Stoffel Vandoorne will finally make the full-time jump to F1 next season, and insists that having the man he replaces looking over his shoulder adds no additional pressure to the already high-profile job of hauling McLaren-Honda back to relevance.
The Belgian was confirmed as Fernando Alonso's 2017 team-mate at the Italian Grand Prix, but McLaren also announced that Jenson Button, the Spaniard's current on-track partner, would be remain onboard as an 'ambassador', with the possibility of returning to the cockpit in 2018. While any return would most likely come in place of Alonso – who has made clear that he would walk away from F1 if the next generation of cars fails to excite him – Vandoorne knows that he needs to build on the point-scoring debut he made as Alonso's fill-in in Bahrain this year.
“I don't see [the Button] situation as extra pressure,” the Belgian told the official F1 website, “I have a long-term deal with McLaren [and], in terms of next year, yes, it is a special structure, but I think it is one of the best. Myself and Fernando are going to race, [but] it is good to keep Jenson as well. He is the most experienced driver in F1 now and he will be involved with the team, be it in the simulator or coming to a few races. [Him jumping back into the car] is not what I am thinking at the moment.”
Having been passed over in favour of the returning Button this season – forcing him to take up an offer to race in Japan's Super Formula series to keep his hand in after dominating GP2 on his way to the 2015 title – Vandoorne admitted that it was something of a relief to finally be confirmed in the second McLaren seat for 2017.
“Time is always pressing in a driver's career, so I knew it had to be next year, as it was probably my last chance of getting to F1,” he revealed, “I remember, a year ago, when I was finishing GP2, that there were a lot of rumours that I might get the drive already for 2016. Alas, it didn't happen back then and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed at the beginning.
“It was a tough moment for me to understand that F1 would have to wait another year, but I kept my head cool, won the last two GP2 races that season and actually broke the record [for wins] in that series. I knew it was best to give the answer on the track.
“Now I have spent so much time with this team already, and had a lot of success already in the junior series. The team has really been preparing me for F1 for years and now we both want to get rewarded.”
Despite his high-profile arrival in F1 when standing in for the injured Alonso in Bahrain, Vandoorne insists that scoring McLaren's first point of the year was not necessarily a game-changer in confirming his seat for 2017.
“Sure, it helped, but I think it is fair to say that, in everything I've raced before, everybody was aware of my talent,” he pointed out, “Sure, having had that opportunity has helped my chances because, even if everybody knows that you are a very talented driver, they still want to have proof of how you perform. F1 is very different to anything else and then there was how I handled the circumstances of getting the call at the very last minute, getting into Bahrain very late - straight from the airport into the [F1] car - and then seeing how I worked. That was a big relief for the team - and for me!”
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