Motorsport Week reflects on how Mercedes-backed Esteban Ocon became the loser of this year's wild Silly Season and how the young driver schemes that have proved beneficial in the championship have conspired against the talented Frenchman.
When Esteban Ocon was turfed into the wall (by his Force India team-mate) just two corners into Formula 1’s Singapore Grand Prix and watched all the others whizz by, there was more than an element of wistful symbolism.
Ocon, with titles in F3, GP3 and a spell in DTM, tested for Lotus, Force India, Renault and Mercedes – whom has backed his career since his GP3 success – raced for Manor and Force India, and at one stage had 2019 options at Renault and McLaren. But as it stands he could be watching from the side lines thanks to timing, misfortune and politics. It is somewhat remarkable to consider that he only last week turned 22 years old. Lewis Hamilton hadn’t even made his debut by that age…
It is, to an extent, Hamilton’s success that Mercedes hopes Ocon will one day emulate, even if such a statement may seem outlandishly excessive. Hamilton’s stature – both on- and off-track – made a continuation a no-brainer for the respective parties, and Mercedes was keen to retain Valtteri Bottas, given his improvement and relationship with the four-time World Champion. Hamilton confirmed. Tick. Bottas confirmed. Tick. And on Mercedes’ home soil. Meanwhile, Ocon was being lined up for a Renault drive, and negotiations were going well. All good.
Unfortunately for Ocon, Daniel Ricciardo fancied a fresh start. Mercedes and Ferrari were both a no-go and one glance at McLaren was all he needed – Renault it was, motivated by the manufacturer’s upward trajectory, expenditure and long-term ambition. Renault could hardly believe its luck and duly signed Ricciardo, with Nico Hulkenberg already secure in the second seat.
“We had possibilities there,” said Ocon when F1 reconvened three weeks after the Ricciardo bombshell. “In the end, it has passed and we have to move forward.”
McLaren, where Ocon had had a seat fitting, remained a possibility, but it had already signed Carlos Sainz Jr. and was edging towards promoting Lando Norris in place of Stoffel Vandoorne.
Ocon was on McLaren’s four-man shortlist – but it went no further than that.
“Esteban is someone who we rate extremely highly,” said McLaren boss Zak Brown two days after tying down Norris for 2019. “Any time a driver… when you’re looking for something long-term [and a driver] has ties to another manufacturer that’s a tick in the wrong box. These manufacturers having a call on these drivers is certainly something that is a negative when you’re not with that certain manufacturer and you want a five- or 10-year view of whether you want a driver or now.” Put simply, while Norris was always its favourite, McLaren was not keen on the idea of signing Ocon for 2019, only to risk him being pulled away for 2020. Ie, McLaren did not want to be a training ground for a rival.
And therein lies one problem of the junior driver schemes. They have been brilliant in sourcing the young talent that may have otherwise not reached Formula 1. In the right circumstances it pays dividends – and can do so big time – but the nature of relationships and alliances between the big teams and supposed junior teams, and the teams that are ostensibly excluded from such duopolies, means allegiances get nailed to the post. And Ocon has missed out. No Ferrari-affiliated team is going to take him. Neither is Red Bull going to evaluate him as a Toro Rosso candidate.
The situation reached a head – of sorts – in Singapore, as Mercedes boss Toto Wolff put his feelings firmly on the table.
“What’s been going on this year in July and August was just unbelievable, there was so much politics in the background, hidden agendas, lies,” he vented during a post-practice natter with Sky Sports. “Not all of the good kids are going to end up in cars and probably Esteban will be one of them, but we’ll look after him, he’s one of the future stars. In July he [Ocon] had two offers on the table with contracts and it was just a matter of choosing which one was the right one and he ended up not having any anymore because people just simply don’t have the balls to stick to what they say.”
There is a slight elephant in the room regarding Mercedes and Ocon. Ferrari has promoted Charles Leclerc while Red Bull has appointed Pierre Gasly, both of whom are of a similar age to Ocon – and have less experience. Perhaps Mercedes could have been bolder if it truly has total faith in Ocon’s ability – though that is speaking with the benefit of hindsight. For example, Gasly would not have his 2019 Red Bull chance without Ricciardo having switched to Renault – in turn putting the blockers on Ocon. Mercedes thought it already had plans for Ocon when it was re-signing Bottas, who incidentally is fully deserving of his 2019 extension anyway. Rivals have suggested that Wolff should open his chequebook, or fund a junior team, but Mercedes is not willing to invest in such large sums – it would not make commercial sense. F1 fans may relish the prospect of a Mercedes junior operation but the board at Daimler would not be so easy at parting with $100m a year to fund an out-and-out B team. It is not a marketing operation in the vein of Red Bull.
Therefore what lies next for Esteban Ocon?
At 22 he still has time on his side, and the experience will have opened his (slightly naïve) eyes into the harsh realities of Formula 1, in that bad timing and circumstance can skewer even those with his results and level of talent. He will be stronger for this setback, and the sight of karting rivals Max Verstappen, Gasly and Leclerc competing at the sharp end of the grid will only serve to heighten that resolve. There is still a possibility that he could emerge at Williams, and perhaps the team will enjoy a Lazarus-like recovery in 2019, though the chances of both those situations becoming reality are slim. A year off is certainly not the end – witness the likes of Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean spending time out before returning, albeit the former two doing so in an era of unlimited testing. On the circuit he has shown what he can do, his performances prompting praise from Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, especially in the wake of his Belgian qualifying run. His off-track conduct, dealing with the situation in a gracious manner, has also won him admirers.
It is far from ideal – but hopefully Mercedes and Ocon can find a way that returns him to the grid in 2020.