OCON: THE NEXT STEP

We spend a day shad­ow­ing Force In­dia’s new­est re­cruit, Este­ban Ocon, on his first visit to the team’s fac­tory

F1 Racing - - CONTENTS - WORDS CHRIS MED­LAND PIC­TURES THOMAS BUT­LER

Un­der­stated is not a word that springs to mind when think­ing of Vi­jay Mallya, but the Force In­dia setup at Sil­ver­stone is cer­tainly that. It’s a cold and damp Thurs­day morn­ing at the team’s Dad­ford Road fac­tory, just across the road from Sil­ver­stone; a mod­est set­ting com­posed of red brick and green cor­ru­gated metal, hid­den near the home of the Bri­tish GP. The scene is far re­moved from F1’s glitzy im­age, as staff ar­rive to a muddy car park, marked out by tem­po­rary fenc­ing pan­els, and cross a pot­hole-lled lane be­fore walk­ing to­wards the tinted-glass en­trance.

There’s no recog­ni­tion of Force In­dia’s most re­cent achieve­ment in the team’s re­cep­tion. While a small cab­i­net high­lights their ve podi­ums to date, there are no tro­phies for fourth in the con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship. But F1’s most efcient race team are too busy pre­par­ing to fol­low their best-ever sea­son to worry about mere baubles.

And there’s a sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion in the air: not for the fore­cast snow, but for a rather more signicant ar­rival. New reg­u­la­tions aside, Force

In­dia have one key change to deal with in 2017. The highly suc­cess­ful driver part­ner­ship of Nico Hülken­berg and Ser­gio Pérez has been dis­rupted by the Hulk’s move to Re­nault – and Este­ban Ocon has the task of step­ping into his race boots.

French­man Ocon, 20, has al­ready got to know Force In­dia, hav­ing tested for the team in 2015 – his run in Aus­tria proved cru­cial in his earn­ing a seat along­side Pérez. But Ocon still needs to set­tle into his new home, and F1 Rac­ing is here to see how he ap­proaches his next chal­lenge.

You wouldn’t know Ocon has come di­rect from a train­ing camp in the Pyre­nees as he walks through the dou­ble doors – only to be told he must return out­side for a pho­to­shoot. The Mercedes pro­tégé fol­lows in­struc­tions to the let­ter, but im­me­di­ately af­ter the nal shot he bolts for the warmth of the fac­tory once again.

In re­cep­tion sits a VJM01, the team’s rst F1 ma­chine, which was turned into an ‘art car’ by Dex­ter Brown. It’s apt that the day starts with a dis­cus­sion about the team’s ori­gins, as Ocon pre­pares to get his own jour­ney started at Force In­dia. “That’s the rst one, it looks so cool,” Ocon en­thuses. “Just look at all the aero, it’s mega. It’s a bit more like that this sea­son.”

In an era when many peo­ple ap­pear to spend ev­ery spare sec­ond star­ing at their phone, it’s re­fresh­ing to see that Ocon is com­pletely en­gaged by his sur­round­ings. Not that the 2015 GP3 cham­pion is go­ing to have much in the way of free time to­day, since he faces a busy sched­ule on his first fac­tory visit of the year. And he’s re­mark­ably re­laxed con­sid­er­ing it’s the first time the team’s press of­fi­cer will have heard Ocon’s state­ments as a Force In­dia em­ployee.

“I’m less ner­vous than when I came here for the first time,” Ocon ad­mits. “It was nice to see fa­mil­iar faces, and faces I’d had a good time with when I tested. I’d say around 50 per cent of the peo­ple I met dur­ing the test I know here now, but there are still a lot of peo­ple I need to meet.

“It’s a big re­spon­si­bil­ity, be­cause these peo­ple work for me at the end of the day. They work to give me a good car to get re­sults and so I, in turn, need to de­liver out on track be­cause they have worked so hard. It’s a big re­spon­si­bil­ity and I want to do well for them.”

Ocon’s rise has been rapid. Since se­cur­ing the GP3 ti­tle in Abu Dhabi just over a year ago, he moved to DTM and took on a Re­nault re­serve role be­fore com­menc­ing rac­ing for Manor. And even be­fore his rst sea­son as a pro­fes­sional driver was over, he had been given a two-year Force In­dia con­tract, earned ahead of fel­low Mercedes young­ster Pas­cal Wehrlein af­ter just nine races as team-mates.

“I’ve learned that re­sults aren’t the only thing that peo­ple look at,” says Ocon. “It’s the full pack­age. It’s feed­back; how you work with the team; how you get along with the team. I’ll al­ways be my­self. It’s al­ways worked so I will make sure I don’t change on that side.

“I’ve al­ways nat­u­rally been like this. If I start to change I think my dad will be un­happy and he will slap me in the face!”

Ocon’s sprightly de­meanour this morn­ing is largely down to hav­ing had his fun on Force In­dia’s new sim­u­la­tor the day be­fore. It has been up­graded since he last used it back in 2015, and test­ing the “mega-quick” new car has made a big im­pres­sion on him.

It’s a good job he’s full of en­ergy, be­cause a busy day awaits. Af­ter our chat, Ocon heads straight through two small doors to the race bays for a seat t. He’s greeted by a car-build me­chanic who in­tro­duces him­self as ‘Mon­key’ (full name: Paul Hate­ley) be­fore his race en­gi­neer, Bradley Joyce, joins the group. Ocon tests Mon­key by open­ing their con­ver­sa­tion in French, but the me­chanic’s lan­guage skills quickly desert him.

The 2017 car – the tub hav­ing been built in-house for the rst time – sits cov­ered from pry­ing eyes be­hind the chas­sis be­ing used for the seat fit. For our ben­e­fit, this is a much more laid-back ap­proach than usual, but as soon as Ocon set­tles into the cock­pit and notes the lack of ped­als, he sud­denly switches to full-pro­fes­sional mode, telling Joyce how he didn’t like the OMP seat­belts at Re­nault. For­tu­nately, Force In­dia uses belts made by Schroth.

Ocon’s ar­rival is the rst driver change at Force In­dia since 2014, but it’s a fresh in­jec­tion of youth that Joyce rel­ishes. “Young ones tend to be eas­ier to work with,” he ad­mits. “They don’t get any eas­ier as they get older!”

Fol­low­ing the seat dit, there’s a quick trip to the travel of­fice. Two pre-sea­son tests and 20 races re­quires a lot of plan­ning, but even the winter is tricky. Ocon is spend­ing the pre-sea­son away from home as he al­ter­nates be­tween the fac­tory and his train­ing camp at 321 Per­form, in Fort Romeu, set up by rally driver Sébastien Ogier’s former physio. “Dur­ing the next two months I will come to the fac­tory maybe six or seven times,” Ocon ex­plains. “I will stay for a cou­ple of days at a time, and they will be long days. So I’ll be in the UK and then I’ll go back to the Pyre­nees for the train­ing. It means I won’t get to go home for two months. And I’ll be do­ing that, go­ing back and forth, each time.”

Ocon ap­pears nat­u­rally at ease with other peo­ple, freely chat­ting to any­one and ev­ery­one as he moves around the fac­tory. When asked a ques­tion, he pauses and gives a se­ri­ous an­swer, but noth­ing he says feels forced. “I don’t try to im­press, I just stay my­self,” he

“I’ve learned that re­sults aren’t the only thing that peo­ple look at. It’s the full pack­age. It’s feed­back: how you work with the team; how you get along with the team”

ex­plains. “I want to give my best. They don’t say it, but I think the team see that I’m mo­ti­vated. I will be here quite a lot and I will be here when they need me, when­ever that is. If they call me up at mid­night I will get the mes­sage and take the first plane to come here. So I’m not try­ing to im­press any­one, but I want them to see that I will do any­thing to reach the tar­get.”

Next stop is an engi­neer­ing meet­ing in Mallya’s of­fice. Be­fore his crew of Joyce, data en­gi­neer Chris Cronin and chief race en­gi­neer Tom McCul­lough ar­rive, Ocon or­ders “a big plate of beef and pasta” for lunch. Train­ing 2017-style takes its toll. Ocon re­veals this is the very room where he had the first meet­ing to se­cure the Force In­dia drive. With Mallya else­where, it’s rather empty – and sparsely fur­nished. “Who cares?” Ocon re­sponds as F1 Rac­ing ref­er­ences the lack of ex­trav­a­gance. “You don’t need any of it as long as you de­liver on track…”

Cue nods from his en­gi­neers.

There’s a limit to how much sen­si­tive data can be dis­cussed in our pres­ence, with a French TV crew also fol­low­ing Ocon around, but Este­ban never misses an op­por­tu­nity to learn. Ques­tions about Al­bert Park’s brake duty, fuel con­sump­tion and Safety Car like­li­hood (high due to un­re­li­a­bil­ity at the start of the sea­son on a tem­po­rary cir­cuit), are fol­lowed by a sug­ges­tion from the driver to have the 2017 steer­ing wheel placed in the sim so he can start to ce­ment pro­ce­dures.

Joyce is then asked to ex­plain Ocon’s de­vel­op­ment plan in the run-up to test­ing, but strug­gles in front of a cam­era. “It’s hard, huh?” Ocon re­as­sures his en­gi­neer. “It’s just train­ing…”

With the meet­ing over and done with, there’s nally some down­time un­til COO Ot­mar Szaf­nauer be­comes avail­able. “Hello boss,” Ocon grins, be­tray­ing his youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance as Szaf­nauer walks down the stairs into re­cep­tion. Here is some­one he re­ally wants to im­press. The pair ex­change a hearty hand­shake be­fore head­ing over to Szaf­nauer’s of­fice to dis­cuss the pre­vi­ous day’s sim­u­la­tor run and prepa­ra­tion plans.

“This team’s a bit of a di­chotomy,” Ot­mar notes. “Some­times it looks as if we’re jok­ing and hav­ing fun, but we’re a bit like a duck on the wa­ter – we’re pad­dling like hell be­neath the sur­face. We don’t take our­selves too se­ri­ously, but se­ri­ously enough to per­form. It’s all about per­for­mance for us.

“Ev­ery­body’s pleased that we’ve got another driver who ts the team well. There are some out there – I won’t men­tion their names – where if you were to bring them in, maybe their tal­ents

“They don’t say it, but I think the team see that I’m mo­ti­vated… I’m not try­ing to im­press any­one, but I want them to see that I will do any­thing to reach the tar­get”

are im­mense from a driv­ing per­spec­tive, but as a fit to a team they can be dis­rup­tive.

“We think that the team is greater than any one in­di­vid­ual, in­clud­ing the driver, and another rea­son Este­ban fits in well. The whole team are de­lighted to have some­body with his pas­sion, at­ti­tude and will­ing­ness to learn.”

Tellingly, Szaf­nauer looks Ocon straight in the eye when de­liv­er­ing his last point, a re­minder that this is a young driver to be de­vel­oped. And Ocon cer­tainly knows it, ask­ing if he can spend some one-onone time with Szaf­nauer dur­ing lunch to max­imise his learn­ing time.

Af­ter lunch, it’s time to go to the gym at nearby Whit­tle­bury Hall, so Ocon can con­tinue his prepa­ra­tions for the rigours of the new reg­u­la­tions. He’s gained 3kg since the end of 2016, and aims to put on another two so he can reach 70kg by the time test­ing be­gins. Proud of his weight, the six-footer mocks F1 Rac­ing’s ex­tra 12kg de­spite the ob­vi­ous height deficit. A spa filled with re­tired cou­ples in white robes is the last place you’d ex­pect to spot an elite sports­man, but Ocon needs to make the most of his op­por­tu­nity to train. Af­ter a short, sharp work­out, he’s back in more fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory, with another pho­to­shoot and a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view.

Af­ter that, it’s time for the pa­per­work, as Ocon signs a se­ries of waivers re­lat­ing to the up­com­ing sea­son, be­fore con­duct­ing a num­ber of phone in­ter­views as dark­ness falls. Any­one could be for­given for feel­ing a bit tired by this stage, but the new re­cruit is still laugh­ing and jok­ing, even amid con­cerns the im­pend­ing snow could im­pede his return ight to the Pyre­nees. It’s only when start­ing his nal job of the day – a sched­ul­ing meet­ing – that Ocon nally lets out a yawn. The past jam-packed eight hours are start­ing to take their toll on his en­ergy lev­els, but not on his mood. “You have to do it all and en­joy it if you want to be suc­cess­ful,” he points out. “I’m not here just to par­tic­i­pate.”

On leav­ing the fac­tory, Ocon is greeted with a typ­i­cally Bri­tish scene of wet roads and heavy traf­fic as the snow be­gins to fall. It’s a far cry from what lies ahead. Soon he’ll be wring­ing the neck of Force In­dia’s 2017 chal­lenger around the Cir­cuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, pre­par­ing for his first full sea­son of For­mula 1 with one of the most im­pres­sive teams of the past decade.

Right now it all seems a long way away, but Ocon ex­udes the con­fi­dence to match his very ob­vi­ous po­ten­tial. And it’s more than enough to con­vince us that he has ev­ery chance of mak­ing his Force In­dia stay a suc­cess­ful one.

“We think that the team is greater than any one in­di­vid­ual. The team are de­lighted to have some­body with Este­ban’s pas­sion, at­ti­tude and will­ing­ness to learn”

Left: Ocon has a seat fit­ting with his race en­gi­neer, Bradley Joyce. Right: A lunchtime engi­neer­ing meet­ing with (l-r) Bradley Joyce, Chris Cronin and Tom McCul­lough, in VJ Mallya’s of­fice

Sign­ing the vi­tal bits of pa­per­work with Force In­dia’s COO, Ot­mar Szaf­nauer

Left: A work­out in the lux­u­ri­ous sur­round­ings of the nearby Whit­tle­bury Hall gym, as Ocon sets about up­ping his weight to 70kg, to help him han­dle the new reg­u­la­tions. Right: His fi­nal pho­to­shoot of the day, be­fore he heads back to the Pyre­nees

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.