The Sleeping Giant of F1’s Future: Stoffel Vandoorne

Miles WrayAside from the headlining championship fight, the 2017 Formula 1 season has been about, more than anything, the monster group of 20-and-under drivers who look ready to dominate the next decade of the sport. Esteban Ocon has metronomically grabbed points in 17 of the 18 Grands Prix. After early-season reliability nightmares made Lance Stroll the punching bag of the grid, he has rebounded to outscore his 15-year veteran teammate, Felipe Massa, 40 to 36. And nobody would be surprised to see Max Verstappen eventually crowned the 2018 champion: now that his car has actually gotten to the finish line in the last four straight races, he has outscored every other driver in that timespan.

None of this excitement has surrounded Stoffel Vandoorne in 2017, his first full season in F1. For starters, he turned 25 years old way back in March — practically a generation older than the ultra-young members of the grid. But mostly, Vandoorne has had the misfortune of being in the doomed McLaren-Honda car, the low-speed reliability nightmare.

Still, despite being in the most ill-equipped Formula 1 car this side of Sauber, I think taking a deeper look at Vandoorne’s season reveals some very real reasons to believe he will quickly be among the elites in the sport. Here’s hoping that the last two Grands Prix of the season will see a brighter spotlight shone on the most criminally under-reported sub-plot of the year: Vandoorne has outscored Fernando Alonso, 13 to 11.

Despite the woeful reliability issues, Vandoorne has outscored Alonso in 2017.

Entering the 2017 season, there was reason to believe that Alonso — aside from his own radio boasts that he drives the best race of his career with each new week — is still an elite driver. Using a statistical model that emphasizes head-to-head performance against teammates, Dr. Andrew Phillips of f1metrics found Alonso to be the very most skilled driver of the 2016 season, despite a pedestrian 10th-place overall finish. So, even though Vandoorne and Alonso are a lowly 15th and 16th overall in the standings this season, the fact that Vandoorne is an inch past Alonso is — and, truly, no sarcasm here — a major accomplishment.

Interestingly, Vandoorne has this points edge on Alonso even though Alonso has a massive lead in head-to-head qualifying and head-to-head race results. The two drivers have gone up against each other in 17 races, with Alonso famously absent for Round 6 in Monaco. Ignoring eventual grid penalties, Alonso has posted the faster qualifying time in 13 of those races, with Vandoorne beating him only four times. Amazingly, there have only been five Grands Prix where both McLarens have gotten all the way to the finish line (including three of the last four races). Alonso finished ahead of his teammate four times, with Vandoorne only bettering the Spaniard once, in Malaysia. It turns out, though, that getting to the finish line has been the major difference between the two drivers. There have been three weekends (plus also Monaco) where neither McLaren has finished the race. It feels safe to chalk those results up to the tragicomedy that is the Honda-supplied engine. However, there has only been one occasion where Alonso has finished but Vandoorne hasn’t (which was maybe-not-coincidentally Alonso’s home race in Spain). Compare that to the eight times where Vandoorne has finished a race, but Alonso hasn’t. This means that Vandoorne has seen the checkered flag 13 times this year — or, more times than Marcus Ericsson, Nico Hülkenberg, Carlos Sainz, Jr., Verstappen, and of course Alonso. Uh, wait — why was the McLaren-Honda car such an outlier of a  disaster again?

Vandoorne: the upper hand.

Going into the season, Vandoorne faced a rare and steep uphill battle against his teammate: he was a rookie (which I’ll define as fewer than 15 career Grands Prix starts), and his teammate had previously won a world championship. Since 1991 — which is the first season that points from every single race counted towards the championship total — there have only been nine full-season teammate pairings of an experienced champion with a series rookie. For seven of those teams, the experienced champion outscored the new guy, usually posting double or even triple the points. Note that Alonso himself is one of these seven examples


Prior Champion


New Teammate



Nelson Piquet


Roberto Moreno



Alain Prost


Damon Hill



Ayrton Senna


Michael Andretti



Damon Hill


Ralf Schumacher



Fernando Alonso


Nelson Piquet, Jr.



Kimi Räikkönen


Romain Grosjean



Jenson Button


Kevin Magnussen


There are two times where the new guy managed a tie with the experienced veteran. These happened in very different scenarios:


Prior Champion


New Teammate



Jacques Villeneuve


Ricardo Zonta



Fernando Alonso


Lewis Hamilton


I wasn’t watching Formula 1 in 1999, but the Bar-Supertec car that Villeneuve and Zonta were driving looks much more embarrassing than McLaren ever was this year. The two drivers between them could only finish eight of their 32 combined entries, resulting in zero total points. Given that Zonta only raced one more full season in F1, it feels fair to say that those woeful reliability problems, and not raw driver talent, is what created that tie.

The other example is far more interesting: Hamilton’s sensational rookie year, where he was embroiled in a three-way championship battle with teammate Alonso and eventual winner Räikkönen down to the final race. This was the only compelling example, in the modern era, of a rookie successfully keeping pace with a member of that elite inner circle of championship-winners. Until now.

This is not to say that Vandoorne is destined to have the historic success of the four-time champion Hamilton. Given Alonso’s huge lead in head-to-head qualifying and race results, the former champion could very well have opened up a huge points gap over Vandoorne if both were in more reliable, contending cars. But, then again, they aren’t in contending cars, and by finishing a surprising percentage of races, it is Vandoorne who has done the better job of making lemonade out of lemons. Contending teams who are looking to fill a seat in the drivers’ market in the next few years would be wise to look past Vandoorne’s meager points total and appreciate the true nature of his unlikely 2017 season.

At the very least: this match-up is something interesting to keep your eye on in the last two races of the year.


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