The case of Stoffel Vandoorne should be a warning to the F1 hype brigade

Nate SaundersF1 Associate Editor6 Minute Read

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Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel is a man who knows a thing or two about making it in Formula One.

The Ferrari driver said this in Belgium when asked about Force India's Esteban Ocon qualifying third: "I think, unfortunately it's our times, a new guy comes in and he's the superhero, then another guy comes in and he's the superhero, then another guy comes in and then he's the superhero, and then another guy comes in and he's the new superhero.

"And by that time, the first guy is easily forgotten, even though he's doing a very, very good job but not really considered any more, as in talked about and written about, so that's why I think it's good for him to have this result today, and he should get mentioned."

This entire quote can be perfectly applied to Stoffel Vandoorne who, McLaren confirmed on Monday, will not be driving for the team in 2019. Just a few years ago many were talking about Vandoorne as F1's next superhero. For good reason, too: that year, the Belgian completed one of the most dominant seasons in the history of GP2 (now known as Formula Two).

Perhaps it is a curse of the social media age, perhaps it is just because we want to see the next big superstar in every young driver since Max Verstappen joined the grid, but there was a time when many believed it was a matter of when, not if, Vandoorne would add his name into the elite group of drivers considered worthy of championship winning machinery.

Vandoorne trails Alonso by 36 points in the drivers' championship.Charles Coates/Getty Images

In fact, many of the plaudits thrown his way were very similar to those now floating around Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc, who had an equally dominant F2 campaign last year and has turned in several impressive displays for Sauber so far in 2018. It might seem ridiculous now, but there was a time people were talking about Vandoorne in the same way they are currently talking about Leclerc.

That hype can be a dangerous thing. Vandoorne should be a reminder that expecting too much, too soon of a youngster -- especially in F1's feeder categories, which include as many talented drivers as it does those who don't deserve to be one step away from F1 -- can be grossly unfair. Even Verstappen had his on and off days at Toro Rosso before his elevation to Red Bull, where he won on his debut -- his erratic form since then has always come with the footnote that we know just how good he can be on his day. Vandoorne has never had the opportunity to do the same.

A lose-lose situation

Alonso has comprehensively beaten beaten Vandoorne during their time as teammates together, but has often praised the Belgian in the media.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The deck was always stacked against Vandoorne in F1. The Belgian was dropped into a dumpster fire of a situation: a McLaren team at war with Honda and at war with itself internally. It probably designed an awful car last year and definitely did this year, with the excuses made about Honda well and truly exposed for what they really were since the switch to Renault. As Vandoorne put it himself after his home race, the team has not made progress at all in 2018. It has fared so badly that it has squeezed the last ounce of patience and hunger from the competitive animal that is Fernando Alonso and prompted him to quit the sport at the end of the year. The only resemblance McLaren currently bares to the great team it used to be is its name.

The presence of his teammate complicated things further. In Alonso, Vandoorne was also pitted against one of the finest drivers to have ever graced an F1 grid, one with a chip on his shoulder about spending the twilight of his days fighting for scraps at the back of the grid and on a mission to remind the world of how good he really is. Vandoorne's head-to-head record against Alonso makes for miserable reading on the face of it (14-0 in the Spaniard's favour this year) but it's hard to argue that many young drivers on the grid would have fared any better against a man as brilliantly consistent as Alonso.

That record actually gives an unfair view of how things really have been. In terms of pure lap times, Vandoorne has been one of the closest teammates to Alonso on Saturday afternoons. The biggest problem, especially this year, has been on Sundays. While the two finished last year closely matched on points, Alonso currently has 44 points to Vandoorne's eight -- and the Belgian hasn't added to that tally since April's Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Too often Vandoorne has faded in races while Alonso has taken the car by the scruff of the neck and forced it further up the grid than it probably deserved to be.

Add to that McLaren's track record since Lewis Hamilton left and it's little wonder he hasn't been successful. The team didn't know what to do with Kevin Magnussen and it fed Sergio Perez to the wolves after one erratic season in 2013 -- both have fared much better since finding homes elsewhere on the grid.

The Hamilton comparison is worth exploring too. Hamilton enjoyed one of the finest rookie seasons F1 has ever seen in 2007 (also against Alonso). But it was always unfair for people to have expected Vandoorne to do the same. Hamilton came into F1 as the best-prepared rookie of all time, with promotion only coming after a series of tests in 2006 convinced Ron Dennis to take the gamble on his hottest young commodity. When he got there, he was immediately blessed with a car capable of winning that year's championship. That should not take away from what the rookie Hamilton achieved that year but Vandoorne had no chance of making the same impact on F1.

Vandoorne deserves a second chance

Hopefully, Vandoorne's stock has not been damaged enough for another team to opt against handing him another opportunity. The talent he showed in 2015 was genuine and deserved to be properly harnessed. If there are questions about whether he has the temperament to succeed in F1 then there also needs to be questions about whether McLaren is a healthy environment for a young driver.

The whispers of interest from Toro Rosso and Sauber intensified in recent weeks as it became more and more obvious McLaren boss Zak Brown was set to jettison Vandoorne. Both of those would represent a perfect lifeline -- arguably, both would be a step up the grid. Given how quickly the F1 hype brigade was to turn against Vandoorne the least he deserves is another chance to prove to us whether any of it was justified in the first place.