McLaren-Honda has confirmed that Stoffel Vandoorne will race for the team “as planned” in 2018, a no doubt welcome announcement ahead of his home Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend.
The Belgian joined McLaren’s Young Driver Programme in 2013 and a year later was appointed as the team’s third driver while also making his GP2 Series debut. After finishing fourth overall in his rookie season with ART Grand Prix, he went on to dominate the 2015 season with seven wins among his 16 podium visits.
He deputised for the injured Fernando Alonso at the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix, finishing tenth to earn points on debut, before being announced as a full-time driver in 2017 as the replacement for Jenson Button.
“I’m delighted that the team has now formally announced that I will continue to race for them next year, because I’ll be able to approach the second half of my rookie season with total focus on the job in hand: namely getting the very most I can out of my car, my engineers, and everything and everyone around me,” Vandoorne is quoted as saying.
“I’ve already learned such a huge amount in the first half of my first season in Formula 1 – from my engineers, from my mechanics, from Eric [Boullier], from Zak [Brown] and from Jonathan [Neale], and also from Fernando [Alonso], who is a brilliant driver and also an excellent team-mate.
“Last but not least, I want to say thank you to McLaren’s partners and fans for their loyalty and enthusiasm – they are the best in the business – and also to McLaren’s Executive Committee Principals, [Shaikh] Mohammed and Mansour [Ojjeh], who continue to put their faith in me.”
Hamstrung by poor power and reliability of McLaren’s Honda power units, Vandoorne has a solitary point to his name in 2017 courtesy of his tenth-placed finish last time out at the Hungarian Grand Prix. While his more experienced teammate Alonso has outscored and outraced the 25-year-old for much of the season, McLaren’s leadership stressed that Vandoorne’s future was never in any doubt.
“When we announced at the end of 2016 that Stoffel would be a McLaren Honda race driver for 2017, we indicated that our plan was that he’d race for us for a number of years,” explained Eric Boullier, McLaren’s Racing Director.
“That plan hasn’t changed, and I’m very happy therefore to be able to confirm that he’ll continue to race for us next season.
“Like all rookies, he’s had to learn a lot in the first half of his first Formula 1 season, but we have great confidence in him, and he’s getting better and better all the time. His team-mate is a tough opponent – that’s an understatement in fact, because he’s arguably the best driver in the sport today – but Stoffel’s robust talent and fierce ambition make us sure that he’ll achieve great successes with us in the future.”
The duration of Vandoorne’s contract with McLaren was not disclosed.
What is interesting to note is that the team is still to confirm the future of its star driver Alonso; speculation among paddock sources indicate that this will be dependent on what engines the team uses in 2018. The Spaniard’s bigger problem is a lack of available race seats further up the grid, limiting his options to be able to find a more competitive drive in 2018.
The current indication is that McLaren is looking to part ways with Honda after three seasons of poor performance; its aim is to switch to Renault power after being rebuffed by former works partner Mercedes.
Honda was reportedly in talks with Scuderia Toro Rosso to switch its supply there or even buy out the Red Bull junior team, but those discussions appear to have stalled.
Images via McLaren Media Centre