Why Stoffel Vandoorne Will Succeed Where McLaren's Previous Young Drivers Failed

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2016

Stoffel Vandoorne
Stoffel VandoorneDan Istitene/Getty Images

McLaren have a recent history of chewing up and spitting out young Formula One drivers. With 24-year-old rookie Stoffel Vandoorne taking over Jenson Button's race seat in 2017, will the results be any different for the young Belgian than for Sergio Perez or Kevin Magnussen?

Back in 2012, Perez came this close to winning a wet Malaysian Grand Prix, just his 19th F1 race. Ultimately, the then-22-year-old settled for second in Malaysia and scored two other podium finishes in Canada and Italy. In September, McLaren named him as their replacement for Lewis Hamilton, who was leaving for Mercedes.

Unfortunately for Perez, his arrival coincided with a downturn in McLaren's form and (to that point) one of the worst season's in the team's history. While Button and Hamilton combined for seven wins and 13 podiums in 2012, the closest the team got to the podium in 2013 was Button's fourth place at the season-ending race in Brazil. He finished 20 seconds behind third-place man Fernando Alonso.

By the end of the year, Perez was out of a drive. It appeared he was taking the fall for McLaren's failure to design a competitive car, although then-team principal Martin Whitmarsh denied that was the case.

In an interview with the official F1 website, he said McLaren opted to replace Perez with Magnussen because a deal fell through to place the Dane in a race seat at another team. Magnussen had just won the Formula Renault 3.5 title and, according to Whitmarsh, was such an extraordinary talent that he could not be kept out of F1 any longer.

Less than 12 months later, after scoring McLaren's best result in two years—second in his F1 debut in Australia—that extraordinary talent was pushed aside after a single season to make way for the second coming of Alonso.

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After a year as McLaren's reserve driver, he received an email from McLaren CEO Ron Dennis telling him he was out of the team.

Kevin Magnussen celebrates on the podium in Melbourne.
Kevin Magnussen celebrates on the podium in Melbourne.SAEED KHAN/Getty Images

Perez's Mexican millions provided a soft cushion for his landing at Force India in 2014. In the three seasons since he was swept aside, Perez has scored four podiums, compared to McLaren's two.

Magnussen spent 2015 as McLaren's reserve driver before finding a race seat at Renault this year, where he has outshone 2014 GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer.

With that recent track record for young drivers, why should we expect any different for Vandoorne?

For one thing, Vandoorne is older than either Perez or Magnussen were when they arrived at McLaren. The Belgian will turn 25 next year, possibly on the day of the season-opening grand prix. Perez was 23 when he made his McLaren debut and Magnussen was just 21.

In an era where a 17-year-old can race in F1, that may not seem like a huge difference, but there is a lot of room for development and personal growth in the four years between the ages of 21 and 25.

More importantly, though, Vandoorne spent those extra years gaining experience (and piling up strong results) in some of F1's top feeder series.

Perez arrived in F1 with just one big result in a top-level junior series: second place in the 2010 GP2 season. Of course, he also had two years of F1 seasoning with Sauber before he was thrown into the McLaren mix. Still, after Perez's axing, Sky Sports' Mark Hughes wrote that McLaren felt they had not properly vetted the Mexican before signing him.

Magnussen raced two years in Formula Renault 3.5, winning the title in 2013, which spurred McLaren to move him up to F1. He also finished second in the British Formula Three championship back in 2011.

Vandoorne, meanwhile, finished second to Magnussen in his title-winning Formula Renault season and then moved on to GP2 for two seasons. He finished second in 2014 and won the title last year in a dominant performance.

This year, alongside his duties as McLaren reserve driver, he sits fifth in the highly regarded Japanese Super Formula. And let's not forget Vandoorne's memorable F1 cameo, subbing for an injured Alonso at the Bahrain Grand Prix, where he scored McLaren's first point of the year.

Stoffel Vandoorne made his F1 debut at the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix.
Stoffel Vandoorne made his F1 debut at the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix.Lars Baron/Getty Images

As an aside, Vandoorne is closer in the drivers' standings to Button (16 points down) than Button is to Alonso (19 points behind).

But perhaps the most important sign that Vandoorne's McLaren tenure will turn out differently than his two young predecessors is the performance of the team itself.

Both Perez and Magnussen were hamstrung by underwhelming McLaren cars and can, to some extent, be viewed as scapegoats for the team's failures. Now, Button and Alonso have endured the difficult years of the renewed McLaren-Honda partnership, but there are definite signs of progress.

At the Singapore Grand Prix, Alonso said he momentarily dreamt of a podium finish following his fantastic start, per Autosport's Matt Beer—something that was nothing more than a joke a year ago.

With significant changes coming to the technical regulations for 2017, McLaren will have an opportunity to leap forward (of course, there is also the possibility they will fall further behind) and close the remaining gap to the front-runners.

While it might have been ideal for Vandoorne to have a season or two of development at a smaller F1 team, McLaren's sole-supplier deal with Honda does not leave them with the same leverage the other engine suppliers have when trying to place their drivers at other teams.

McLaren racing director Eric Boullier recently said, "He doesn't have the experience of these guys, but he will grow up beating them," per ESPN F1's Nate Saunders. Of course, first he will need McLaren to provide him with at least a moderately competitive car.

Back in that 2013 interview about the Perez-for-Magnussen swap, Whitmarsh already identified Vandoorne as a future F1 talent. Now, the time has come for him to fulfill that potential.

He is better-positioned than either Perez or Magnussen were to do it at McLaren.

Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICEFourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter:


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