CYCLING WITH OCON
F1 Racing catches a ride with Esteban Ocon, one of the emerging stars of the 2017 season, on a training run the day after the Abu Dhabi GP
In the Abu Dhabi desert we ride with Force India’s Esteban Ocon
At six-feet-two-and-a-half inches tall in his stockinged feet, Esteban Ocon makes a most unlikely Formula 1 driver. Alongside, say, a Felipe Massa, a Fernando Alonso or an Alain Prost, his elongated dimensions appear comically divergent: he is tall.
But of more import to his racing ambitions over the years has been his weight and here he’s well within F1 driver norms: Esteban tips the scales at a mere 66kg, or round about 10 stone four pounds. The result, however, is that Ocon’s frame has an almost stork-like quality, as most of his body mass appears centred in his torso.
As those hoary old beard-rockers ZZ Top might once have observed: “He’s got legs”. But does he “know how to use them”?
This and other pressing questions are about to be interrogated in most particular fashion, as Ocon undertakes an afternoon’s recovery spin on a rather exclusive bicycle, the day after the Abu Dhabi GP (in which he finished eighth).
F1 Racing has been invited along for the ride – quite literally on this occasion –and though Esteban is feeling a little ‘the morning after the night before’, we’re up early on Monday for a rendez-vous at Abu Dhabi’s Traders Hotel.
Quite a crew are there to meet us. Esteban, of course, his trainer, members of Force India’s media and marketing team, plus a gaggle of viciously lean, powerful-looking Men In Lycra representing the cream of the Emirates’ cycling community. Among them is one Henry Furniss, founder of boutique British cycling brand Wyndymilla, and it’s one of his machines that Ocon will dangle his frame over today.
But first, a trip into the desert, destination Al Wathba and a dedicated 20-mile cycling loop built into barren sands some 45 miles south-east of downtown Abu Dhabi.
This most unlikely government-funded cycling destination was opened in 2014, with the express purpose of promoting cycling as both sport and recreation in the region. A noble enough ambition in a car-worshipping culture, and also part of a bigger regional health drive triggered by statistics showing alarmingly high levels of so-called ‘type-2’ diabetes (a condition closely associated with obesity) among Emiratis.
Standing alongside Ocon as he peels off a team T-shirt, to replace it with a more close-fitting lycra garment, we reflect that it’s unlikely he’ll ever be troubled by excess weight gain. Indeed he shares skinny, long-boned dimensions with many ultra-successful cyclists: Sir Bradley Wiggins, George Hincapie and David Millar being three we might mention.
Turns out there’s something in the genes here, for Esteban’s father, Laurent, is a former age-category French national cycling champion and his uncle remains a competitive rider. And as Esteban clips in and pushes off, at the head of our mini-peloton, he does so with the easily coordinated grace and fluidity of any pro athlete.
This isn’t ‘winter cycling’ in the way that any chill-enduring northern European would know it. Instead of road grime, punctures, grit and whatever cold, watery hell is falling from the sky, we have a gentle breeze, pristine Tarmac, a ban on road vehicles, and temperatures of 20 degrees C in cosseting sunshine. An idyll, no less, one in which Ocon is glad to release some of the muscular strains of the previous day’s exertions.
“You always feel it the day after a race,” he tells us, spinning those limbs freely in a low gear.
“YOU FEEL IT IN YOUR NECK AND CHEST AFTER A RACE, BUT CYCLING IS A GREAT RECOVERY EXERCISE. IT KEEPS THE BLOOD FLOWING”
“I’VE LEARNED A LOT FROM SERGIO [PÉREZ]. I RATE HIM AS ONE OF THE BEST ON THE GRID, SO IT WAS GREAT TO HAVE HIM AS A TEAM-MATE”
“You feel it in your neck and chest but cycling is a great recovery exercise. It moves your muscles and keeps the blood flowing. It’ll help me stay fresh, actually, for the test on Wednesday.”
There’s no outward sign of duress as he chats about the prospect of the last outing for 2017 cars, not even hurried breath: a reminder that he’s (a) very fit, like any F1 driver, thanks to a bespoke training and conditioning programme; and (b) very young and therefore brimful of life’s sweetest elixir. Still only 21, he’s already a 29-grand prix veteran, having made his debut aged just 19, for Manor, at the 2016 Belgian GP.
In his first full season he has made an exceptionally strong impression, giving his more experienced team-mate Sergio Pérez an everharder time and prompting Force India deputy team boss Bob Fernley to anoint his young flier as “a future world champion, no doubt.”
In Abu Dhabi Pérez had the upper hand, though the performance of the Force India pair was virtually identical. Qualifying separated them by just 0.023s for P8 and P9 (a gap Ocon represents by pinching finger and thumb together – “it was this close,” he says); in the race they finished seventh and eighth – just as they did in the final championship standings.
“Yeah it was close between us,” says Esteban and… are we mistaken or do we note a sudden increase in tempo at mention of The Man He Has To Beat? Talk of team-mates always cuts to the quick with any racing driver. If they’re up against another of similar ability, they know it in a way that only members of the same clan, can.
“I’ve learned a lot from Sergio this year,” Esteban admits. “I rate him as one of the best drivers on the grid, so it was great to have him as a team-mate. He’s very good on any type of corner, but he has a very different driving style – really turning the steering wheel heavily and saturating the fronts. It seems to work very, very well with these Pirelli tyres. He’s really fast.”
Al Wathba’s dedicated 20-mile cycling loop is part of the Abu Dhabi government’s campaign to get its citizens to take regular exercise