Out of a drive for next year, what’s gone wrong for Esteban Ocon?
DISAPPOINTMENT, FRUSTRATION AND A RAGING SENSE OF INJUSTICE have attended Esteban Ocon’s struggle to retain a place on the Formula 1 grid – and understandably so. After all, if Mercedes believe that the brilliantly talented Ocon has the potential to be a future race winner and world champion, and yet they have been unable to find him a seat, then surely something in the system is broken. It would be easy to conclude that Ocon’s baffling lack of options signifies a wider structural problem with F1’s talent ladder, but the truth is considerably more nuanced. Digging deeper into what happened over the summer to leave Ocon facing a year on the sidelines gives rise to two lines of conjecture.
The first is that Ocon is a victim of broken promises and circumstance rather than collateral damage in the off-track war between F1’s manufacturer teams. The second is that while his plight doesn’t signify a full-blown crisis either for F1 or its aspiring stars, it has demonstrated that the landscape has changed: the destiny of rising talent is now in the hands of teams in a way that it never was before.
Ocon’s spiral into limbo is actually relatively straightforward to unpick. Mercedes have been guiding his career ever since his previous arrangement with Gravity Sport Management came to an end when that entity collapsed in 2014. It was Mercedes who then smoothed the way to his F1 debut with Manor and subsequent placing at Force India.
In the run-up to this year’s summer break, Mercedes were still weighing up their driver options, since they had yet to finalise contract extensions with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. While Hamilton’s new deal was a relative certainty, and the timing simply a question of getting the contractual fine print across the finishing line, the team had a more open mind about who would occupy the second seat from 2019 onwards. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff wanted to see some solid progress from Bottas in terms of pace and results before he was prepared to renew his contract, and in Ocon he had a useful insurance policy: a keen, young ace, already in the Mercedes family and hungry to step up if a place became available.
Bottas, however, proved his mettle, displaying sufficient vigour in the first half of the year to quell Wolff’s misgivings. And Ocon’s position seemed assured, since both Mclaren and Renault had registered interest. Mercedes had no reason to anticipate what would happen next.
Ahead of the German Grand Prix, Ocon was all set to join Mclaren for 2019 – possibly even sooner since the struggling Stoffel Vandoorne had fallen out of favour with team management, who were prepared to swing the axe. Mercedes and Mclaren had already reached a preliminary agreement, and Ocon duly visited Woking for his seat fitting. But just before Mercedes and Ocon committed to a Mclaren contract, Renault came knocking and urged them not to go ahead: they wanted to run Ocon as Nico Hülkenberg’s team-mate in 2019.
Not wishing to lose the definite Mclaren opportunity for the more ephemeral possibility of something elsewhere, Mercedes sought as solid a guarantee as possible from Renault. A verbal agreement was made, a handshake was put to a deal, and contracts were drawn up ready for signatures to be appended.
Still feeling comfortable with this turn of events, Mercedes went ahead and confirmed their 2019 line-up of Bottas and Hamilton at the German Grand Prix, fully expecting the Ocon/renault deal to be signed in the days following the Hungarian Grand Prix. So when a press release landed the week after Hungary, confirming that Renault had signed Daniel Ricciardo, Ocon and Mercedes were blindsided.
Mercedes now had nothing else to offer Ocon. Renault had already chosen Ricciardo, and Mclaren, feeling snubbed, were no longer interested: they pursued and completed a deal with Carlos Sainz.
There was no longer any certainty that Ocon would remain at Force India either. That team’s financial troubles, along with their takeover by a consortium led by billionaire retail tycoon Lawrence Stroll, introduced the possibility that Stroll’s son, Lance, would move there sooner or later. Since Sergio Pérez brings a portfolio of lucrative Mexican sponsors, Ocon was the more likely to be directed towards the door.
Williams were considered as a possible new home, but not only are they in competitive disarray, they are also facing the imminent loss of their title sponsor, and so are a sub-optimal destination for Ocon at this stage of his career. Other potential seats came with close ties to either Red Bull (Toro Rosso) or Ferrari (Sauber and Haas), essentially closing them off to a driver so closely associated with the Silver Arrows.
The perception that Ocon’s Mercedes affiliation curtailed his options is what has fuelled the narrative of injustice and woe. But Toto Wolff claims to be unconvinced that Ocon’s Mercedes ties influenced decisions that turned against him. “i’m not sure,” he muses, “because there wasn’t any resistance [to Ocon joining non mercedes teams] in July. There was interest in July, but then everybody took other decisions.
“In the end, to be absolutely clear here, I understand that Renault taking Ricciardo is
MERCEDES NOW HAD NOTHING TO OFFER OCON. RENAULT HAD CHOSEN RICCIARDO INSTEAD. AND MCLAREN, FEELING SNUBBED, WERE NO LONGER INTERESTED
a great decision for them. I don’t have a problem with that decision per se because Ricciardo is also somebody who deserves to be in a seat, and probably Renault is a happy place for him.
“It is not Mercedes losing out here. We are running a team in the F1 championship and we are fighting for wins and championships. Esteban is a young driver who has lost out. I don’t think it was particularly against Mercedes, because back then there were a lot of offers.”
Even if Ocon’s status as a Mercedes works driver didn’t cause those doors to slam in his face, his situation has provided a case study of the huge influence the big teams now have on the driver market. Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari have all made significant investments in young driver programmes, and many faces on the present grid would never have reached F1 without such backing earlier in their careers.
The ever-growing costs involved in scaling the racing ladder means that it is now very rare for a driver to break through if they are not bankrolled by the major teams, free-spending sponsors, or a mega-rich father. The days of a manager independently funding a promising youngster to try to take him to F1 – as happened with Jenson Button and Kimi Räikkönen – are long gone.
Steve Robertson, who helped steer both those former champions to Formula 1, expands on this: “The driver market is really different now for one reason. Now, unless you’ve got a multibillionaire father, then you need to be in one of the young driver foundations. The big teams all have their foundations.
“It wouldn’t be possible to do now what we did then. We had a ceiling – the ceiling was that we would spend an amount of money, and by the time we had spent that money we would know if a driver was good enough or not. Now there is no ceiling. It is millionaires to billionaires, and there are far fewer billionaires out there. So it is a very different dynamic.”
The result is a lack of independence. Rather than being able to make their own moves in the
“IT IS NOT MERCEDES LOSING OUT HERE. WE ARE RUNNING A TEAM IN THE F1 CHAMPIONSHIP AND WE ARE FIGHTING FOR WINS AND CHAMPIONSHIPS. ESTEBAN IS A YOUNG DRIVER WHO HAS LOST OUT” TOTO WOLFF
market, as happened in the past, youngsters are now more subject to the changing priorities of their patron manufacturers. And these priorities are not always directly aligned with the driver’s best interests. Even a talent as highly rated as Max Verstappen was aware of this fact, choosing to guard himself against it as he and his father Jos plotted their path to Formula 1.
“I could also have joined the Red Bull junior team in 2010 but I didn’t,” says Max, “because you want to keep it in your hands as long as possible and then you can make the best deals. That is how we did it. But sometimes you don’t have people behind you, so you have to sign those kinds of contracts where you have nothing to say, because basically it is the team deciding for you where you have to go.” Regardless of whether Ocon’s Mercedes ties really have become the proverbial albatross around his neck, there is clear evidence to suggest the need for drivers to become part of junior schemes has led to teams becoming much more territorial. It’s a perfectly logical proposition: continuity is useful in Formula 1, so teams naturally want to employ talented drivers for the longer term – rather than acting as a temporarily convenient stop-off for someone who could be recalled to the mothership at any time.
Mclaren CEO Zak Brown agrees, saying: “When you sign a driver you want to know that, if it all goes well, you have longevity. When you are taking on a driver who you know you can’t have a certain amount of longevity with, that can then become a detraction.”
Ocon’s misfortune is that he has found himself in a tenuous position not because F1 isn’t interested in young talent, but because there is so much talent in circulation that there aren’t enough seats to accommodate it all.
“I think we are in a cycle where there are many drivers who deserve to be in F1,” says Wolff. “Young ones and more experienced ones. A good example is Ferrari: Räikkönen and Leclerc, you can justify either of them being in a car, the same way you can justify Bottas and Ocon in our car. And I think this is just a time where, because of the various young driver programmes, the kids who have won the championships are now making their way up into F1.”
The unfortunate thing for Ocon, unlike the juniors at Ferrari and Red Bull, is that Mercedes don’t have two teams with which to juggle the talent on their books and provide a clear trajectory to the main seats. Mercedes don’t believe the investment in a second squad makes good financial sense, and while Wolff may like the idea of third cars as a solution, he is in a minority at decision-making level.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner says: “The young driver situation in F1 is healthy at the moment. We’ve got the next generation coming through: we’ve got Verstappen, we’ve got Gasly joining the team next year, we’ve got Leclerc in a Ferrari, which is great to see. And Ocon is arguably one of those drivers who should be finding his way, so it’s unfortunate for him that he will be on the bench next year due to his contractual association. Really, the responsibility lies with his owners to find the solution.”
Ocon’s plight is a simple case of bad timing and bad luck. He is neither the first F1 driver nor the last to be left without a seat despite all the praise in the world being heaped upon him.
Yet Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Romain Grosjean and Nico Hülkenberg have all proved that even the best drivers sometimes have to sit on the sidelines for a year. Each went through that pain before coming back and achieving the greatest success of their careers.
As Verstappen says of Ocon: “Maybe not next year, but the years after, he will have a great career in Formula 1. It is just at the moment the timing is wrong.”
“MAYBE NOT NEXT YEAR, BUT THE YEARS AFTER, HE WILL HAVE A GREAT CAREER IN F1. IT IS JUST AT THE MOMENT THE TIMING IS WRONG” MAX VERSTAPPEN
On the edge: no room at Mercedes, and Ocon’s links with them put off the likes of Red Bull
Ocon set a dazzling personal best of P3 in qualifying at Spa. But his comparative lack of funding means he’s likely to lose his Force India drive to Lance Stroll