Stoffel Vandoorne on his year in Super Formula: ‘For some questions I used Google Translate’

In what was an interesting development: suddenly, the then-McLaren protégé Stoffel Vandoorne was ordered to compete in Super Formula, the top class in Japanese open wheel racing. In 2016 McLaren had already given away their Formula 1 seats and as reigning GP2 champion Vandoorne wasn’t allowed to return to the highest feeder series. Talking with F1 Feeder Series, Vandoorne looks back at a special year.

By René Oudman

In every Super Formula season there is – from a Japanese perspective, that is – at least one ‘exotic’ on the grid, a foreigner from a far-away land. This year, Sacha Fenestraz and Giuliano Alesi, both from France, are the two members of that class. In the past, André Lotterer was torch-bearer of the Foreigners Club, which at some point also included current Formula One driver Pierre Gasly and reigning IndyCar champion Álex Palou. 

For the 2016 season, McLaren is diligently searching for a seat for pupil Vandoorne, who at the time has just won the GP2 title. With permanent seats for Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso in Formula One, there is no room for the up-and-coming talent, who according to the McLaren philosophy must not sit on the sidelines for a year. Then-engine supplier Honda offers the solution – why don’t McLaren put Vandoorne in Japanese Super Formula for a year? Vandoorne becomes member of the SF Foreigners Club, slightly larger back then than these days, with Lotterer, James Rossiter and João Paulo de Oliveira accompanying him on the grid.

With eight of the nineteen entries being powered by Honda in 2016 McLaren’s partner is in the minority compared to rival Toyota, but that doesn’t spoil the fun. With Dandelion, Nakajima Racing and Team Mugen, Honda has three particularly large players in its portfolio. Since Mugen is only using one car and Nakajima holds a seat for Vandoorne’s fellow countryman Bertrand Baguette, McLaren’s only chance is with Dandelion. There Vandoorne races alongside current Super Formula champion Tomoki Nojiri.

The racing [in Super Formula] was really old school compared to what I was used to in Europe

Stoffel Vandoorne

“It was a very nice experience to race in Japan for a year,” Vandoorne looks back on the events of six years ago. “The racing there was really old school compared to what I was used to in Europe, in the GP2 Series and the standard we had at that time in Formula One. But when I say old school, I really mean old school in all aspects: the engineering for example, there was no real theory behind it.”

Vandoorne remembers races in Japan where both driver and team were not quite sure what strategy to follow. “It was all a bit on the fly,” laughs the Formula E championship leader, “but that was fun to experience too! I did feel that I had to step up, to give the team direction on what to do regarding the set-up, what we could improve. It was a nice experience to be a semi-engineer myself.”

Between the lines, Vandoorne is learning an extraordinary amount in Japan thanks to the lack of things he is used to in Europe. That’s exactly what McLaren was hoping for as the British squad is preparing him for a full time Formula One ride in 2017. Meanwhile, the Belgian driver already finished his first Grand Prix when Alonso gets injured after a heavy accident in Melbourne, Vandoorne gets the nod to race at the Bahrain Grand Prix. Vandoorne impresses to take tenth and his first World Championship point, although the material is not any better than midfield level. Once back in Japan Vandoorne had to quickly adapt to the standards there.

Sometimes I didn’t know whether to come in for a pit stop or to stay out

Stoffel Vandoorne on the language barrier with his race engineer

“Almost nobody spoke English”, Vandoorne chuckles, thinking back to 2016. “My engineer knew a few words and the team manager was able to say some things too, but that’s it. It was very difficult to have good communication with the team. Even during the races. Sometimes I didn’t know whether to come in for a pit stop or to stay out. Even questions about the balance of the car were sometimes incomprehensible.”

Hands and feet go a long way, Vandoorne noticed. “For some questions I sometimes used Google Translate,” the 30-year-old winks. “Or I had to draw things on paper. It was a really fun experience though, looking back on it that way.”

For Vandoorne the 2016 season was one with a lot of flying hours. “After all, I didn’t live in Japan. I had to go along to all the Grands Prix as a reserve driver for McLaren and so I had quite a bit of travel time.” The most famous story, of course, is that Vandoorne had to read up on McLaren’s car on the plane from Tokyo to Manama to replace Alonso. All in all, Vandoorne believes the Japanese year has contributed to his development as a driver. “I had a really good time there,” he concludes.

Header photo credit: Dandelion Racing

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