Few rookies have enjoyed such a consistent start to their Formula One careers as Esteban Ocon – eighth in the drivers’ standings and scoring points in every race except two this season.
The impressive Frenchman has accumulated 83 points in the driver’s standing, lying just 11 points behind Force India team-mate Sergio Perez in seventh position.
The duo have finished within one point of each other on 10 occasions this season, with the Mexican generally getting the upper hand over the youngster.
But it hasn’t been all rosy, with Force India threatening to impose team orders on the pair following three incidents this season – the most notable of which was a double collision at the Belgian GP which cost them valuable points following the retirement of Perez.
“It was a tough time for me and Sergio. The team had to take a decision that was difficult at the time. In the end they managed it well for both of us,” he said.
“If you take only one driver we would be P4 in the championship. It really means we’ve been solid this season, even though we got fourth place in the end in the constructors’ championship.”
Force India may be the top team outside of the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, but Ocon believes they can challenge their rivals and finish on a positive note at Yas Marina this weekend.
“I think it’s very good for your mind to finish on a high and to go into winter break feeling like you’ve finished well. If you finish badly then you have to climb up in your mind,” he said.
“You’re always learning every time you go out in the car. I’m working to be the best. I will not stop working until I reach that goal with the team.”
The return of the French Grand Prix next June is welcome news for the Evreux native. Ocon was 10 when the race was last held at Magny- Cours in 2008, with Felipe Massa storming to victory in a Ferrari.
“It’s awesome news having the French GP next year. All tickets were sold in two days. Some of my friends tried to get them and they couldn’t get any at all,” he said.
“It’s really nice to know it’s coming back to France. I hope it’s going to be a great show and be one of the best races on the calendar.”
Lewis Hamilton moved to the top of the order in second practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after trading blows with Sebastian Vettel at the final round of the season.
Hamilton finished behind Vettel in the day’s first running at the Yas Marina circuit after the Ferrari driver picked up where he left off following his victory in Brazil a fortnight ago.
But it was world champion Hamilton’s turn to edge out Vettel in the evening session as he bids to end his title-winning campaign with a bang.
Under the floodlights, Hamilton clocked a best effort of one minute and 37.877 to finish clear of Vettel with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo third in the order.
“It’s been a good Friday, but I’m happy that it’s the last one of the season,” said Hamilton, who clinched his fourth championship in Mexico last month. “We got lots of laps in today and made good progress with the balance of the car.
“We have a bit of work to do, but I feel like we’re quite competitive here. It’s relatively close still, but I like that.”
Vettel – who needs to finish only eighth here in the desert to seal the runner-up spot in this year’s championship – and Hamilton have both won on three occasions in Abu Dhabi, and both started from pole position three times, too.
And on the basis of Friday’s evidence at least, the pair, who went toe-to-toe for the title only for Vettel’s challenge to implode in the second half of the campaign, look set to dominate here once more.
Hamilton finished 0.139 seconds ahead of Vettel with Ricciardo three tenths further back. Kimi Raikkonen was fourth for Ferrari ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas with the Red Bull of Max Verstappen sixth. Bottas must record an unlikely victory on Sunday to stand any chance of beating Vettel to second spot in the championship.
Earlier, British driver George Russell, 19, was handed his second practice run-out in as many grands prix by Force India, and he finished 11th – 2.1 sec off Vettel and within one second of Sergio Perez in the sister car.
The Mercedes junior, who won the GP3 championship with a round to spare, is set to make the step up to Formula Two next season and is also in the running for the reserve drive with the British-based Force India team
Perez finished seventh in second practice ahead of team-mate Esteban Ocon, who returned to the Force India car after Russell took his place in the day’s first running.
Nico Hulkenberg was ninth for Renault ahead of McLaren’s Fernando Alonso. Felipe Massa, who will start the 269th and final race of his Formula One career on Sunday ahead of his impending retirement, finished 11th in the order.
Sebastian Vettel believes 2018 could be a successful year for Ferrari if they continue to make the same progress like they did this season.
The 30-year-old may have been beaten to the title by Lewis Hamilton but has warned the Scuderia will pose a bigger threat to their Mercedes rivals next season.
The German led the championship at the halfway stage in July but suffered setbacks in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan – paving the way for Hamilton to seal a fourth world title with two races remaining.
But the leap in performance Ferrai have made this year compared to their chastening experiences in 2016 has given Vettel, team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and the rest of the Prancing Horse plenty of optimism for 2018.
“I think if we can do a similar step for next year and…don’t get me wrong, it’s a joke and Germans don’t like to joke so much, it should be a walk in the park,” Vettel said.
“What I want to say by that is the steps made this year have been incredible. The way the team came out with a competitive car at the beginning, the way we have improved both chassis, engine has been outstanding.
Vettel clinched five wins this campaign – as many as Ferrari claimed in the previous five seasons – highlighting their improvements made since the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last November.
With the final constructors’ championship not offering a true reflection on the tight battle between Mercedes and Ferrari, Vettel says the Italian marque can make further developments over the next 12 months.
“It has been close for most of the year but not close enough when it mattered. From that, we have made our conclusions, learned our lessons so that will help us next year,” he said.
“We are completely fired up. It has been bitter but I think it has been positive that we have had a couple of races [this year] to approach and look forward to next season.”
Vettel also suggested that a strong off-season for his team is key to their push of landing a first constructors’ championship since 2008.
He added: “That final step is always the hardest but the team is ready. We have some good things in the pipeline.”
Four-time champions Vettel and Hamilton have the stellar task of trying to catch Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio on five world titles.
“Certainly we will never match him in how successful he was in such a short space of time,” Vettel said. “Back then racing was different.
The cars were not that reliable and he still managed to be successful. (He was) the best we’ve ever had in terms of putting it all together and skill.”
With the pressure off Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Vettel – a three time winner at Yas Marina Circuit – has the chance to eclipse Hamilton and win the season-ending race for the fourth time.
“It is probably not the most sophisticated track – it is pretty wide – but that also means that there is more than one racing line,” Vettel, who won at Yas Marina in 2008, 2009 and 2013, said.
“It is not so easy to overtake and that means that you’d better qualify at the very front. And that is the plan. And then let’s see what it will be on Sunday.”