04:24 - Source: CNN
F1: Stoffel Vandoorne breaks into the big time

Story highlights

New McLaren driver will take seat in 2017

Vandoorne, 24, is reigning GP2 champion

Belgian will partner Spain's Fernando Alonso

CNN —  

His name sounds like it has been plucked from the pages of a comic book or a Hollywood movie, but now real-life Formula One drama finally beckons for Stoffel Vandoorne.

Since 2014, the Belgian has had to play understudy to former world champions Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button as McLaren’s reserve driver.

But with Button announcing that he will step down from driving duties in 2017 to pursue an ambassadorial role, the path is now clear for the 24-year-old to join motorsport’s elite.

“Working with Jenson and Fernando has been very valuable to me,” Vandoorne, who last year won F1’s GP2 feeder series title, told CNN’s The Circuit show.

“I’m a rookie in the sport and they are both world champions. It’s very interesting to listen to the radio and see how they communicate with the team.”

Read: US group buys F1 for $8B

Vandoorne may have learned a lot from radio messages but, for F1 fans, Alonso’s caustic exchanges with his engineers have proved a hit on social media.

So frustrated was the Spaniard with his car’s performance at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, he likened McLaren’s Honda power unit to a “GP2 engine” – a reference to F1’s less powerful little brother.

Finishing second to last in the 2015 constructors’ standings was a nadir for a once mighty team that dominated F1 during the 1980s and ’90s. with 182 grand prix wins to its name.

Performances have improved this year – McLaren is sixth of the 11 teams after 14 of 21 races – and Vandoorne enters the fray with the British team seemingly having turned the corner towards better days.

Read: F1 championship standings

McLaren’s targets are modest – finishing in the top 10 rather than on the podium is deemed a success; as is reaching the third and final session in qualifying.

Vandoorne has already played his part in the improvements – back in April he notched McLaren’s first point this season when he replaced two-time title winner Alonso for the Bahrain Grand Prix in April.

With the Spaniard unfit to race after his spectacular crash at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Vandoorne was rushed back from Japan where he had been testing. He beat 2009 world champion Button in qualifying and then finished his debut race in 10th place.

Button and Alonso had failed to muster a point between them in the team’s previous four races, dating back to the previous season.

Bright spark: Stoffel Vandoorne impressed on his F1 debut at April's Bahrain Grand Prix.

“It was a bit of a hassle to get to Bahrain but in the end we managed everything. There was a lot of preparation to go through – a lot of manuals to read on the plane before I jumped in the car,” he explains.

“I more or less knew everything already from driving it in the simulator, but this time was the first time I was driving the car – I’d never driven it before.

“It was a bit tricky in the beginning but I think we managed very well without any mistakes. To out-qualify Jenson and get the first point this year, I was very pleased with that.”

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Alonso was quick to praise Vandoorne following the announcement of his promotion at last weekend’s Italian Grand Prix.

“I’ve come across a lot of young drivers over the years, and I know a good one when I see one,” Alonso said in a statement.

“I enjoyed working with him when he stood in for me in Bahrain earlier this year, and I’m looking forward to continuing to work with him, and to helping him learn and develop.”

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In a country raised on a sporting diet of football, tennis and cycling stars, Vandoorne concedes he has a way to go before he’s knocking the likes of Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard off the back pages.

“It’s difficult to put your mark down but now (I’m) a bit more popular in Belgium – it definitely helps get the popularity of F1 rising,” he says.

The country hasn’t been blessed with many F1 stars: The most successful is Jacky Ickx, an eight-time race winner who finished runner-up in the drivers’ championship in 1969 and 1970.

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More recently, Thierry Boutsen won three grand prix in a 163-race career – his and Belgium’s last victory coming 26 years ago at Hungary in 1990.

Expectations are high and, with a resurgent McLaren, Belgium will be hoping to celebrate its first F1 world champion as Vandoorne seeks to write a new chapter in motorsport history.