Formula 1 can be a cruel business and, as if to prove it, there’s occasionally nowhere harsher than within a place of F1 social accord.
The McLaren Brand Centre is a well-run and welcoming haven for media waifs and strays roaming the paddock. You’ll pick up gossip and scandal as readily as a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. And yet the irony is that the McLaren travelling HQ can be unintentionally hurtful to its own.
On the fringe of pockets of conversation and intrigue you’ll see reserve drivers cooling their heels, putting on a cheerful face while secretly hoping one of the race drivers breaks a leg or knocks himself out; nothing too serious, but enough to have the reserve slip into something more flattering and flameproof than the team t-shirt. Kevin Magnussen sat for endless hours in the Brand Centre as an understudy; Stoffel Vandoorne did the same before finally receiving the electronic pass to the race drivers’ rooms.
Even then, the discomfort can continue, particularly if your career is in that period of limbo that can play such an agonising part in a driver’s life at this time of year.
Vandoorne’s future with McLaren may have been in the balance through the recent Monza weekend but a brief cameo in the Brand Centre on the Friday morning gave a huge clue as a senior member of the management walked in and gave the Belgian a perfunctory – almost embarrassed – greeting.
Even allowing for the boss having much on his mind, the painfully formal salutation was in marked contrast to the fraternal handshake and gushing embrace normally bestowed each morning upon drivers perceived to be the most important members of the family. So it’s goodbye Stoffel, then.
The official confirmation a few days later was therefore no surprise, if only because it is in line with F1’s habit of perpetually looking over a brilliant novice’s shoulder for the next in line. Stoffel can tell Lando Norris a thing or two about that because, if anything, Vandoorne’s credentials were much more substantial than his replacement’s at this point of hyped elevation in their respective careers.
Vandoorne’s progress in GP2 (now F2) was outstanding. He led from the front; came through from the midfield; simply outdrove the substantial competition in his second year; nobody could touch him. Better than that, when called to Bahrain at the eleventh hour in 2016 to replace Alonso (following Fernando’s massive shunt in Melbourne), Vandoorne flew in from Japan, jumped in the McLaren, qualified ahead of Jenson Button’s MP4-31 and scored a point. Even allowing for the usual praise than comes with novelty value, he would not come close to generating such headlines again.
You can point to any number of reasons but none would suggest that, as often happens, Vandoorne was a young star who found he couldn’t hack it when dealing with the unparalleled pressures that come with F1. He had to cope with an atrocious car run by a company in such managerial turmoil that the self-absorbed technical chiefs were allowed to blame the Honda engine while covering their own inadequacies.
More to the point, Vandoorne was being compared with a double World Champion. Fernando Alonso may have his faults out of the car but, in it, he remains a phenomenal force, carrying the MCL33 and the one before it to places they had no right to be. For Vandoorne to be among the closest qualifiers to Alonso in the Spaniard’s extensive history is a fact that is even less debatable than Vandoorne’s suspect chassis that was not replaced until the Hungarian Grand Prix.
By then, the moment had passed. The name Vandoorne had become passé, just as it did for Magnussen and Sergio Pérez. Norris must hope he’s not the next victim of McLaren’s fickle reasoning and one day be quietly offered a capricious cold hand in the midst of the team’s outwardly warm largesse.