Race Blog
China 2016

Belgian waffle

Race three, victory three. Counting his late-2015 run of success, Nico Rosberg has had sole possession of F1’s podium top step for quite some time. Nearly six months to be precise. No one has stood above the German since the United States Grand Prix way back on October 25 last year...

Impressive for sure. Title-chasing form, no doubt. Driving beautifully, assured, solid, fast and reliable, Nico is right now at the top of his game.

But there’s a but. A big but: his team-mate is a three-time world champion hungry for more success, hungry to put the blond-haired German back in his box. Lewis will win again and everyone knows it.

Talk to just about any of the clever minds within the all-conquering Mercedes team and they’ll leave you in no doubt. No doubt that the 2016-model Lewis Hamilton is cool, calm and unflustered, 100 per cent confident in his ability to win again and win again soon.

Luck – as we all know – is a ridiculous fallacy. There is no such thing. Hamilton knows the pendulum of race-car reliability can swing this way and that, affecting qualifying and race results at will. Central to success are not vacuous excuses blaming happenstance for the choices one makes, rather having the assured self-belief that through hard work, application and natural talent success will inevitably follow. Lewis has this in bucketfuls.

Once or twice every F1 decade it’s time for a clear-out. Older drivers on the bubble, ready to admit their time is done. TV punditry, driver management, eating what they like, gaining weight, family time, pedalling sports cars or pedalos, all are activities on the cards for our thirty-something former heroes. Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button can all hear the tick-tock of the past-it-F1 clock getting louder race by 2016 race. 

I don’t mean to be disingenuous, it’s just the way it is. Inevitably the pressure is increased when the next generation of potential superstars is a vintage crop.

And that’s where we are right now.

All of us are well aware that Max Verstappen is a red-hot talent, destined as he certainly is for a 2017 Red Bull race seat. Kevin Magnussen is a super-quick racer worthy of a top-team drive. Pascal Wehrlein is feted by many as a future superstar, and waiting in the wings we have the young and gifted Frenchman Esteban Ocon.

But the best of the young chargers? My money’s on a Belgian. Stoffel Vandoorne. I know, it’s not the ‘quickest’ racing driver name one’s ever read, but boy can this lad drive.

I’m no soothsayer but I do take an interest. Close-on 30 years of observing every F1 driver through the sharp focus of a telephoto lens has given me a pretty good appreciation of those that have it and those that don’t. But what does a mere F1 snapper know?!  Perhaps you’ll believe Rob Wilson.  

New Zealander Rob is a versatile and successful racing driver, now retired, and an expert and experienced racing driver coach, employed by several F3, GP3 and GP2 teams and the like in order to appraise and train young racing drivers, and used for many years for the same reasons by the McLaren Formula 1 team.

During those years, in connection with his work with McLaren, Rob has trained David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya, Heikki Kovalainen, Sergio Perez, Kevin Magnussen, and of course Stoffel Vandoorne. Always using standard road cars and invariably utilising the Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground in Leicestershire, England, Rob is hard-wired to know who’s got what it takes.

On Stoffel’s abilities, Wilson is resolute; “Of all the drivers I’ve worked with over the years, I’ve never encountered one with greater car control than Stoffel Vandoorne. In fact, I’d say there’s a new Jochen Rindt coming along, and his name is Stoffel Vandoorne.”

Taking his chance at the recent Bahrain Grand Prix, our young Belgian – in ‘yoof’ parlance – smashed it!

Out-qualifying team-mate Jenson Button and out-racing many seasoned F1 drivers, Stoffel scored a point in his very first grand prix. No mean feat given the recent lacklustre performance of the Honda-powered racers. 

For reasons I know not, Vandoorne is managerless right now. With no briefcase-wielding smarm-merchant in tow to knock on top-team powerbrokers’ doors, Stoffel needed to strike while his stock was high. Thinking as all bona fide potential champions do, Vandoorne showed initiative and guile, introducing himself to some sharp-end-of-the-F1-paddock personalities.

A meeting with Toto Wolff duly ensued. The switched-on Mercedes team boss knows an opportunity when he sees one and wasted no time in accepting Vandoorne’s invitation.

So back to where I started; Nico. Toto knows, as do we all, that Rosberg’s contract runs until the end of the current season. While we are only approaching race four, driver choices and the pressure to put pen to paper have a habit of gathering momentum, and when there are drivers like Stoffel available that pressure is high.

Of course, while Nico is winning it’s very hard for Toto and his Stuttgart paymasters to wave auf wiedersehen to a German flag-wearing racer, but once Lewis gets back in his stride, attitudes will change.

Keep paying $15 million-plus for an affable ‘number two’ or have a cool, calm, cheap and ultra-promising potential superstar in your F1 W08? Mercedes choosing the latter of the two options won’t surprise me…

Knowing, as he surely does, that Ferrari are also taking a keen interest in Vandoorne, Toto may be forced to make a move sooner than he’d like. If he doesn’t he may miss out. Everyone within and without the sport knows well that the Scuderia need to replace the charismaless and rude robot Kimi Raikkonen soon. Taking possibly the hottest emerging talent available right now, for their 2017 campaign, would be a very wise move. 

In F1, as in life, fortune favours the bold. He who strikes first, strikes twice…


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