Stoffel Vandoorne raced for the HWA Racelab team in the ABB FIA Formula E series.
At just 27, Belgian race car driver Stoffel Vandoorne has already amassed an impressive resume.
Graduating to single seaters from karts in 2012, Vandoorne showed lots of success culminating in a GP2 championship in 2015. That moved him into the Formula 1 world with McLaren, as a development driver in 2016 and then two seasons racing for the team.
For 2019, Vandoorne returned to development work, but for the dominant Mercedes F1 team. And he kept his racing skills sharp with a racing seat in Formula E, which just wrapped up its championship in New York.
Despite racing for the new-to-the-series HWA Racelab team, Vandoorne earned a podium in Rome at the seventh round of the championship and finished the season ahead of his teammate, Gary Paffett, in points: 35-9. I sat down with Vandoorne to talk about Formula E as well as his time at McLaren and his work at Mercedes.
Autoweek: You had a crazy experience at McLaren, lots of ups and downs, and on top of all that, Fernando Alonso is your teammate. What was that like?
Stoffel Vandoorne: Yeah, for sure. The years I’ve had there were not the best ones. I had a very nice junior career with them, I would say. They supported me through the ranks. And everything was going into a dream scenario, arriving into Formula 1 with McLaren
AW: With a top team at the time…
SV: Well, they were struggling at the time. It looked like we were on the way up, but I think it was just the wrong place at the wrong time, basically. There was a lot of management changes going on. The car was not very good at the time. It’s extremely hard to prove yourself. I have no regrets of what has happened. You know? It’s happened, now it’s behind me. Things didn’t always go my way, I didn’t, maybe, always receive the support that I should have received, but that’s the way it went. I’m moving on to something different now with Formula E.
AW: From your point of view, having Fernando Alonso as a teammate, seems like it would be difficult on two levels. One, he is a highly regarded driver; two, he has a reputation of being not easy to work with and expected certain status and certain benefits.
SV: I had a good relationship with Fernando, he’s obviously a great talent, a great driver. But like you said, I think sometimes, a lot of things went his way when it didn’t necessarily have to be that way.
AW: You made the transition to Formula E and, quite frankly, it looks a lot more entertaining. How does it feel as a driver in the Formula E car?
SV: It’s very entertaining, very exciting, the racing there. The cars are, essentially, very close to each other. There are differences, the powertrain differences, but they are within a very small percentage. It makes it very unpredictable going into the weekend, but unpredictable in a good way. You don’t necessarily need to have the best car to be able to pull off a really good result. And I think, this year, we have the best car, but we’ve been on pole in Hong Kong, we’ve had some really good qualifying results. The races have been difficult for various reasons, but you know that when everything kind of falls into place that you can have a really good result.
AW: It seems like there’s less aero on the car (compared to Formula 1), but there’s also a lot less tire. So lateral grip is a lot lower and you have very immediate electric power. All that makes the cars can race very close and the competition, the level of driver, is quite high. You, Lucas Di Grassi, Piquet Jr., lots with Formula 1 experience, really high levels.
SV: Yeah, it’s a very difficult championship. A lot of experienced drivers that come out of different roots of motorsports and its very competitive, you know there’s not one driver on the grid that you would say, ‘Oh he does not deserve his place.’ It’s a very competitive series, which makes it such close, tight battles in the races. Like you said, the car doesn’t have a lot of downforce, most of the grip is the mechanical grip from the tires. And, yes there are some difference between the teams, but they run extremely close together and that makes the racing very entertaining.
After leaving McLaren, Stoffel Vandoorne joins fives-times consecutive constructor champions, Mercedes F1
AW: What it’s like being in city centers on street courses all around the world?
SV: It’s great to be racing in the cities. We go to really nice locations and that’s what Formula E is about. We go close to the fans. We go into the cities, drive on the craziest circuits. Circuits that are really bumpy, a lot of tarmac changes. That makes it so exciting as well to drive the cars. The cars are definitely not as quick as Formula 1 cars, but the impression of speed you get, the feeling of it is very fast because the tracks are so narrow, and everything is about out of control.
AW: And they’re not slow.
SV: No, they’re not slow, they’ve been getting faster and faster. It’s still early days for this championship, considering it’s only been around for four years, now it’s the fifth season. It has a huge potential to grow and next year, we have Mercedes joining. We have Porsche joining as well. It keeps attracting more manufacturers.
AW: Now you’re with Mercedes (in F1) and helping with the development of the car, what’s it like to play that role?
SV: It’s very interesting for me to do that because I come from McLaren. Now to be with Mercedes and help support the team with the development of their car is a great opportunity for me. Also, it’s nice to see the differences between how things were at McLaren and now to work with the team that has won the world championship so many times, so it’s just amazing to be part of that and see the differences and to work with a world championship team.
AW: What kind of work do you do? Is it mostly on the simulator? What kind of work does that entail?
SV: Everything is like simulator work, it’s hard to get too much into detail, but basically, we need to fine-tune the set up on some occasions. Sometimes we need to test a virtual car, something that they are developing, so we are testing something that they are thinking of designing and we need to kind of check if that’s the right route to go down. We have a quite a big responsibility and guiding the team.
AW: Have there ever been times when you say, ‘yes this technically makes the car faster, but it makes the driving characteristic so much touchier and edgier that I recommend against this because the drivability goes away.’
SV: Oh Yeah, 100 percent. That’s often the case in racing in general. That’s where a driver comes to play where you kind of have to guide your team, because engineers are engineers and they always say, ‘yeah this is quicker.’ It might be quicker on paper by a few hundredths or tenths or something. But then, as a driver, you need to be firm in saying that, ‘look guys, maybe this is quicker on paper, but it makes the car so difficult to drive that you can’t extract that tenth, you lose lap time because of it.’ It’s important to understand each other as well, because every driver requires different things. Every driver can deal with certain problems a bit better than other problems. Everyone is a little bit of an individual.
AW: Some drivers really like to lean on the front axle, dial in the steering slowly. While others really like to drive the steering in quickly and then balance with the rear axle. And that can play a huge role on set up.
SV: Exactly, it can change the setup quite a lot, the way you develop things. It’s always a compromise you have to make.
AW: It amazes me how complicated steering wheels are in modern race cars: I was recently shown a Formula 1 car steering wheel. There’s an adjustment for corner-entry diff [differential], mid-corner diff, corner-exit diff. And then the person said, ‘notice on the thumbs the corner-entry and corner-exit diff adjustments are on the thumbs because sometimes you change that corner to corner.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘my god, to be able to be at the limit of the car, communicating with the team and then making those changes corner to corner.’ It just blows my mind how you deal with those things.
SV: It’s pretty incredible and the technology just enables us to do all of that. And that the same time it makes it more and more complicated because you have different settings for every corner. And that’s how they nowadays optimize the car. If, on a certain corner, you have a bit of understeer, they change the diff or whatever. They can really fine tune the car, following the conditions. It gets very complicated, very busy behind the wheel sometimes.
AW: I can only imagine. I feel like I’d be pretty busy never leaving the pit, switching all the settings and figuring out who I am talking to
SV: yeah, in the end we get used to it, so we learn how to deal with of those things, but certainly it’s a lot easier doing it sitting still in the garage than doing it on track while driving 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph).
The Mercedes liveried Formula E car
AW: Being tied to Mercedes and still being connected to Formula 1, do you still have the desire to go back to Formula 1 or have you entirely moved on, having reached a different phase in your career.
SV: It’s hard to tell. At the moment, it’s not something I’m specifically targeting to get back to Formula 1. I’m not closing the door because you never know what is happening — there is always something happening that you can’t foresee or predict. And with my role at Mercedes, I’m still connected with the Formula 1 world. I keep in shape. The performance of driving a Formula 1 car, I know it’s virtual, but I am still kind of connected to it.
AW: And virtual is becoming closer and closer to reality every year.
SV: Exactly. We will see what happens in the future. For now, I’m just trying to do the best I can in Formula E. Mercedes is coming next year as well, and it’s important to have good results there, so I’m just focused on that, trying to do the best I can there. And then see what the future brings, we can’t predict is what going to happen.
AW: Looking back on your career, with the benefit of hindsight, what was the most enjoyable year in motorsport, in your life?
SV: (long pause) There’s obviously a few very good years. I would always say the early years because those were the years when you’re go karting and there isn’t the pressure of anything.
AW: A little bit more pure.
SV: Exactly. It’s so pure, it’s just doing what you love to do. You go racing on the weekends and you just try to be the quickest guy out there and try to win races. I would kind of love to have that feeling back now, you know, because there’s nothing else on your mind. You don’t have a specific target in front of you of a career path you’re going to take, or politics involved, all that kind of thing, talking to journalists even. I don’t say it’s a bad thing…
It’s just different you know because you’re young and that’s the only thing want to do and think about. It’s just racing a car and that’s it. You’re not really thinking about all the side jobs, all the marketing events we have to do, but that comes gradually as you move up the ranks, that comes with it. So yeah, I think my karting years were probably the most enjoyable and then I had really good years in cars as well, I would say. I think probably one of the best ones was probably in GP2 when I won the championship because I just, I don’t know, I just felt like on a roll, everything went my way. I was doing well. I didn’t really make any mistakes. It was a good time of my life I would say, I was feeling very good. I was with a good team, we won so many races. I was just, happy.
AW: When things are going right, and you feel connected to the car. You can say, well this is my opportunity to show my talent. This is my true self and I finally get to show the world what that looks like. Is that how you feel?
SV: Yeah it is. And I think it’s one of the best feelings ever. I had a really good car underneath me at the same time I had to do the job and there was pressure from above that I had to win the championship but I didn’t think too much about it I was just having a really good feel of the car I was super confident that whatever I was doing, every setup change I was making, I knew what it was going to do and I could just keep performing. And that was just one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in a race car.
Source: Read Full Article