Hamil­ton fury as Ocon driven out of his team by nepo­tism

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Oliver Brown

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.

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