Feature: 'I thought I would be forgotten' - Esteban Ocon on his F1 return

Mercedes reserve driver Esteban Ocon

Esteban Ocon will return to the Formula 1 grid with Renault in 2020, having sat out the 2019 campaign to carry out a role as Mercedes' test and reserve driver. Motorsport Week exclusively caught up with the French youngster.

It can be difficult to feel sympathy for racing drivers but the plight of Esteban Ocon through the latter stages of 2018 invoked a degree of warmth towards the 22-year-old.

Having impressed during a half-season with Manor and two years at Force India, Ocon was the loser of a frantic silly season and found himself seat-less when the game of musical chairs came to a close.

He knew the Lawrence Stroll-led takeover over Force India meant he would relinquish his seat for 2019, but a strong opportunity at Renault fell through when the manufacturer swooped to sign Daniel Ricciardo. A half-open door at McLaren was firmly kicked shut amid the team’s reluctance to only sign Ocon on loan from Mercedes, which has managed his career since 2015.

Ocon entered the second half of 2018 facing an uncertain future but 12 months later he knows where he will be plying his trade in 2020 and 2021: with Renault, as a fully-fledged Formula 1 driver.

“I haven’t known [the news] since a lot of time, maybe one week or two, no more,” he says in Mercedes’ hospitality unit at Spa-Francorchamps. “It’s fantastic news, I’m really happy. It’s a great opportunity to work with a constructor like Renault, also a French team, which is a bonus for me. They have a great ambition to improve over the next few years, and taking me onboard they have great hopes, and I like the project, and I look forward to starting.”

Ocon spent two years racing for Force India

Ocon’s most recent Formula 1 action came last November, when he stepped out of the cockpit of his Force India for the final time, but already the next day he was back at work, this time with Mercedes. Ocon was present at the post-race Abu Dhabi test as he began life as Mercedes’ test and reserve driver.

“It was a weird feeling,” says Ocon. “Because I was still in the season, still racing, still going on when I had the news on holidays that I was not going to have the seat I was supposed to have [in 2019].

It’s a great opportunity to work with a constructor like Renault, also a French team, which is a bonus for me.

“It was more after my winter training when we went to do testing and I heard the car starting and I was not in it – that was the shock. The first three races were hard mentally,” he says, trailing off.  “Hard mentally. I was pretty sad also, because I was working very hard and not being in the car in the weekend, it’s tough on the emotion, but it can only make you stronger, those kind of things, and I knew if I kept working the way I was doing we were going to find solutions and it happened. I thought after two or three races I would have been forgotten and that was not the case. I have to thank everyone that gave me so much support as that played a big part of it.”

Ocon’s role as Mercedes’ test and reserve driver has meant a substantial workload in Mercedes’ simulator. He spends hours upon hours at its Brackley base, predominantly at grand prix weekends, evaluating set-ups after Friday practice, prior to the application of parc ferme rules at the track. When we meet in Belgium on Saturday lunchtime, he has only recently arrived at the circuit, having been awake until 3am UK time carrying out 1,100km of running in the simulator – equivalent to a whopping 160 laps of F1’s longest track. He reckons he has had two hours of disjointed sleep.

Ocon has spent much of this year sleep deprived

“It’s very hard, it’s very difficult,” he says. “The human body is not made to live a full day working on the day and then stay awake at night and then do another day. It’s two days without sleep basically. So it is pretty tough. But I knew going into this season it was going to be not an easy one but I didn’t want to leave anything on the table. If I need to put myself at 200% that was what I was going to do. I really wanted to force myself to make sure that everyone would be happy and that I was doing three times more than any other driver.”

Ocon’s role means he has worked extensively with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, observing how they work with the team at close quarters.

“It’s priceless to be able to work with this team,” he explains. “The knowledge I had after this year and before that is very different. I’m a lot more complete than I was. For sure watching Lewis, how he works, how he interacts with people was very interesting. Also Valtteri, two different characters, to be honest I’ve learned more from Lewis – the way he’s doing is very different – Valtteri is more common to the others. But Lewis was very different. I’m not going to go into details as that would be his secrets, but he’s a very quick minded guy. He picks [up] things straight away, and if there is an interesting conversation and speaking there, boom he will switch to the other one and that’s very impressive.”

I thought after two or three races I would have been forgotten and that was not the case.

Ocon still has eight races left with Mercedes – a relationship that has been in existence since 2015 – and is keen to stress that he is “still focused” on his job as “the guys count on me to keep developing on the simulator and it’s very important,” but jokes that “I can’t wait” for winter testing to begin next February. It will be the rekindling of a partnership that stretches back a decade.

“After Mercedes it’s the team I know the most! Even before being in a single seater I was there at the Human Performance Centre in Enstone, training when I was a kid, I was already there in 2009, 2010, I already arrived there. I didn’t speak a word of English back in the day! I’m sure I will find a lot of people who used to work there.”

All through the interview Ocon is dressed in Mercedes’ gear, including his personalised headwear, which features the motto ‘We Fall, We Rise’, stitched into the trim at the front of the cap. It is an apt saying.

“I thought those four words… they work pretty well for this year.”

Please note: This interview was conducted prior to the tragic events which claimed the life of Anthoine Hubert