Where has McLaren’s star of the future gone?

Not since Nico Hulkenberg (who systematically steamrolled the opposition as he climbed the rungs of the junior ladder through Formula BMW, A1GP, F3 and GP2) has a driver so well accredited arrived on the F1 grid. Much like Max Verstappen’s ascendancy, to speak of Stoffel Vandoorne in the paddock was to be met with hushed tones and knowing nods.

As a junior driver who astonishingly won on debut in both Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2, who out-qualified team-mate Jenson Button and scored McLaren’s first point of 2016 in his Bahrain cameo, and as a young man whose reputation for calm, cerebral diligence proceeds him, the expectations of a Verstappen-grade talent were well justified. No driver since Lewis Hamilton was so seemingly destined to hit the ground running in F1.

But, by any measure, the first eight races of Vandoorne’s career have disappointed. Not only has his pace been consistently distant from the admittedly imposing reference point across the garage, but he has been error prone, at times at critical junctures, such as in qualifying in Monaco, or with the team’s first points on the line a day later.Perhaps most worryingly, he has appeared visibly tentative in the car; unsure of the front axle on the entry of corners and suspicious of the rear stability mid-corner. Stoffel has always had an aggressive driving style, but the distinction between the crispness of the steering and throttle inputs we became accustomed to seeing whilst he was rewriting the GP2 record books, and the outward hesitance we can see behind the wheel of the MCL32 is clear to see. In Baku, even with the utter carnage at the head of the field, Stoffel was unable to take his first points of the season.

Vandoorne’s troubles pose three questions with widely relevant implications:

1) To what extent are junior results an indicator of F1 success?

2) Have the new cars made the transition to F1 more difficult for rookies?

3) Can Stoffel stop the rot, or will McLaren be tempted to review his future with the team?

In answer to the first question, the sheer disparity in the level of technical complexity and scrutiny versus the junior series intuitively means that a driver’s junior series performance level does not always linearly translate into F1. Some, such as Heikki Kovalainen or Nelson Piquet Jr. failed to replicate the form promised by their junior career, whilst others, such as Kamui Kobayashi and arguably even Sebastian Vettel embraced the spotlight and found an entirely new level of performance in themselves.

This disparity has been most clear to see at Force India in recent years: on the one hand, a junior category superstar in Nico Hulkenberg, and on the other, Perez, whose junior career reached its high watermark with a distant P2 in the 2010 GP2 title race behind Pastor Maldonado. However when the podium opportunities came knocking it was the Mexican who could draw on an extra reserve of inner performance to seize the moment.

Therein, Vandoorne cannot complacently believe that his past career is any guarantor of the accomplished grand prix driver he has looked destined to become. That said, the experience he has accrued through a long junior career, including of a turning around a bald patch of pointless races in the early stages of his 2014 GP2 campaign, arguably shows he has the tools to resolve what has been the deepest rut of Stoffel’s career to date.

But has Stoffel been dealt an especially challenging hand by the new generation cars? The physicality, which is certainly the most dramatic change versus the 2016 cars, is unlikely a factor for the fit young Belgian-supported by Mikey “Muscles” Collier (Jenson Button’s former trainer).

Furthermore, the grippier new cars demand less finesse in terms of throttle modulation, which brings the grip/power ratio closer to a Super Formula or Formula Renault 3.5 car, in which Vandoorne won multiple races. That effect is amplified by the fact that the McLaren-Honda MCL32 is dramatically underpowered, and whilst that has had grave consequences for the car’s performance, as a general rule cars with more grip than power tend to be easier to drive.

So whilst the new formula arguably made the leap even greater for F3 graduate Stroll, it ought to have posed no issues for a single seater racer of Vandoorne’s experience.

Perhaps Stoffel has run afoul of the new cars’ ostensibly narrower setup window. More broadly, and whilst this is further speculation, the Belgian’s in-car hesitance might suggest that he is yet to find a steering rack and throttle map setup that he is fully comfortable with, and the fact that his troubles have endured for eight races suggests that Alonso’s settings do not compute with his driving style.

But where is the endpoint of this negative spiral for the prodigiously qualified rookie? There is cause to suggest that Stoffel can turn things around, both in the fact that fellow rookie Stroll has seemingly exorcised some of his demons and in the fact that he turned around a stalling GP2 season in 2014 to be dominant come season end; but there are no guarantees.

Should his toils continue it will likely not be long before some journalists start to question his future with McLaren. But to do so would be to isolate Vandoorne’s performances from the all-encompassing power unit miasma that hangs over a team with an uncertain future, both in terms of Honda and in terms of its perpetually frustrated lead driver.

For McLaren, the fact that they can most probably rely on at least some driver continuity in the likely bruising transition that is almost inevitable at this point makes Stoffel invaluable to the team. In reality, as McLaren’s only driver not desperately eyeing up the exits, Stoffel’s is arguably among the safest seats on the grid. Vandoorne now needs to put aside the spiralling maelstrom of speculation and uncertainty that surrounds the team and work to extract the driver that was promised by his junior series results, the driver that might be tasked with leading McLaren into a new era.

Do you agree? Join the debate by commenting below – I will endeavour to respond to any queries asked

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