Is Esteban Ocon Underrated?
He's been flying under the radar so far this season - so how is the Renault driver doing?
With so much going on in the 2020 season, it can be easy to get lost under all the big headlines. Ordinarily, Esteban Ocon's return to Formula 1 would have gotten a bit more coverage than it has and since the season started, there's not been too much of a spotlight on him. That might suit the Renault driver though as so far, his 2020 comeback hasn't been as electrifying as both we the fans and he might have liked. But with that being said, is he actually doing a better job than everyone is giving him credit for?
2020 is Ocon's third full season in Formula 1. Debuting with Force India back in 2017, his highest finish that year was fifth which he achieved twice - in Spain and Mexico respectively. He ended the year in eighth place overall with 87 Championship Points - quite good for a rookie. 2018 was trickier as Ocon suffered from five retirements and a disqualification, ending the year down in twelfth place. But despite this, he still managed to finish inside the top ten on regular occasions with a best finishing position of sixth place which he was able to attain four times over the year. The buy out of Force India also meant that his time at the team was limited with Lance Stroll set to replace him at the team for the 2019 season. He drove to impress other teams in hopes of getting a replacement drive but even despite having Toto Wolff as a manager, Ocon was left without a seat in Formula 1 for 2019.
But fortunately, Ocon was able to return for the 2020 season with Renault and F1 fans were quite happy about this. He's proven to be a capable racer and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty during a race. He also makes some great F1 moments (controversial or otherwise) - who can forget when he tangled with Verstappen at Brazil in 2018? Want a reminder? Here you go:
But so far in 2020, we've not heard much about Ocon. Usually this happens when there's nothing good to report about the driver but it's not all doom and gloom for the Frenchman. At his first race back in Austria, Ocon finished in eighth place, getting some nice points on the board for both him and team - Renault's first points in Austria since they returned to Formula 1. Styria and Hungary were not so good for him as he suffered a retirement and a non points finish but he bounced back in time for Silverstone where he finished in an impressive sixth place. He then went and did one better by equalling his best F1 result to date by finishing fifth at Spa. At the Italian Grand Prix, he finished in eight place - a little disappointing given the craziness of the race but a solid enough result overall that saw him get some more points for both him and the team. Sadly, he wasn't able to capitalize on the madness in Mugello due to an exhaust issue that forced him to retire - but that wasn't exactly his fault.
After nine races, he sits in twelfth place in the Driver's Championship with 30 points - which, all things considered, isn't too bad at all. He's had a year out of F1 and has been able to get back into the car and consistently deliver for the team. The 2020 Renault car is an improvement over the 2019 model so that does help but Ocon is still beating plenty of other drivers on the grid who didn't have to sit out of the 2019 season. He currently has almost double the amounts of points Vettel does and three times as many as Kvyat to mention only a couple of examples.
It probably doesn't help Ocon either that he has a teammate like Daniel Ricciardo. Like Valtteri Bottas and Alex Albon, Ocon is suffering from having a better driver as a teammate. So even when Ocon does deliver, chances are he doesn't get as much credit as he deserves because Ricciardo's done one better. But that shouldn't take anything away from Ocon consistently showing he's a solid F1 driver.
It doesn't look like this is set to change for Ocon either as he will have Fernando Alonso as his teammate at Alpine (rebranded Renault) for the 2021 F1 season. That being said, 2021 does provide Ocon with a unique opportunity. Alonso has been out of Formula 1 for a couple of years and will need to prove that he's still got the goods to justify his return. With Ocon having come back a year earlier to get back up to speed in order to combat Alonso's vast experience (he has won two World Championships), it's going to be fascinating to see how Ocon gets on up against Alonso.
I don't think Ocon should be counted out just yet - young (only 24) and more than capable in an F1 car, he deserves to be in F1. He worked hard to get here (he won European Formula 3 Championship in 2014 and the GP3 Series in 2015) and Renault signing him for 2021 shows that they (and Cyril) have faith in him too. If he could get inside the top ten of the Driver's Championship by the end of the season, not an unreasonable ask, that wouldn't hurt him either and I believe he's fully capable of achieving that. So in the meantime, he should just keep doing what he's doing and continue doing the good job he has been. What do you think?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!