Esteban Ocon returned to a Formula 1 podium at the Monaco Grand Prix for the third time in his Formula 1 career, delivering an exceptional performance across the entirety of the weekend at a decisive time for both him and the Alpine team.
After edging out McLaren to place fourth in the Constructors’ Championship last year – thus heralding the unofficial title of ‘best of the rest’ behind the traditional top three teams – Alpine’s top brass set its sights on retaining that position and closing the deficit that remained to the frontrunners.
But a sluggish start to the second year of the latest rules cycle – coupled with Aston Martin, who had finished a lowly seventh the previous two years, elevating itself beyond the rest of the midfield to become a regular front-running contender – saw Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi not mince his words when it came to blasting the lacklustre performance of the Anglo-French side.
However, the sight of Ocon participating in the podium festivities alongside ex-team-mate Fernando Alonso has the hallmarks of marking a potential turning point for both Alpine’s season and long-term prospects.
A top-three finish certainly delivered an unforeseen surprise, but Alpine had been threatening to pull a top result out of the bag for many races. The Australian Grand Prix had displayed promise until both cars ended up nestled up against the barrier, Baku provided a rude awakening before a strong Miami outing again amplified the underlying potential of its A523 package.
Ultimately, Alpine had been responsible for its own shortcomings and not accumulating a points total reflective of the inherent speed of its 2023 creation. But finally, in Monaco, the team put everything together during a weekend where its package was intrinsically quick and well-suited to the specific demands such a unique circuit entails.
Having looked good through the early stages of qualifying, Ocon then catapulted to the top of the order in Q3 with only three minutes remaining. The Alpine driver would eventually be bumped down to fourth, but his sterling effort was enough to yield the Enstone side’s highest starting spot since Kimi Raikkonen wound up fifth in 2013.
While much of the attention and plaudits went the way of polesitter Max Verstappen for his scintillating run through the final sector to snatch pole position, Ocon’s lap – set slightly earlier and in a slower car – was equally as impressive to end up only 0.3s adrift. The magnitude of Ocon’s final effort could be seen in the 0.4s margin he upheld to Pierre Gasly – a seismic gap around a relatively short lap and the highest between any set of team-mates appearing in Q3.
There was nothing fortunate about Ocon’s lap either; it wasn’t a case of certain conditions aligning in any way to create a perfect storm for him to profit. It was simply a committed lap, one that was utterly on the limit, that left absolutely no margin through the 19 corners that provide such a technical challenge for the drivers around the winding streets of Monte Carlo.
When Charles Leclerc, who had qualified third for Ferrari, was later hit with a three-place grid drop, Ocon was promoted one place up the order, granting him a golden opportunity to snatch a shock podium finish that he duly converted.
Of course, Ocon’s advances were aided by overtaking being notoriously difficult in Monaco, but he had earned the right to be in that position by nailing his qualifying run to start ahead of drivers in superior cars in the race. And regardless, Monaco still represents a demanding challenge of concentration behind the visor, with the close proximity of the barriers meaning one minor mistake can prove more detrimental than at more conventional tracks on the calendar.
It would have been increasingly easy, therefore, for Ocon to undo his qualifying exploits by the small matter of snatching a brake, locking a wheel or running slightly offline when the anticipated rain arrived to spice up proceedings in the closing stages. However, he didn’t buckle under the pressure imposed on him by Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari in the early phase of the race, nor was he perturbed by seven-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton sitting menacingly in his mirrors for several laps on a treacherous track surface to cross the line third.
Ocon’s appearance in the top three marked the first time he climbed onto an F1 podium since he remarkably prevailed to win his maiden grand prix in Hungary almost two years ago. But his most recent weekend performance was arguably his most refined and spectacular in the sport to date.
His Budapest glory relied on an exceptional set of circumstances falling favourably into his hands. Although Ocon was fortunate in the sense he inherited third place from a penalty and relied on George Russell, who had avoided making an additional stop to change dry compound tyres, relinquishing the position with a trip down the escape road at Mirabeau on his out-lap on intermediates, the luck he received was earned in some respects by a flawlessly executed weekend on his side of the Alpine garage.
Ocon’s emergence in becoming the first Frenchman to stand on the podium in Monaco since Olivier Panis won the prized event in 1996 was a surprise in many respects, but the 26-year-old has a track record of previously seizing the possibility of a cherished result for a perennial midfield side when an opening is there.
While he may not be an outstanding, once-in-a-generation level talent that will proceed to win multiple World Championships as ex-Formula 3 rival Verstappen has managed, Ocon represents a reliable pair of hands behind the wheel of an F1 car with a seriously undervalued turn of speed to boot. His capability to pounce on the opportunity to seize an improbable result cannot be understated and neither should the respectable record he’s attained in his career against a series of tough team-mates.
The French-born racer has been pitted against multiple race-winning drivers and stacked up admirably. Despite only retaining nine grands prix starts under his belt with a backmarker Manor side by the time he faced Sergio Perez – a staple head of the F1 midfield scene for many years– he was undeterred by the challenge, displaying a remarkable run of consistency befitting of a seasoned veteran to register 18 points finishes across the 20 rounds to take place.
Unfortunately for Ocon, the Silverstone team’s financial troubles saw a consortium led by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll take over the team, facilitating a seat for his son Lance to leave the Frenchman undeservedly out of a full-time seat for the following year. Before his departure, however, Ocon had comfortably out-qualified Perez 16-5 in 2018 and edged the race head-to-head 9-5 to consolidate his growing reputation against a driver that would later earn a move to Red Bull.
While Ocon would reappear as a shadow of his former self upon his comeback with Renault in 2020, the return of two-time champion Alonso after a two-year absence prompted him to rediscover the glittering consistency he had showcased prior to his enforced time on the sidelines.
Over the course of his time partnered with the Spaniard, Ocon predominantly went stride for stride with Alonso, culminating in him accruing more points over their two seasons together. Sure, Alonso suffered bouts of bad luck throughout 2022 that massively impacted his overall points tally, but that doesn’t detract from Ocon putting in many impressive displays of his own to classify fifth in Austria and a resilient drive to fend off Hamilton at a soaked Suzuka.
Alonso’s sudden departure at the end of last year has forced Ocon to swiftly adapt to adopting the mantle of becoming the de-facto team leader within the Alpine ranks and the realisation that he will be looked to internally as a primary source for producing moments of inspiration on the track.
Despite still only being 26 years old, Ocon has already amassed vast F1 experience and has learned from some of the best racing benchmarks in the modern era of the sport, providing him with all the minerals to lead Alpine’s hopes of charging towards the front of the grid. Ocon’s starring display in the principality marked a coming-of-age performance and one that established he is more than ready to embed himself as a credible leader that can tie into Alpine’s lofty ambitions for the future.
However, the responsibility of ensuring that Ocon’s impressive weekend display doesn’t remain a rarity will now largely depend on Alpine avoiding the result being recognised as yet another false dawn and rather a sign of upwards progress towards it turning sporadic podium chances into a more consistent possibility.