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
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 efcient 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 signicant 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