monied drivers enter the cauldron, buying up the best of everything, then it no longer become a level playing field – particularly when it comes to testing, data acquisition and access, part maintenance (think engines) and spares. It was always thus, but now regulations have been created a situation that drives this aspect even harder.
In fact, the situation reminded me of a piece I wrote last November.
“It is not inconceivable that one will occasionally be sought out, in order to have a very deliberate conversation [in the paddock]. Recently during a meeting with two very senior members of the European Formula 3 paddock, I was informed that during a conference, a very senior individual in the Formula One community mentioned that “Formula 3 should be about entertainment and low costs” and that “driver development is not a key priority.” Upon contacting the office of the individual, his communications officer informed me that this comment was “made during a private chat and extrapolated out of its proper context, therefore […] cannot attribute it on the record…” Not exactly the strongest of rebuttals admittedly. Alas the message from the Formula 3 personnel was delivered, digested and coded and my return query was – to a degree – responded too as well.
“As a philosophical aside, this raises the question as to whether the very concept of junior categories in their original sense is now null and void, instead limiting the likes of Formula 3 to be merely support categories for your entertainment and drivers bish, bash, bosh and DRS-pass their way up reverse grid orders. This meeting in the paddock served to remind me of a rather tongue-in-cheek comment from a former colleague a few years ago as we pulled into the car park at Rockingham to cover a British F3 round. “If these championships were serious about driver development, then these races would be taking place on a Tuesday afternoon behind closed doors and without television cameras, followed by some sort of tuition…”
“The conversation with Formula 3 members also turned to disappointing news that Formula 3 will officially become a spec category from 2019, when it more or less replaces GP3 in all but name and car. The pairing lamented how drivers are learning less and less in these junior categories, while Formula One continues to accelerate development at a rate never before witnessed. There were mentions of how the spec cars become more expensive due to the part restrictions placed in the regulations.
“It was cited, for example, the cost of a new carbon fibre front wing, should even an endplate become damaged; the purchase of which could only be made from the manufacturer, as per the regulations. In theory, a new front wing could come to over £1,000, whereas the team have in their factory the people, tools and materials to construct the spare part for approximately one-quarter of the price, albeit from aluminium.”
Meanwhile, back on topic (ish), for 2019, the benchmark has completely changed for McLaren. With Vandoorne’s ousting and Fernando Alonso’s departure, McLaren will field a whole new driver line-up, as Carlos Sainz will take the seat vacated by Alonso. There are changes in the background too, after the departures of Tim Goss (Technical Director) and Eric Boullier (Racing Director), followed by the import of Gil de Ferran (Sporting Director), Pat Fry (Engineering Director) and – eventually – James Key (Technical Director). Considering Goss departed back in April, one wonders just how far the team are into their 2019 car.
Both Sainz and Norris will be hoping there is an upturn soon and that McLaren can provide them with the machinery to be successful. As Brown noted in a recent McLaren press release, “It’s clear we haven’t provided Stoffel with the tools to show his true talent, but throughout our relationship he’s proved to be a fantastic team player.” So many changes rarely make for an easy time and McLaren may feel it is 2020 before things start to truly come together. By then, they will be in the third year of their deal with power unit supplier Renault in what could be the final year of the current PU regulations – although that too has yet to be confirmed, as the FIA umm and ahhh as to whether new regulations should now be introduced at all.
Meanwhile Sainz – along with Magnussen, Vandoorne, Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly and Williams racer Sergei Sirotkin – is one of the last remaining graduates from the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, before its own sharp descent into hell. At the time, I was greatly interested by the fact that Red Bull allowed Sainz to develop, both as a driver and a person, something unheard of in previous years, as the Austrian team seemingly rifled through juniors too young and immature to know what day it was.
Despite years in Formula 3 and GP3 that were peppered with as many wins as there spins, I was told on a few occasions that Sainz’ retention in the Red Bull Junior Programme for 2014 also had something to do with pressure from the Spanish wing, particularly as Carlos’ father – the original Spanish legend – was still seen as a significantly influential member of the motorsport. By year end, Sainz (then Jr) had taken the title, despite a minor mid-season slump when he was derailed by the “Max Verstappen-to-F1” thunderbolt.
But Sainz’ reputation, which had been so impressively built at Toro Rosso alongside Verstappen and Daniil Kvyat, has taken a significant knock at Renault. Although performing well and scoring some occasional points, Sainz has not been able to match Nico Hülkenberg’s level of performance on a regular basis and it has stunted the Spaniard’s position amongst the movers and the shakers.
In hindsight, it should not have been too unexpected for Hülkenberg to have made this step up – he had to in order to keep his own career afloat. But there is a suspicion that “The Hulk” is doing just enough to get the job done and that if he applied himself as he had in his earlier years, then maybe Ferrari’s interest may not have wandered. Let’s not forget, this was a racer who was expected to one day deliver championships and Grand Prix victories, yet after 149 starts, he has still not scored even a podium and his highest World Championship position is 9th.
His decimation of Jolyon Palmer aside – an entirely expected result – previous experience has seen the former GP2 champion ensure that his level of performance is just good enough that he ends seasons either just ahead of or level with the driver on the other side of the garage, and his marker with Sainz is another indication of that.
With each new teammate, Hülkenberg’s level appears to adjust and thus Sainz should not feel too bad following his Renault experience, as it appears the German had to raise his game when Sainz joined the team. Partnered alongside Daniel Ricciardo next year, Hülkenberg will need to step things up significantly, for he will be finally up against a proven Grand Prix winner who happens to be at the top of his game.
If nothing else, Renault swooping in to sign Ricciardo may be a sign of real input from the French manufacturer. Having spent the past two years apparently reassessing and rebuilding the team from the ground up, things may finally be moving at Enstone and Viry-Châtillon, with both sites having received plenty of renewed investment. Should this be the case and this investment pay off, Renault might in the next few seasons join the battle at or near the front, but probably not as long as the current power unit regulations remain in place.
We’ll see, I suppose.