Out of a drive for next year, what’s gone wrong for Es­te­ban Ocon?

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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


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


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.”


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

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