After stratospheric performances in Formula Renault 3.5, GP2 and Super Formula, Stoffel Vandoorne has had two difficult seasons in Formula One driving for McLaren. But his switch to Formula E with HWA RACELAB could yet recover his battered and bruised reputation.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A driver with a successful pedigree in the junior categories makes it to F1 as the next big thing, only to find themselves in an uncompetitive car and outshone by a more successful teammate. The team no longer requires their services, and the driver finds themselves moving to Formula E to carry on their career.
This is exactly what happened to Jean-Eric Vergne, who is now the reigning Formula E champion. And the similarities between Vergne and Vandoorne’s entries make for an interesting comparison.
Vergne admitted last year that upon first entering Formula E partway through the inaugural season with Andretti, he had an extremely negative mindset.
“I came into Formula E in the worst possible state of mind,” Vergne said. “I was out of F1, I was angry, disappointed, sad, I was feeling a lot of negative feelings. Obviously getting pole position was nice but it’s not helped me to get to where I am today.”
This very much re-contextualises Vergne’s early performances in Formula E. For example, it’s perhaps fair to point out that although Vergne had a superb qualifying record in that first season, securing three pole positions, he was unable to convert a single one of them to victory. His second season with DS Virgin started even worse, with five none-scores in the first six races, and he didn’t start to turn his results around until the last four races, where he scored 50 points and three podiums in a row. Vergne then signed for Techeetah and the rest, as they say, is history.
Unlike Vergne, Vandoorne surprisingly seems to be in a much better frame of mind than Vergne was. He is not ruing a missed opportunity at McLaren; instead, he is grateful for that one that he got. During the entirety of the silly season, he has always been open to series outside of F1, even joking in the F1 paddock that he was considering a NASCAR drive. Put simply, Vandoorne’s mind is now on the future, rather than dwelling on the past; he has taken a pretty bleak situation in F1 and turned it into an opportunity to do something new.
The fact that Vandoorne has signed for HWA, a new team to the series, alongside another FE rookie in recently crowned DTM champion Gary Paffett, means that expectations are low. Vandoorne may not have much experience of street circuits, but he did win the feature race at Monaco in GP2 during his title-winning season; that certainly should help when FE visits the venue this season. (Albeit on the abridged circuit)
Finally, because HWA are a new team to the sport, Vandoorne and Paffett will be learning the ropes along with the team, and perhaps a few teething troubles are expected as the squad is bought up to speed with the intricacies of the Gen2 machinery.
Compare this to the environment at McLaren; not only is the team having to deal with internal politics but due to its history and legacy, there is a massive amount of media attention and criticism towards any element of the team that is seen as not pulling its weight.
HWA is not the full Mercedes team, so whilst there is certainly intrigue as to how the new team and it’s ex-F1 driver will get on, the spotlight and external pressure is nowhere near as big, meaning Vandoorne has a more nurturing environment in which to get on and do his job. However, given that there will be seats up for grabs when Mercedes do make their works entry in season 6, this could easily change in the future…