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Stoffel Vandoorne: My love for racing

The Aston Martin Aramco Test and Reserve Driver opens up about his motorsport journey and how recent years and a change in mindset have seen him rekindle his passion for racing.

Aston Martin F1

I was hooked on motorsport from the start. I tried a lot of sports growing up, but I never had the same passion for them as I did for racing.

I started racing when I was five years old, but it was pure coincidence that set me down this path.

My family had no roots or connection to motorsport. My dad's an architect, and he designed the restaurant of a kart track near where I grew up. He became good friends with the owner, and I'd go with Dad when he was going to work. The owner would let me drive every time I was there and that's how I got the bug.

At home, we transformed our tennis court into a racetrack, making little circuits by laying out tyres and I'd go around endlessly. These were my first steps into the motorsport world.

As a kid, I never thought about the sacrifices and challenges to be able to go racing; all I was doing was having fun.

Once I started doing well, I was asking Dad for more and more, and financially he had to find ways to support what I wanted to do. I wasn't necessarily aware of the financial pressure my family took on for me to pursue my dreams.

When you're young, you take everything for granted. Now I'm older, I understand and appreciate the sacrifices that my family made for me to do what I loved.

In karting, I won some championships, but the critical point of my career was my first couple of years in cars. There's no guarantee that the transition from karts to cars will go well; some drivers do better in karts than they do in cars but for me it was the opposite. I was good in karts, but I wasn't the next superstar, and it turned out cars just suited me better with the way they behaved when I drove them.

I won the championship in my first year in Formula 4 and that's when I thought that maybe I could make a career out of racing professionally. I never felt extra pressure after that realisation – there was already enough.

From the moment you step into cars, more people are watching and expecting results. I had the Belgian Motorsport Federation supporting me from the very beginning and they were financially backing me. It all came with demands on me to perform; I was almost obliged to win those initial championships because they brought in huge prize money which would then enable me to continue to the next stage.

Aston Martin F1

Getting an F1 drive was a proud moment, but it was one I had to wait a long time for. I was second in my first year of GP2 and I won the championship in my second year, but I didn't get an F1 drive for the following season, so I competed in Super Formula in Japan for a year.

The road to F1 was long and when I did get there, my time on the grid showed how difficult the sport can be. You've got to be there at the right time and in the right place. If you look at a lot of drivers' careers, they've been decided within the first two years of racing in the series. If you make your debut in a competitive car and you're regularly finishing in the top three or five, people have a completely different perception of you, your ability and whether you can cut it as an F1 driver.

Those two years racing in F1 were tough, really tough. F1 was my dream but it wasn't working out as I'd hoped. It took so much to get there, but when I did, I wasn't enjoying it as much as I thought I would.

It's not an easy situation. You come from junior series where everyone is competing in the same machinery and if you're good enough you're able to fight for those top positions every year, to suddenly being in a position where that's not possible because the car you have is so far off the pace. It's a shock to the system, and you have to find different ways of motivating yourself. It's tough and it eats away at your passion for the sport.

In my role as Test and Reserve Driver at Aston Martin Aramco, I help the younger members of our driver squad and one of the pieces of advice I keep giving them is to enjoy the journey. The sport is ultra-competitive; driving an F1 car is a rare opportunity so you have to make the most of it. No matter how tough things get, savour the experience, the good and the bad, and make the most of it – you never know how long you'll have the opportunity for. I've come to realise this in the time since I last raced in F1.

Stoffel suit up in line

It's never easy for a driver when you lose your seat in F1, and it was hard to come to terms with at the beginning. After all the years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice, you can't quite believe it's come to this point – it's not part of the script, it's not how it's supposed to go.

Looking back now, if I'm honest, at the end of 2018 I needed a break from F1, I needed a change of environment, and since then I've been lucky enough to compete in different series and cars, with different teams and that's how I rediscovered my passion – my love for racing again. I've been crowned Formula E World Champion, I've finished on the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and I'm helping Aston Martin Aramco fight for regular points, podiums and its first win in Formula One.

Don't get me wrong, it's not all easy now. Being a Test and Reserve Driver in Formula One brings its own unique challenges because of the limitations that you have on the amount of testing you can do.

If you get the call-up to drive, the chances are pretty high that you've never driven the car before, but driving in Formula E and the World Endurance Championship keeps me sharp. Every bit of mileage is very valuable, especially when track time for a reserve F1 driver is so limited. You always need to be ready.

One of the benefits of working in different series and with different people means I'm exposed to a breadth of approaches, ways of thinking and challenges, and I can take what I'm learning and apply it in different series.

I spend a lot of time in the simulator at Aston Martin Aramco, developing the car and future concepts, helping the team prepare for upcoming races and next year's challenger. It's an intense programme, but there are months when I'm in the sim a lot less than others – usually when I'm racing elsewhere. I probably spend about 25 days of the year in the simulator – we're talking eight- or nine-hour days – and they're intense days where you do at least 150 laps.

Alongside the sim work, the other key part of my role comes at the race weekends I attend. I go to 11 or 12 Grands Prix a year and do exactly the same as what Lance and Fernando do at the track, bar driving the car. I attend all the engineering and strategy meetings so if I needed to step in for Lance of Fernando, I'm completely in the rhythm of the weekend and it would just be a case of getting in the car. You don't want Lance or Fernando to be unable to drive, as that means something has not gone to plan, but I know that any opportunity I get to drive the car I will take with both hands.

Aston Martin F1

I'm 'on call', which might sound like a tough position to be in mentally – never knowing when you'll be needed. However, I've learnt how to deal with that over the last couple of years and I'm in a different position now than I was a few years ago. I know what matters now, what's important to me, and what to focus on. I focus on the important things: being healthy, staying fit, attending the engineering meetings, and making sure that whenever I'm called up, I'm ready.

Will I return to F1 as full-time race driver again?

I'll admit, it would be hard to say no, especially when you look at where the sport is now. It's grown massively over the last couple of years. It's still the pinnacle and it's where every driver wants to be. You have to remain realistic about opportunities, but you never know what will happen in F1.

I have a different mindset now than what I had several years ago. I'm very content where I am and that wouldn't have been the case before – I've only come to realise that over the last few years. I now know what I want and what I don't want, and I've only learnt this through having different roles and racing in different series. I feel more rounded as a person now.

I love what I'm doing again.

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