Hamilton fury as Ocon driven out of his team by nepotism
CHIEF SPORTS FEATURE WRITER at Spa-Francorchamps
Lewis Hamilton has condemned Force India’s imminent move to replace Esteban Ocon with Lance Stroll, the son of the team’s billionaire owner, as a case of money over merit.
Describing the situation as an indictment of modern Formula One, the defending champion said: “The best drivers need to be in the best cars. You can’t let somebody who has got more money leapfrog a better driver. It shouldn’t happen.”
While Hamilton was peerless in the rain to claim a record-extending 78th pole position for today’s Belgian Grand Prix, it was Ocon who provided the major surprise, qualifying third for a team who had to be bailed out of administration earlier this month.
And yet the 21-year-old Frenchman stands to lose his seat to the unproven Stroll, the Canadian teenager who has won just four points for Williams all season but whose father Lawrence, a fashion mogul, now owns the Force India team.
Hamilton did not hide his dismay at the situation.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a weird place in Formula One, where you have some teams that, rather than take a new up-and-coming kid, will take whoever has got the money. That means the structure of the sport is probably wrong,” he said.
Stroll’s impending elevation demonstrates this all too clearly. Ocon, who has long been viewed as a future star of F1, is poised to be usurped by a driver who owes his position at this level to family wealth.
Ross Brawn, motorsport director for Liberty Media, F1’s owners, has spoken this year of the need to make the sport more meritocratic, but Stroll’s elevation is born solely of nepotism.
Hamilton, turning to Ocon, said: “I wish I was managing you, and maybe I would be able to help.”
“Maybe we can speak later,” Ocon said and smiled.
The Ardennes has its own microclimate in late summer, a time when the peace of the forest can be broken by a sopping cloudburst. So it proved yesterday, as a qualifying shoot-out that began under picture-perfect skies ended in a spell of rain-lashed chaos through which Lewis Hamilton, drawing upon all his mastery in the wet, swept to a record fifth pole at the Belgian Grand Prix. “That was,” he said, still catching his breath, “the toughest session I can remember doing.”
Such is the sprawl of the Spa layout, snaking its sinuous path through the trees, it sometimes compels drivers to master several weather patterns at once. This was one of those occasions, with Hamilton and his rivals navigating a track that changed from bone-dry to slippery so imperceptibly that Valtteri Bottas spun his car hurtling down a straight. Hamilton, though, had his Mercedes on a string, finding the line of least resistance in another captivating rain dance.
Remarkably, only Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton’s main challenger for the title, came within three seconds of his time. Ferrari offered all manner of excuses for failing to seize a pole that, on raw pace alone, looked theirs for the taking. Kimi Raikkonen had been dominant throughout practice and in the first two phases of qualifying, but ultimately managed only sixth as the team misjudged the late change in conditions. The Italians blamed a draining battery and poor tyre choices for their travails, but ultimately Vettel proved powerless to vanquish his nemesis under the downpours that Hamilton relishes most.
While it is easy to become blase about Hamilton’s supremacy in these circumstances, he is quick to point out the fiendish difficulty of going flat-out in the rain. “I wish you could see how tough it is out there for us all,” he said. “It’s about a balance of compromises. I managed the battery myself and made sure I had enough power. It’s not a case that I love the rain. It was absolutely terrifying for all of us, because we were all tiptoeing around. But it’s also fun, because you just don’t know when the front wheels are going to lock.”
A pattern is developing this season, where Ferrari are widely believed to have an edge in speed, but where Mercedes still outperform them when it matters most. Hamilton holds a 24-point championship lead over Vettel not just because he has made fewer errors over the campaign, but because he is the likelier candidate to stage masterclasses such as this. Not that a superlative pole is any guarantee of victory today, given how Ferrari “blitzed” Mercedes, to use Hamilton’s own description, during practice.
He needed an inspired defensive drive to fend off the charging German here 12 months ago, and can expect to be under intense pressure to defend his lead from the outset again this time. As a composed Vettel put it: “I’m quite sure we have good pace in the car.”
There is nothing quite like a Belgian deluge to produce an unexpected grid, and the curve balls came from a stunning display by Force India, for whom Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez secured third and fourth just days after the team were rescued from administration. Having been bought out by a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll, the Canadian fashion mogul, they staged an improbable resurgence here to lock out the second row.
Fighting for survival one day, in the hunt for glory for next: it should be a stirring, romantic story. But for Ocon, the 21-year-old Frenchman who has risen rapidly through Mercedes’s junior programme, it was a feat tempered by sadness. It is possible that come next weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, he will no longer be driving for Force India at all for no better reason than Lawrence Stroll, as the team’s part-owner, wants his son Lance to take Ocon’s seat. “My future is not done,” Ocon acknowledged. “All I can do is keep my focus on the track and try to do my best.”
It was a dismal reflection on modern Formula One that the driver who qualified third yesterday should have found his employment in jeopardy from the one who qualified 19th. As ever, sadly, money trumps merit in these circles. Ocon is a demonstrably superior talent to Lance Stroll, who has won just four points for Williams all year, and yet he stands to lose his place, simply because the Canadian teenager happens to have a billionaire father. Some justice.