STOFFEL Vandoorne will make his much awaited Formula 1 debut for McLaren at this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
Vandoorne will substitute for the injured Fernando Alonso, who has been ruled out of driving on medical grounds with lingering injuries from his horrific crash at Albert Park.
Many pundits rate the 24-year-old Belgian very highly and have been anxiously awaiting his arrival in F1.
Here’s everything you need to know about him.
A talented karter who started racing at just six years of age, Vandoorne has been part of McLaren’s Young Driver Programme for several seasons.
Former McLaren pilot Alexander Wurz put him in touch with the team during his maiden season of Formula Renault 2.0 in 2011.
“Their team started to follow my progress after that and I presented my results to them at the end of 2011,” he said.
“(Then-) McLaren sporting director Sam Michael set up a meeting at the factory in early 2012 and McLaren followed me throughout my World Series by Renault season.
“Then, two days after I won the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 title, they asked me to join the McLaren Young Driver Programme.”
He won that title by fighting off one of the rising stars of Red Bull’s junior team: Daniil Kvyat.
CLASH OF MCLAREN’S RISING STARS
With McLaren’s backing, Vandoorne moved up into the Formula Renault 3.5 class in 2013 — the same class that rocketed Daniel Ricciardo into F1.
The progression brought him into head-to-head battle with fellow McLaren Young Driver Academy member Kevin Magnussen.
Though the Dane would win the title, earning himself an F1 seat with McLaren for 2014, Vandoorne impressed by taking pole position and the race win on debut at Monza on his way to finishing second in the championship.
KING OF GP2
While Magnussen moved to F1, McLaren shifted Vandoorne to the GP2 Series for 2014. He was placed at the ART Grand Prix squad, the same team which vaulted Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Jules Bianchi to stardom.
Just as he’d done in FR3.5, Vandoorne took pole position and won on his debut in the class — coincidentally in Bahrain. A tough run through the early phase of the season cost him his title hopes, but didn’t stop him from finishing second to eventual champion Jolyon Palmer with three late-season wins in Hungary, Italy and Abu Dhabi.
In 2015 he was unstoppable. He claimed the first four Feature Race wins of the season, including his first win at Monaco, and qualified on the front row at every race of the season.
“I knew what my job was. I wanted to dominate the Series in my second season,” he said after clinching the title in Russia — with two whole rounds remaining.
“McLaren as well: everybody said that I had everything at my disposal to win it. To have managed that is a great feeling.
“There’s always some pressure when you start a season, but I think we’ve managed that very well.”
His final margin over the rest of his competitors was a whopping 160 points — almost double that scored by second-placed Alexander Rossi — making Vandoorne the class’s most dominant champion.
Since 2014 he has been one of McLaren’s test drivers, logging plenty of laps behind the wheel in both the team’s simulator and at race tracks.
He was the man behind the wheel in Abu Dhabi when Honda’s F1 engine made its troubled track debut in a McLaren chassis in late 2014, and also took part in post-race tests during 2015.
His most recent F1 experience came at the start of the year when he drove the 2015 McLaren during Pirelli’s wet-weather tyre test at Paul Ricard.
He has yet to drive the real 2016 McLaren-Honda, but has logged plenty of simulator laps in it.
To keep Vandoorne race-fit, McLaren loaned him out to Honda’s Super Formula program in Japan. In fact, he was due to test for his wonderfully-named Docomo Team Dandelion Racing squad this weekend until the call came from McLaren.
But despite his backing, his class behind the wheel and his impressive CV, with Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button on their books, there is still no guarantee he will end up racing for McLaren full-time anytime soon.
“Nothing has been promised but I’m working my way towards F1, that’s definitely where I want to be,” he said in January.
“I already wanted to be there this year and I feel 100 per cent ready to be there [but] unfortunately there were no places available this season.
“I feel I am in the right place. McLaren really trusts in my ability — there are no guarantees for 2017 but it would be a good place for me to be here [and] to race for the team.
“I’ve been with them for a couple of years now and we’ve had a lot of success together and hopefully we can build on that success in the future and hopefully I can get a race drive here.”
HOW WILL HE FARE?
Continuing his streak of wins on debut will almost certainly be too big an ask this weekend, given the current level of competitiveness of the McLaren-Honda package.
So the only true yardstick he can be measured against is his world title-winning teammate, Button.
Magnussen, now a Renault driver, is probably best placed to judge how Vandoorne will stack up.
He expects the Belgian to be able to perform at Button’s level.
“I think he can,” he told the media in Bahrain.
“He is good enough to be in Formula 1 so he will have a good race I’m sure. I know he deserves to be here so I’m happy to see he got a shot.
“It’s a massive opportunity for anyone to get a chance in Formula 1, it’s really really big.
“Not many people get a chance, so I hope he can enjoy it.”