ART Grand Prix may have taken Lewis Hamilton and others to GP2 titles at the first time of asking, but expectations of what Stoffel Vandoorne can achieve there this year must be kept in check.
That’s because he’s joining a team that struggled badly last year. James Calado may have finished third in the standings, but he was the pre-season favourite and the team lacked pace in both its cars all season long. Daniel Abt, who came within a whisker of the GP3 title in 2012, was a woeful 22nd, and was immediately more competitive when he switched to Hilmer in testing at the end of the year.
Martin Whitmarsh dropped hints at the end of last year that he was expecting Vandoorne to be a contender in GP2, against the recent trend of rookies struggling and series veterans prevailing. There’s no doubt that Vandoorne has the ability, and had he been placed with DAMS – widely regarded as having one of the best packages with the current generation of rules, and where Vandoorne set the pace in both sessions he did with them on the final day of testing – then that would have been a realistic target.
Vandoorne was not as fast in his two days running with ART, and while it’s dangerous to read too much into testing times, it is safe to say that DAMS have been the better team in recent times.
Despite this, McLaren choosing ART is not hard to fathom. The French operation ran Hamilton in F3 (under ASM guise) and GP2, currently field McLarens in GT competitions and team boss Frederic Vasseur’s Spark venture is working with McLaren in Formula E. Furthermore, there is a new formal tie-up between McLaren and ART, with Honda involved too.
So this is not a criticism of McLaren choosing ART, just a warning that they must do so with the understanding that Vandoorne should not be expected to perform miracles there.
ART is certainly a professional outfit, so a good opportunity for Vandoorne to learn. Furthermore, with him having made the step from Formula Renault 2.0 to 3.5 look relatively easy with a strong package underneath him from Fortec, a slower car could provide him with a useful challenge in terms of his development as a driver.
And in making these points, it’s key to stress that ART have not lost their standing as one of the great junior single-seater racing teams. They know what they’re doing, are an attractive team to work for, and so they ought to be able to sort their problems out. Not like some other uncompetitive teams, who are simply poor in comparison. For all we know, ART could well be back to their best this year.
They will be fielding a line-up that is brand new to GP2. That could be a risky strategy for a team needing to regain competitiveness in a series where experience pays. But on the other hand, Takuya Izawa has six years of experience in Super Formula, a series which is at least as fast as GP2 and in recent years has produced the fastest drivers in sportscars. Input from McLaren and Honda may be of benefit to ART too in getting them back where they belong.
The lack of quality among the returning drivers signed up for the coming season so far should help Vandoorne. He and Ferrari-supported counterpart Raffaele Marciello could be title rivals, using their sheer talent to outweigh the experience of others.
But if that isn’t the case, McLaren shouldn’t mark down their man. Not in a team that has to improve from last year if it is to return to the top of the pile.