Esteban Ocon's F1 return
Esteban Ocon made his F1 comeback with Renault this season, but has largely flown under the radar in the shadow of his star team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.
Esteban Ocon is 11 races into his F1 comeback following a year on the side-lines, as he was replaced at Racing Point by Lance Stroll and his proposed move to Renault for 2019 was blocked when Daniel Ricciardo instead made a shock transfer to the Enstone-based outfit. He spent 2019 as the Mercedes Test & Reserve driver where he would have gained invaluable experience in how the world champions operate, and the feedback given by Hamilton and Bottas during the driver debriefs. There is a reason why Mercedes have supported his career and continue to do so. He is a very talented individual who did it the hard way. He made it to the pinnacle of motorsport from very humble beginnings, unlike many other drivers who come from privileged backgrounds.
His opportunity came when Renault decided not to renew Nico Hulkenberg’s contract. However, it has not been smooth-sailing for the Frenchman. In modern-day Formula One, very limited testing is available. In 2019, he did not have the opportunity to take part in any Grand Prix weekend. A two-day test in Abu Dhabi after the conclusion of the 2019 season was the only running that he was permitted. A year out of F1 is detrimental to any driver as the sport is constantly evolving. Ocon has therefore been forced to do his learning on race weekends this season to get back up to speed. He has been paired with Ricciardo, who already had a year of working with the team under his belt. Despite this, comparison with Ricciardo is inevitable because he is the only true benchmark as the pair have identical equipment.
How things currently stand
In terms of the points situation, Ocon is currently 12th in the drivers’ championship with 36 points, but is 42 points adrift of Daniel Ricciardo. Upon his return to racing, it is not only race-pace where he was struggled. The qualifying record currently stands at 10-1 to in Ricciardo’s favour.
Although, the situation could be different if factors outside of the Frenchman’s control had not occurred. Ocon has suffered 3 retirements, with two coming in the last three Grand Prix. While, Ricciardo only failed to finish the opening round of the season in Austria. This has clearly hindered his points tally and the gap to his team-mate.
Ocon may not have replicated the eye-catching performances of Daniel Ricciardo, but he has been consistent. In the 8 races that he has finished, he scored points in 6 of them, with a career-equalling best finish of 5th place at the Belgium Grand Prix that he earned by overtaking Alex Albon’s Red Bull on the very last lap. Consistency is something that Renault desperately need with the fight for 3rd in the Constructors’ championship being disputed by 3 different teams. Renault are currently 5th, just 6 points from Racing Point in 3rd and just 2 away from McLaren in 4th. Ocon’s performances for the remainder of the season could prove crucial in this battle. He must continue to deliver when he is not hit with reliability problems.
Ocon has shown flashes of speed and promise at times, particularly in the wet-conditions. It is in these conditions where Formula One drivers can make a difference and show their talent, as they are so often limited by the performance of their cars in ordinary circumstances. It should not be forgotten that Ocon started 3rd for the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix in tricky conditions, only being beaten by Hamilton and Vettel who were in far superior cars. At the Styrian Grand Prix this season, Ocon qualified P5 while Ricciardo could only manage P9. What was even more impressive was the fact that it was only his second race with the team, and so he was still very much learning about the car and the team. Ocon revealed after this particular qualifying session that “Each time it rains, I feel very comfortable in Formula 1”. He also previously stated in the first season of Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ series that back in his karting days, he would run slick tyres in the wet conditions and would continue to pound around the track when his rivals would pull into the pits.
Esteban has shown tangible improvement as the season has progressed. In the most recent qualifying for the Eifel Grand Prix, Ocon almost set the same exact lap time as Ricciardo. This is significant because as most recent as the Belgian and Russian Grand Prix, he had faced a 3 tenths of a second deficit to the Australian. The fact that he is improving showing the reliance and mental strength of the Frenchman, as he has not let Ricciardo’s domination of the results affect his progress.
It must also be noted that Ocon is a team-player. Even when things don’t go his way he is there to support the team. This was evident at the Eifel Grand Prix when Ricciardo scored the team’s first podium since 2011. He was there in parc ferme to be one of the first to congratulate his team-mate.
The 2021 season
Ocon’s immediate future has seemingly been secured at Renault as he signed a 2-year deal with the team in 2019. Next season, he will be alongside the two-time champion, Fernando Alonso. Esteban must use the remainder of this season to continue to improve before the arrival of the Spaniard. Fernando is a undoubtedly a big personality in the paddock. Esteban must do his talking on the track from the outset next season to avoid being pushed aside and labelled as number 2 driver, like many of Alonso’s previous team-mates have been.
Having said that, no contract is Formula One is secure. Exit clauses which allow a team to remove a driver is very common in the sport. Sergio Perez has been the most recent example of losing his seat despite having a contract is place for next year. There have been recent reports that Pierre Gasly is seeking to move from AlphaTauri to Renault to replace Ocon in 2021. I previously suggested that this could be a possibility when considering Gasly’s future career prospects: <drivetribe.com/p/where-next-for-pierre-gasly-AyD6vJ5TTYi3WtN6lHkQ2Q?iid=Hyhq7rK5QR6W4eb-aPOtHQ>. If this move was to happen, it would again leave Ocon without a drive and potentially could spell an end to his Formula One journey. Although, the likelihood of Gasly moving for 2021 is unclear at this stage, but it is not something that should be ruled out.
Esteban Ocon has potential to succeed in F1, he just needs time to regain the form that he had at Racing Point where he was more often able to challenge the highly-rated Sergio Perez. However, time is not something that is afforded to many drivers in F1. Expectations are high from the outset. While admittedly he has been underwhelming this season, he is improving, but is it too late for him to save his future at Renault? Time will tell.