In a recent interview with ESPN, Esteban Ocon has claimed that he became very close to a race seat alongside Lewis Hamilton in 2020.
However, he goes into the new season as Daniel Ricciardo’s teammate at Renault – arguably the preferred position for a returning driver as young as the Frenchman.
Force India’s rescue from administration by the Racing Point UK syndicate headed by Lawrence Stroll in August 2018 unsurprisingly enabled Lance Stroll’s movement up the grid to the Silverstone based team for 2019. As a result, Ocon was displaced from the team at which he had served with, yielding two successful campaigns and demonstrating his experience and maturity despite his youth.
Esteban was only able to announce his plans for the upcoming 2019 season in late November and with race seats being filled up quickly following a radical shakeup triggered by Ricciardo’s transfer to Renault and later, Ocon’s future would be contracted to a reserve driver role with Mercedes.
Throughout the duration of the 2019 season, rumours strengthened that Ocon could well make the jump to a seat alongside Lewis Hamilton with none other than 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg making claims that his ‘inside sources’ that replacement discussions were heating up at the Hungarian Grand Prix with ‘Bottas 2.0’ seemingly running out of porridge.
However, the prophecies didn’t play out as proclaimed. With Mercedes opting for security and safety with Bottas as opposed to investing in Ocon and a breath of fresh air, the 23-year-old, desperate for a position on the grid as soon as possible, opened discussions with other teams and emerged from the summer break with a drive with Renault alongside Daniel Ricciardo – as perfect as it could get as far as a start to the new decade.
As any race driver will tell you, possessing the right mindset and mentality is imperative to forge a successful career in the sport.
That motivation and drive to win and impress in every race in which a driver competes will be as present in Ocon as any driver on the grid. Success in modern-day F1, if you haven’t noticed, has become highly team dependent.
For Esteban Ocon, there is no doubt that the potential to be fast-tracked into not just a proven race-winning team, but a team that has now won six back to back double world championships was a mouth-watering prospect. However, the mountain of a challenge that prospect holds would be the deciding factor when it comes to the rest of his career.
Taking on a season at Mercedes means taking on a season with Lewis Hamilton as not just Ocon’s teammate but his nearest rival. When given identical equipment, teams will always judge a drivers performance against their teammate – the car will only ever be as fast as the teams fastest driver.
Having taken a year out of competitive racecar driving, being pit against a six-time world champion at their peak performance in the form of Lewis Hamilton in Ocon’s reincarnation is no mean feat, especially in a car where race wins, at least podiums, are expected and the same goes for championships.
There is no doubt that 2020 will set the tone for the next chapter in Ocon’s career and had he been humiliated by Hamilton, the only way is down and the lifespan of his second attempt at F1 could have been considerably shorter than his first stint in the sport.
2019 was a disappointing year for Renault who brought Daniel Ricciardo into their programme for the new season. While still running comfortably in the midfield, they had been expecting to challenge red Bull but instead were unable to keep up both on and off-track.
Daniel Ricciardo, while still a formidable opponent, is arguably more accommodating to new teammates given the team not quite being at the sharp end of the competition. A run in the Renault offers Esteban the opportunity to develop his career for the better, out of the limelight and without the added pressure of recent history and such lofty targets.
Now, Ocon has only been out of the sport for one year and despite not being in the driver’s seat, he has very much been an integral part of the Mercedes team. The reserve driver role still requires a driver to keep in touch with the data crunching and understanding of the development and direction of the car and the team.
Yes, given the difference in scope and scale between Renault and Mercedes there will inevitably be a difference in the way the two operate. Then again, Ocon has already spent time with the Renault team in 2016 as a test driver so synergies between the French driver and French team should be rekindled swiftly.
Esteban is still just 23-years-old and has plenty of race experience under his belt at such a young age. Taking the leap to a championship-winning team following the circumstances in which he was pushed out of the sport seems highly optimistic but I have no doubt he has the maturity to have taken the fight to Hamilton.
However, there would have been a huge amount of risk in doing so with potentially career-damaging outcomes, or at least career shortening. Instead, fledging the comfort of Mercedes and starting off fresh with Renault allows Ocon to reestablish his F1 career and set it back on track after it was derailed at no fault of his own.
Although Esteban is no longer directly part of the Mercedes driver programme, he is still managed by Mercedes so don’t rule out a chance at the top in the not too distant future.