And so another bright talent of the Formula 1 world prepares to bid farewell to the grandest stage in motorsport. On Monday, it was confirmed that Stoffel Vandoorne will depart F1 at the end of the 2018 season in order to take up a Formula E drive with the new HWA team.

Vandoorne is taken a well-trodden path of grand prix drivers who have shifted into the all-electric series - 22 in total over the past four years - but is it one that will signal the end of his hopes of returning to F1 in the future?

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The tragedy of Vandoorne’s full-time F1 career to date is well-known. Following a stunning junior career that was capped off with a crushing GP2 title win in 2015, the Belgian was posted to Japan the following year in Super Formula, albeit making his F1 debut when stepping in for the injured Fernando Alonso in Bahrain.

Named as Jenson Button’s full-time replacement from 2017, Vandoorne joined McLaren as it hit its lowest ebb. A frustrating year with Honda has been followed by a true reality check for the team this year, proving its lack of pace was not solely down to power unit problems.

But Vandoorne’s failure to regularly beat teammate Fernando Alonso in races - or, in qualifying this year, at all - hurt his chances of staying. McLaren appeared to have settled on jettisoning Vandoorne long before confirmation of his departure arrived in September, with the team opting for a clean slate next year by partnering rookie Lando Norris with current Renault racer Carlos Sainz Jr.

Vandoorne had a couple of shots at remaining in F1 at the time of the announcement, but was snubbed by Toro Rosso, while Sauber had its heart set on Kimi Raikkonen for 2019. He did not see himself as a victim of timing in this most turbulent of silly seasons, though, conceding himself that he doubted that if McLaren’s decision had gone public earlier would have had much impact on his future: “I’m not 100 percent sure that it would have changed the situation a lot, no.”

Formula E and IndyCar became the two primary options for Vandoorne, as is the case for most F1 drivers frozen out of the grid nowadays given the decline of both DTM and LMP1. At Suzuka, he said he was “pretty decided” on what he wanted to do, having reportedly by then sampled a Formula E car (something he denied one week earlier).

Formula E may be an up-and-coming series, but for drivers looking to keep themselves in the picture for F1, there are better championships to keep sharp. Formula E cars are a different animal to anything else out there, with many talented drivers struggling to adapt at first. Three-time Le Mans winner Andre Lotterer had a nightmare first couple of weekends before cracking the code on how to race Formula E cars, while Felipe Massa is braced for a steep learning curve in his debut season this year.

So why would Vandoorne shift to Formula E if he still had hopes of forging a career in F1? To his credit, he is open-minded about trying a different series for a while. Asked about the prospect of building a new project long-term versus keeping links to F1, Vandoorne said: “Obviously you’re not only thinking one year ahead, you’re also thinking to the future. At the moment, I can’t really tell. It’s kind of hard to know exactly. To have a new challenge and having to go a few years, that’s not a bad thing sometimes.”

The idea of making this career shift into Formula E is something that has deterred Marcus Ericsson from pursuing a drive in the all-electric series. He spoke at Suzuka about his desire to return to F1 in the future after losing his Sauber seat for next year, with IndyCar standing out as the best series for him to use as a layover.

“It’s a very interesting series I think and it’s definitely one of the options, but I don't know,” Ericsson said of Formula E.

“I keep all options open, but… I don’t know. I think Formula E is interesting in many aspects but I think to stay in the F1 sort of driving I think maybe it’s not the best series for that.

“I think if I go to Formula E, it’s a career move, whereas there are some other options where you can keep on the radar for F1 more and come back here.”

Drivers who move into Formula E tend to do so as a ‘career move’ like Ericsson mentioned, even if they do not want it to be at the time. Take reigning champion Jean-Eric Vergne: he went there initially as a stop gap to try and either return to F1, or to secure an IndyCar drive. As time wore on, he grew increasingly comfortable in the series, going on to become one of its most visible figures, and ultimately win the title last year - but that was never the original plan.

Thus far, only one driver who has raced in Formula E has gone on to make an F1 appearance thereafter: Pierre Gasly, who did two races stepping in for Sebastien Buemi at Renault e.dams in New York last year. Season 4 champion Vergne revealed earlier this year he had been subject to an F1 approach for 2019 after his title win, but he had little interest in a return if he could not do so and be competitive. Seemingly the chances of going from Formula E to F1 are very slim indeed.

The difference for Vandoorne in his Formula E move comes in the links offered by HWA back to F1 - through Mercedes.

HWA will only exist as ‘HWA’ in Formula E for a single season before it becomes the Mercedes factory team for the start of the 2019/20 campaign, following the German marque’s decision to quit DTM and start an electric project. Having conquered the F1 world over the last five years, Mercedes is continuing to explore new interests in motorsport, with Formula E being a key part of its plans for the future.

Mercedes motorsport chief Toto Wolff has always been a big fan of Vandoorne. Back in 2016, Wolff said McLaren would be “crazy” not to give Vandoorne a seat for the following year, adding: “If not, I will find him a seat. I promise.” He even spoke of Vandoorne in bolder terms that Mercedes’ own juniors, Esteban Ocon or Pascal Wehrlein. Naturally, the last two years haven’t done a huge amount for Vandoorne’s reputation, but drivers don’t lose the talent that propelled them to his kinds of success in junior categories overnight.

Mercedes may have its own driver headache right now, with Ocon set to be on the sidelines next year, but to have a driver of Vandoorne’s quality as part of its wider motorsport family would be no bad thing. No mention has been made of any links to Mercedes as part of the deal, but even to theoretically work as a simulator driver, Vandoorne is in a position to chip in on the F1 project.

It may not be a surefire way to be in the frame for an F1 return somewhere down the line - Mercedes has its succession plan set - but it is nevertheless a link to the paddock. Combining that with some impressive Formula E performances looks to be his best shot at a return right now.

But the biggest thing Formula E can offer Vandoorne is the chance to reset. He’s been put through the mill in the last two years with McLaren, tasting disappointment after disappointment. It takes a toll on drivers, particularly those who were so dominant in their junior days, winning at every level.

The need to reset is something Vergne knew only all too well after being dropped by Toro Rosso at the end of 2014 prior to his Formula E move despite being told he was in place for a Red Bull drive at one stage. Much as Vandoorne has spent all of his senior career under the McLaren umbrella, Vergne was a Red Bull junior before finding himself outside of the programme in Formula E.

Vergne made mention of Vandoorne in an interview with Crash.net earlier this year when talking about the stresses the fickle world of F1 could create.

“Look at Vandoorne, he’s the best example. He’s the driver that had probably the most successful junior career before Formula 1, and I read today in the press that maybe he’s not even going to be in Spa,” Vergne said, amid reports McLaren could replace Vandoorne with Ocon for the Belgian Grand Prix.

“I’m sorry, but you don’t become bad in six months. He’s in this situation because he was unlucky to arrive in the time of his life where McLaren was at the lowest.

“If he comes in a season when McLaren was what it was in 2007 and 2008, he would be in a completely different position. He would be fighting for the world title like Lewis was when he arrived in F1 with McLaren.

“Obviously, not having the experience or the maturity, this is when it’s very hard to handle. I’ve handled disappointment. I’ve handled pressure. I’ve handled I think a bit of everything, especially from the negative side of handling the big things.

“I guess it made me a lot more cooler and relaxed about how I approach racing.”

Formula E will give Vandoorne the chance to truly take stock of the past two years, as well as exploring an exciting new championship with a future works-backed team that has links to F1.

As next steps go, this seems to be a very good one indeed for a talent yet to show his true colours in F1. Even with this detour, let’s hope he gets the still gets the chance to do that.

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