Stoffel Vandoorne makes his mark on Formula 1 as McLaren shows signs of improvement
Stoffel Vandoorne reckons he was able to show what he could do in F1 in his substitute appearance Formula 1 debut with McLaren.
Stoffel Vandoorne reckons he was able to show what he could do in F1 in his substitute appearance Formula 1 debut with McLaren. And although he views it as a one-off opportunity and the point he scored for finishing tenth as a “bonus", it's clear that he is challenging for a race seat in F1.
In fact the opportunity worked out perfectly for Vandoorne, who put down his marker. We understand that he is free to look elsewhere next season if McLaren doesn't give him a race seat. Other teams are aware of that. They monitored his progress all weekend and there was a general feeling that the 24 year old Belgian had confirmed that he's a special talent.
Vandoorne was required to deputise for Fernando Alonso after the FIA’s medical team stopped the double world champion racing in Bahrain last weekend as a result of the injuries sustained in his enormous accident in the Australian Grand Prix.
Vandoorne built up his pace, moving closer to Jenson Button's, throughout the track sessions and then when it counted he out qualified Button in the other McLaren. He finished tenth in the race after a feisty performance to score the team’s first point of the 2016 season.
Vandoorne, who had not driven the MP4-31 until the start of FP1, explained that he felt comfortable in the car and was delighted to make the most of his F1 break.
He said: “I think for my Formula 1 debut, I can be very happy with that. Since the beginning of the weekend I felt very comfortable in the car.
"I'm just happy I didn't make any mistakes operationally, and to come away with a point is a bonus. This weekend was a big opportunity for me to get in the car and I'm very happy I got it.
"I think I made the most of it and showed what I'm capable of, and now it's just wait and see."
After his first day of F1 practice, Vandoorne described how Alonso had been helping him get up to speed before his race debut from the McLaren garage.
He said: "Fernando was here all day [on Friday]. He [was] next to me and the engineers, and [was] very helpful, giving some comments about which direction to go with the car set-up, what to try during the practice sessions.
"It's been very useful to have him here as he obviously knows the car a bit better than me. It's definitely been good to have his help."
Vandoorne prepared for his first run in McLaren’s 2016 car by learning it manual as he flew from Japan, where he had been testing in the SuperFormula series, to the Gulf.
He said: "It [was] pretty hectic, with a lot of phone calls with the engineers, and a lot of documents I had to go through on the plane from Japan.
"They sent me through all the files with all the information I had to know, like the steering wheel, things operationally before the race, what we can say and not say [on the radio]. I spent my time well on the plane."
The Belgian rookie, who won the 2015 GP2 championship in convincing fashion, described his drive last weekend as his “one shot”.
He said: "First of all, this is one opportunity I'm getting. I'm very happy to get the chance to race with McLaren.
"I see this as a one-shot, and I'm grateful for the opportunity I had,"
Many have begun to speculate about whether McLaren may move Vandoorne in next season full time alongside Alonso, bringing Jenson Button's career with the team to an end. It's too early to talk about that, clearly.
Ron Dennis, who now has control at McLaren, will play a significant role in the decision, when it comes. Vandoorne has a clause in his contract that if McLaren does not give him a race seat next year he is able to seek one elsewhere The other teams are on alert to that.
Button: MP4-31 a “definite improvement”
Button, who retired on lap six of the Bahrain race with a power unit problem, still believes McLaren’s performance at the Sakhir track, particularly his third place in FP2, represents a stop forward for the Woking-based team.
The 2009 world champion used Pirelli’s supersoft tyres finish third in FP2, 1.2s slower than pacesetter, Nico Rosberg.
Speaking after the race, Button said: “The car itself is a definite improvement. We were third quickest in FP2, and I don't think that's where we are but it shows that we've made a good step forward.
"I think everyone should be very proud of that as a team. It's just the little niggly problems like today that have cost us a lot of points."
Button explained how his practice pace represented the best day McLaren had enjoyed in recent seasons.
He said: “You've got to say that it was a good day for us, and it [was] the best day for a couple of years."
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