Sky F1's Mark Hughes on why McLaren's 2017 driver is the real deal
Friday 16 September 2016 11:21, UK
Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren F1 race driver of 2017 is 24 - old by the standards of an F1 rookie in the current era and almost six years older than Max Verstappen, already established as a grand prix winner.
Yet he is considered every bit as much a golden prospect.
The difference in years is a reflection of a less intense early karting career. His family are not racing people nor vastly wealthy.
He raced in karts from a young age but not in a serious way until he was picked by the Royal Belgian Automobile Club as the recipient of a prize that placed him in serious national-level competition for the first time in his mid-late teens.
Here, he was an instant sensation and since that time he has been a serial winner, making the move into cars six years ago, winning the F4 Eurocup at his first attempt and in subsequent years winning major titles in Formula Renault, Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2. He became an officially-backed McLaren driver in 2013.
Some of his GP2 performances in the latter half of 2014 and in his championship year of 2015 marked him out as something beyond merely promising. As he developed, he entered races in the confident expectation of victory. Almost regardless of grid position.
It was about more than his formidable raw speed; he had an ability to judge the timings of his attacks and defences while monitoring his tyre degradation that verged on wizardry. He was not only GP2's fastest driver but also its smartest - and by some margin on both counts.
His level-headed approach was very evident when he made his F1 debut as stand-in for the injured Fernando Alonso in Bahrain.
Without any experience of the car, drafted in with less than a day's notice and flying in from Japan, he spent the practice sessions getting attuned - and put all the pieces together perfectly at the high-pressure moment of delivery in qualifying.
He not only out-qualified ex-world champion Jenson Button on his debut, but also pointed out a car trait that trapped it in a certain set-up window. This analysis informed the operation of the car at subsequent races.
That he scored a point in the race was just the icing on the cake. He had already made a major impression on Ron Dennis and almost from the moment of his qualifying lap, his place in McLaren's 2017 plans seemed assured.
He's totally devoted to succeeding in his craft but also a well-balanced, mature and likeable character. There's no Hamilton-like swashbuckling wildness; he's very contained and carries a quiet confidence. The extra years over Verstappen show very clearly in a less brash manner. As such, he is a perfect fit at McLaren, but the self-belief is total.
At the core of it all though is a natural talent that is off the scale. Rob Wilson, the renowned driver coach who has worked with many of the greats over the last couple of decades, reckons Vandoorne has the best car control of anyone he has ever seen. This ability to bring a car back from the brink forms the reserves of control behind the confident speed.
He faces the most challenging team-mate it's possible to conceive of in Alonso, a driver that Button considers as the all-round best he's ever raced against. It's a measure of Vandoorne's potential that the in-team competition between them is expected to be something to savour.
He will be doing his talking on the track.