Stoffel Vandoorne says he will be heading to Bahrain tomorrow knowing there is a chance to return to Formula 1 as Lewis Hamilton’s substitute in the championship-winning Mercedes this weekend.
The Mercedes reserve and Formula E driver last raced in F1 at the end of the 2018 season, after which he was released by McLaren.
Vandoorne was always scheduled to travel directly to Sakhir after FE testing at Valencia to work with the F1 team this weekend, so his journey is not a direct result of Hamilton testing positive for COVID-19 and being ruled out of this weekend’s race.
But Vandoorne, who was told ahead of the final Formula E test day beginning on Tuesday that Hamilton had been sidelined, is a strong favourite for the stand-in drive given his availability and relationship with the team.
“At the moment, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Vandoorne.
“I know there is a chance for me to drive but let’s wait and see.
“I got the first message this morning around 7am. The team told me that Lewis tested positive and they were going to announce it an hour later.
“But afterward I’ve just been kind of waiting and to be honest I’ve not been able to think about it that much because I’ve been focused on my Formula E test. That’s been my priority of the day.”
Mercedes could also try to secure the use of George Russell for the Sakhir Grand Prix. It has a long-term deal with the Williams driver.
But it is not known whether that contract allows Mercedes to recall Russell at short notice, or whether Williams would be willing to release him and take a substitute such as Vandoorne instead.
Williams is last in the constructors’ championship and has not scored points this year, but nearest rival Haas is just three points ahead.
And Williams – if its contract gives it the right to hold on to Russell – may feel the Sakhir Outer race, where upsets are possible given the unusual track layout and its Mercedes engine is likely to give it an advantage over its Ferrari-powered tail-end rivals, offers one of its better scoring opportunities of the year.
Should Vandoorne get the nod for Mercedes, it would be a poignant reminder of his highly impressive F1 debut in 2016.
That was also in a stand-in drive in Bahrain, as he replaced Fernando Alonso at McLaren following Alonso’s massive Australian GP crash.
Then the reigning GP2 champion but racing in Super Formula while awaiting a full-time F1 chance, Vandoorne starred by outqualifying team-mate Jenson Button to take 12th on the grid and then scored a point for 10th.
His reputation waned during his subsequent two full-time McLaren seasons in 2017/18 as he was unable to master the team’s difficult cars as effectively as Alonso and he was ultimately dropped.
Vandoorne moved immediately into a new Mercedes role, both working with its F1 team and racing in Formula E – first with the precursor HWA project and then the full factory team in 2019/20.
He took his and Mercedes’ first Formula E win in the season finale in Berlin in August, securing second in the drivers’ championship in the process.
Vandoorne’s Mercedes role meant he was also an option for its customer team Racing Point when it needed stand-ins for both Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll due to positive COVID tests earlier this year.
But on both occasions, Racing Point chose to use its former driver Nico Hulkenberg instead.