Four years after hitting the lowest of lows for any racing driver in single-seater motorsport, this weekend could – and in all likeliness should – see Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne grasp the biggest achievement of his career. That’s if, it should be said, winning Formula E ranks higher than competing for two years in Formula One at McLaren, ahead of the FE double-header finale starting tomorrow in Seoul.
Reflecting on a period of turmoil and upheaval at McLaren, Vandoorne was catapulted into a team suddenly unable to compete regularly for points, and acknowledges that it was simply “wrong time, wrong place” during that 2017-2018 period. In fact, having finished in the points during his debut as a test driver in Bahrain in 2016, the anticipated upward trajectory didn’t materialise. His best result was two seventh-place finishes in a row, in Singapore and Malaysia in 2017.
“I was always used to winning and fighting for victories – then I came into Formula One at the worst possible time,” 2015 GP2 winner Vandoorne tells The Independent. “Where the car and team was at the time… suddenly I was in a wrong dynamic where even getting a top-10 finish was extremely difficult to achieve.
“It’s a different motivation, you’re then looking for things to fight for. There was a lot of changeover at the team politically and that meant there was a lot of turnover within the organisation. It was a case of wrong time, wrong place. But I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to come here [Formula E] and find that passion and love for the sport again after that difficult period in Formula One.”
Formula E offered Vandoorne, as it has for so many drivers either unable to snatch a spot in the top echelon of the Formula pyramid or dropped from the mountain’s summit, an opportunity to continue racing on a global scale in a series that can only grow exponentially in a world where a focus on sustainability works hand-in-hand with profit. Now in its eighth season, this year’s worldwide road trip, which started in Saudi Arabia, concludes in South Korea this weekend, with the likes of Mexico City, New York and London sandwiched in between.
The “E-Prix” at the Excel Centre on the docks by the Thames a fortnight ago was a perfect illustration of Formula E’s potential. Attracting a young audience in city centres provides a platform unmatched by the traditional hegemon of F1. In another doubleheader, Vandoorne finished second and then fourth, stretching his lead at the top of the leaderboard to 36 points from New Zealander Mitch Evans in second, with two to go.
With Mercedes-EQ teammate and F1 wannabe Nyck de Vries triumphant last year, a historic double beckons for the Silver Arrows; a thriving side-show of the struggling F1 team in 2022.
“I just want to have the same approach – to have no mistakes and to put in some good qualifying laps,” Vandoorne says, having finished in the points in his past 11 races, a career-best.
“I would love to win this championship and tick it off; it would be an amazing feeling to win with Mercedes at this level of motorsport. Everyone is a professional driver here and the competition is super tight.”
Beyond the potential thrill of silverware in southeast Asia Vandoorne believes that, despite McLaren acquiring the Mercedes team for FE next year as Gen3 cars mark the start of a new era, his future is electric.
“I was happy to have a new challenge [post-F1],” he says. “I knew I was in good hands with Mercedes, even the support and feeling was quite different in the approach to what I had before that [at McLaren]. I felt more at home and became myself again – just focusing on what I’m good at, which is driving.
“I see my future in Formula E now and I’ve managed to establish something here. The championship is slowly growing; this is my future.”
Despite the initial assertiveness, throwing Formula One’s notorious silly season into the mix given the chaotic start to the summer break means the question is, frankly, always there. Could a Formula E championship grab the attention of the F1 paddock? For Vandoorne, as unlikely as it seems, the door is always ajar. Of course it is.
“It’s exciting times, a lot of things are changing. If a team really wants me I’m sure someone will get in touch. My phone is ready!”
:: Season 8 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship reaches its conclusion in Seoul, South Korea with a doubleheader on 13 and 14 August