McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne thinks it would be a mistake if he focused only on trying to beat Fernando Alonso in Formula 1 this season.
The Belgian is replacing Jenson Button, and starts his first full season amid high expectations after a successful junior career and a point-scoring F1 debut at last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
But while there will be great interest in how he compares against two-time world champion Alonso, Vandoorne himself insists that the priority for him is not just edging out his Spanish teammate.
“I get on very well with Fernando,” Vandoorne said in an exclusive interview with Motorsport.com.
“Of course I have been able to work with him for the past two years, and see how he operates in the team and how he pushes the team forward. I know very much what he is like.
“He is a very competitive driver and everybody knows his capabilities and still thinks he is one of the best around. So I will definitely have a very good benchmark next to me.
“But for me it would be wrong to only focus on Fernando. I think our main target is to get McLaren-Honda back to the front, which we will be focusing on.
“Then for me I just have to make sure that I make the most out of every situation, don’t make any silly mistakes, and make sure I do everything right.
“When I do that, I usually manage to have some good results as well, so that for me will be the main focus.”
No extra pressure
Going up against Alonso will inevitably put a big spotlight on Vandoorne’s form this season, but he says he is ready for anything, and does not feel that there will be added pressure.
“I guess that is quite normal in F1,” he said. “F1 has always been a pressure environment and it has always been a world where you either perform or you don’t. I don’t see it any different.
“I’ve been asked to perform in every series I have been driving in, so of course F1 is another step up. Plus you have all the media around every weekend, asking you questions after a bad race or whatever, so it is always going to be like that. But you know you are up for that.”
He thinks too he has gained from being able to observe how Alonso and Button worked.
“For me it has been a good position to be in and see both sides of the garage, how they were preparing their weekend, building up to a Sunday race. It is something that I haven’t got much experience on myself yet.
“But I have some ideas and expectations on how to do it and, having had the chance to work with them, it gave me some more information to know how they did that.”
Although Vandoorne has shown through title-winning campaigns in GP2 and Formula Renault 2.0 that he is one of the brightest young talents around, he knows his chances during a rookie F1 campaign rest on the competitiveness of his McLaren-Honda car.
Amid uncertainty about the progress that Honda has made with its revamped engine, Vandoorne says that making predictions for the campaign ahead is too hard right now.
“I haven’t set any real expectations so far,” he said. “It is so difficult for me to know where we will be in terms of performance, and I think for everybody it is a little bit the same – they don’t know exactly where we will be.
“Of course we expect the top teams to fight for the top positions and it will always be like that. But we don’t know in which order yet.
“For me, I am just focusing on what I have always done – making sure I don’t make any mistakes, making sure I am up to date with all the processes and procedures that we have to go to.
“For me, for the most important thing is that I come to Barcelona testing and we can start focusing on performance and not having to go through all the driver bits that I should learn.”
McLaren has undergone a major overhaul of its working practices in recent years, and is upbeat that it now has an infrastructure to make the most of the opportunities given by new regulations this year.
Vandoorne himself says that he has noticed rapid progress from the team in terms of the performance of the car in the simulator – which should bode well for its campaign ahead.
“Especially with new regulations, every week you come in there are new things – and new things we learn about,” he said.
“There has been progress over the past weeks and over Christmas, there has been very good progress – but the thing is where do you put that compared to the other teams? We don’t know, and that is something we will have to wait until we finally get on track.”