Esteban Ocon will stay with Alpine through at least the 2024 season after the Formula 1 team announced a new three-year deal had been reached. MotorsportWeek.com reflects on the decision.
It is difficult to believe that Ocon’s first run with ‘Team Enstone’, as it is affectionately known, came almost seven years ago. That was when the lanky 18-year-old got behind the wheel of the unloved twin-pronged Lotus E22 in Abu Dhabi.
Back then Ocon was the reigning European Formula 3 champion, having beaten rivals including Max Verstappen, Antonio Giovinazzi and Nicholas Latifi, and was touted as one of the stars of the next generation.
Then Lotus junior Ocon was picked up by Mercedes, won the GP3 Series title, was sent out on loan to Renault in 2016 as a test driver, then had half a season racing for backmarker team Manor, before a two-year stint with Force India.
Ocon impressed in Formula 1’s midfield, though sometimes got too close for comfort with team-mate Sergio Perez, but the route to a top drive remained shut.
Amid the merry-go-round in mid-2018 Ocon was the big loser; he’d looked set to join Renault for 2019 – he was going to lose his Force India seat anyway amid the arrival of Lance Stroll – but the French marque understandably leapt at the unexpected chance to recruit Daniel Ricciardo.
Ocon spent 2019 shadowing Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas – devoting himself to simulator duties – before sealing a 2020 return with the same Renault squad that overlooked him 12 months beforehand.
Mercedes, both for 2019 and 2020, evaluated Ocon’s merits but opted to retain the status quo. With the emergence of George Russell any opportunity with the champion team that assisted his career diminished further.
The pandemic delayed Ocon’s racing return in 2020 and thus when the lights went out for his eventual Renault debut it had been 20 months since Ocon had raced Formula 1 machinery.
There were a few bright glimpses early on – including fifth during the rain-lashed Styria qualifying – but he lacked pace compared to established team-mate Ricciardo, who had already made his decision to exit for pastures new. In dry-weather sessions Ricciardo was ahead until the final shootout in Abu Dhabi while in the points Ocon amassed only 62 to Ricciardo’s 119.
However, there were some caveats. The quickfire schedule stymied Ocon’s progress at stages while he bore the brunt of Renault’s reliability setbacks; a bright chance at Istanbul was also wrecked at the first corner.
The gains that were delivered towards the end of the season were somewhat overlooked amid the rapid-fire nature of the calendar and the glut of news stories and narrative elsewhere. He was on Ricciardo’s pace at the final triple-header while there was the maiden podium in Sakhir – almost missed due to Sergio Perez’s maiden win and George Russell’s near-miss with Mercedes dominating the agenda.
Perhaps Ocon’s 2020 struggles – especially after missing the 2019 campaign – can be greater appreciated this year, with the experienced and successful drivers who changed teams over the winter still getting fully acclimatised in new surroundings. In 2020, in a tightly-congested midfield, Ocon was the only driver having to adapt to a new team.
Behind the scenes through 2020 there were also changes, the impact of which have been witnessed in 2021, leaving Ocon in a more comfortable position. He has out-qualified the returning Fernando Alonso 4-2, and though he trails 12-13 in the points, he has finished ahead in the events where both reached the chequered flag.
Josh Peckett and Stuart Barlow – who incidentally worked together on Pascal Wehrlein’s side of the Manor garage when Ocon joined in 2016 – form his Race and Performance Engineer duo. That change came after some discussions and a “hard reset”, in the words of then Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul, through the middle of the dense 2020 season. Ocon is now in a happier place with his new structure and has a chance to build a title-chasing team around him in the long run.
“We are making an excellent team, altogether, motivated, young, hungry for the same aim, which is doing the best we can with what we have,” said Ocon at the recent Monaco Grand Prix. “I’m very pleased with what we are building at the moment as this is what I have wanted for a long time.”
A three-year deal is a strong and somewhat surprising commitment from both parties, given that only Charles Leclerc has a contract that runs until 2024. But Alpine has long-term plans to establish itself as a front-runner and the fiercely determined Ocon, aged only 24, still has time on his side, having already been through the school of hard-knocks. He knows from his 2018 experience how easily an opportunity can slip away. Promotionally, too, having a rising French star race for a French team is a boon.
“Despite his young age, he is very experienced in Formula 1 and he’s on a positive trajectory in both his maturity and ability behind the wheel,” explained Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi.
“He is a strong asset for us now, and also going forward as we meet the challenge of the new regulations. We have every confidence in Esteban to help drive the team and the brand to the next level and meet its long-term objectives.
“Esteban is an asset for us beyond F1 as he is deeply involved in the Alpine global project. Thanks to his personality and values, Esteban is naturally a perfect ambassador of Alpine.”
Having been through the ups and downs, sometimes together, sometimes apart, Ocon and Alpine can now continue laying the groundwork in their quest for eventual Formula 1 glory.