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

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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

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