As Mercedes-Benz EQ prepare for the new Formula E season in January, we have exclusively caught up with Stoffel Vandoorne to look ahead to the new season plus his motorsport journey so far.
Vandoorne exclusively opened up on various topics from life in karting to his GP2 days as well as his time in Formula E, including lessons learned throughout his earlier categories which has benefitted in Formula E to this day.
The Belgian driver also spoke about the effect of ‘politics’ within a Formula One team as well as his ambitions in Formula E with Mercedes who enjoyed an impressive debut season throughout the 2019-20 campaign.
- Who or what inspired you to become a racing driver?
Vandoorne: “There was not one particular person that I was inspired by or was looking up to. I just had a few friends who were doing go-karts and i just tried it as well because my dad is an architecture and he designed a go-kart track where I grew up, so that is how I got started with it and started to have the passion for it they say.
“There were a lot of other sports that I tried but nothing really came quite close to what I enjoyed doing in go-karts.”
- You enjoyed a solid karting career in terms of results with the 2008 Belgian KF2 championship being your biggest title from that period. How easy did you find racing karts before adapting to single seaters in 2010?
Vandoorne: “I was very good and very talented. You know the competition is really super high, we are talking milliseconds, tenths of a second and we were top 30 or 40 sometimes in go-karting, so it was very fine margins, and I think that it is a great learning school before going into cars because you learn all the basics, you learn how to drive faster, you learn how to race, how to be around other people.
“You really learn the basics there before moving into cars which is something different. It doesn’t mean that if you’re quick in go-karts then you’re going to be quick in cars because the way cars behave are quite different. They ‘re heavier, the way you brake is completely different and yeah for sure the karting is the foundation.
“You kind of have to do well there but it’s not a guarantee that you’re going to get on well with cars.”
- Your first year in single seater saw you win the F4 Eurocup 1.6 series in just one season before enjoying success in Formula Renault 2.0 then 3.5 series. From your perspective, what was it like making the leap from karting into single-seater and what was the biggest lesson which you have utilised since and particularly in Formula E?
Vandoorne: “I got on very well with cars since the beginning to be honest from the very first moment I jumped into cars, I felt the groove which for me came naturally in terms of getting a feel for the car and I was quite good with controlling the car with car control and have done well in pretty much everything in cars that I’ve raced in up to now.
“I think from Renault Formula 1.6 to two litre to 3.5, it kind of everything is logical because every car you’re driving or every year you move up, the car is a bit quicker, has more downforce, more grip, better brakes, more power, so it kinds of makes sense.
“Whilst I joined Formula E after F1, it was something completely different, it was quite challenging in terms of the way you have to drive the cars. It’s a complete different approach, the cars they’re fast, not the fastest as in F1 but there is a lot less downforce, the tyres are all-weather compound but the feeling is very very fast on the street circuits but a very different way of driving.
“The braking especially is completely different, during the race we have so much information we need to be aware of and manage because of the energy management, the way we have to brake with the car is quite different, so yes it has just been something that you kind of have to re-adapt when you’ve been used to driving the junior single-seater series or Formula One.”
- 2014 saw you switch to GP2 where you slowly got to grips with the car with a late push for vice-champion before dominating the series in 2015. Looking back now, how do you reflect on this period where you slowly adapted in your first season before absolutely walking your title winning campaign with such rare dominance?
Vandoorne: “I mean obviously my GP2 years were some of the best ones in my career because I had a lot of victories there. They were probably my most dominant seasons where I managed to win championship and number of podiums, number of fastest laps, victories, pole positions, kind of every record I managed to break throughout those two years.
“Even in the first season, we could of won the championship but in the beginning, we had a couple of problems, few technical problems plus a few mistakes from my side and also the team’s side at the time and I think we were close to challenging for the championship but the second year, we put everything right and straight and showed everyone the way it was.”
- F1 soon followed where you enjoyed mixed success amidst a power unit supplier swap from Honda to Renault in 2018. What lessons did you from this tough period of your career which benefitted you in Formula E given that you have improved across your two seasons in the category for HWA then Mercedes with that first win at Berlin in August?
Vandoorne: “Obviously my time in F1 was not the most successful one, it was two very difficult seasons. The car was just not performing very well and at the time, there were a lot of politics within the team or not a good structure management let say.
“Everything was a bit up in the air, the results obviously were not very good but there were a lot of things that I learned from this time, especially how to deal with certain situations now within the team.
“I think maybe not always my mindset was the right one when I was there at the time but it has definitely helped me develop as a person and as a driver and I have been able to take this experience into Formula E where everything so far has been good.
“I had a good first year with HWA together with a new team completely building up from zero and now with Mercedes, the first season to guide the team in the right direction with a lot of support from the Mercedes side.
“We’ve come a long way, we have managed to have a few podiums and finally I got my first victory at Berlin at the end of the last season so yeah it’s been a nice journey up until now and we are very ambitious for the future as well.
“I think I feel very empowered at Mercedes, they have given me an opportunity to be a part of such a big project. I think the future is looking good together. I am glad to be a part of this journey, to had given them their first pole position, first victory and hopefully I can put things together and deliver them their first championship as well.”
- Until joining Formula E, you enjoyed mixed success on street circuits. Having now done two seasons on a variety of street circuits from Santiago to Monaco (which you previously drove in GP2 and F1), which type of street circuits have you enjoyed most in terms of challenge and strengths?
Vandoorne: “I like the street circuits a lot. It’s one of my favourites because they are the most challenging ones, they’re the one where you feel really rewarded when you do a good qualifying lap, so am really enjoying those.
“In terms of which one is the most challenging or I had the most fun, it is hard to tell. I think Saudi is a very challenging one. It’s quite a high speed one and yeah the walls are obviously very close but the high speed makes it a very particular circuit, especially the second sector of the circuit.
“Then I really like Rome as well, because it’s a big circuit and in the city centre and was a very good one for driving in terms of the size and energy management. Yeah Rome which I really enjoyed a lot.”
- With 2021 set to see a full calendar again and you again will partner Nyck De Vries, what are your expectations heading into the season off the back of victory in Berlin in August given that Mercedes will have a full season under their belt now?
Vandoorne: “Obviously our ambitions are high for next season, especially after finishing myself second in the championship and the team third. We are obviously setting ourselves pretty high target for next season but we also have got to be realistic that it is only our second year.
“The circumstances last season especially with how we had to deal with the COVID situation. Obviously we had these six races in nine days in Berlin and if you look at the classification, from myself in second to tenth in the championship, there was probably ten people who could of won or be second in the championship with a couple of points difference.
“I think the first target for us is to look at where the leader was in the championship and of course he was quite a long way ahead and I think as a first target for me would be to close down that gap to be closer and hopefully fight until the end and have a bit more consistency.
“I think we showed some really good races last season but with victory and few podiums and then there have been races where we struggled a little bit more and in order for us to win a championship together, we are really going to have to extract the maximum out of every race again so that is the first target.”
- Finally, what are your expectations for the future, especially with electric racing seen as the future of motorsport?
Vandoorne: “I think Formula E has a very bright future, obviously it is the only electric championship going right now, but especially looking at where the world is going in terms of sustainability, electrification and where the manufacturers are going as well.
“It is a great place to be and I am happy to be part of that push to make the world more sustainable, to also be part of the development of the cars of the future which are going to be electric.
“This technology has already been developed in Formula E and is going to be used in the road cars of the future so let wait and see but am happy to be a part of it.”