Feature: Hope for Esteban Ocon - F1's other comeback kids

Esteban Ocon will spend 2019 on the sidelines after missing out on a Formula 1 race seat – but he will retain a strong connection through his role as Mercedes’ test/reserve driver, with the marque adamant he will be back in 2020. Motorsport Week reflects on the drivers whose previous one-year absences provide hope for Ocon.  

Fernando Alonso (2002)

Even future F1 champions had to bide their time. Alonso’s superb achievements with Minardi in 2001 did not go unnoticed but for 2002 he instead held a reserve role at Renault, under the guidance of Flavio Briatore, back in the era of unlimited testing. He spent 31 days testing through the course of the campaign. He was back on the grid in 2003, became the then-youngest winner, and two years later was crowned the youngest World Champion. 

Felipe Massa (2003)

Massa spent a wild-yet-promising rookie campaign with Sauber in 2002, after which he was firmly taken under Ferrari’s wing, spending 2003 pounding around its Fiorano test track, beginning a relationship that would extend to a decade. Massa returned to the grid in 2004, again with Sauber, as a far more rounded racer and when Ferrari needed a team-mate for Michael Schumacher in 2006 it swiftly appointed Massa. He went on to take wins in 2006 and two years later famously came within seconds of being crowned World Champion. 

Nico Hulkenberg (2011) 

‘The Hulk’ established himself in Formula 1 in 2010 as a rookie with Williams and memorably claimed a stunning pole position in a rain-affected qualifying session in Brazil. But Williams needed additional funding for 2011 and it arrived in the form of Pastor Maldonado. Hulkenberg was out and sought refuge as Force India’s tester, taking part in a smattering of FP1 sessions. He was given the nod for a 2012 race seat, almost won in Brazil, joined Sauber, returned to Force India, and is now preparing for his third year in yellow and black at Renault.

Adrian Sutil (2012)

Adrian Sutil was a Team Silverstone stalwart for five years but for 2012 he lost out as Hulkenberg stepped up to partner Paul di Resta. Hulkenberg’s move to Sauber opened a 2013 vacancy and Sutil won a shootout against 2012 tester Jules Bianchi to return to a race seat. At the end of the campaign he and Hulkenberg effectively swapped seats but his spell at Sauber was a sour one. Sauber endured a dismal 2014 with its recalcitrant C33 and, in spite of Sutil’s claims he had a valid 2015 deal, he was dropped. 

Kamui Kobayashi (2013)

Perhaps not the best example for Ocon. Kobayashi, following a starring substitute spell at Toyota, spent three years with Sauber, the highlight a stunning podium on home soil in 2012. But for 2013 he missed out and instead spent a season at Maranello, taking part in a handful of GT races and demonstration runs – memorably crashing in one. A return with Caterham beckoned in 2014 but it was a disastrous year as the team collapsed, with Kobayashi’s F1 career ending in subdued fashion. 

Kevin Magnussen (2015)

Magnussen arrived in Formula 1 in style with McLaren in 2014, saving a humungous tank-slapper off the line on his debut in Australia en route to a shock podium. It proved the high point. McLaren was subsequently mired in midfield malaise and it preferred to keep Jenson Button for 2015 to partner incoming Fernando Alonso. Magnussen remained as tester, having a forgettable run in Australia as a replacement for Alonso, but for 2016 was handed a lifeline by Renault to return to racing when Maldonado’s sponsorship money dried up. 

Esteban Gutierrez (2015)

For a brief spell in 2016 there were two Estebans on the grid – one debutant and one returnee. Gutierrez’s long affiliation with Sauber brought him into the field in 2013 but after two disappointing years he was shown the exit, having scored just one points finish, courtesy of seventh at Suzuka. Gutierrez spent 2015 as Ferrari’s test/reserve driver and that association helped him return with the new-for-2016 Haas team. He finished 11th five times but failed to add to his single points finish and was not retained for 2017. He still holds an F1 link through his role as a Mercedes simulator driver. 

Esteban Ocon (2019)

This surely isn’t goodbye for Ocon. He made his F1 debut with Manor in 2016 before switching to Force India for 2017. He impressed, failing to score in just two races, tallying up 87 points to secure eighth in the standings, just one place behind his far more experienced team-mate Sergio Perez. Circumstance conspired against Ocon in the 2018/19 silly season as he lost out to Lance Stroll at Force India/Racing Point, while possibilities at Renault, McLaren and Williams all slipped away. But with Mercedes' backing he's a strong favourite for a 2020 return.