Esteban Ocon can secure Mercedes drive if he proves a Force to be reckoned with in 2018

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Esteban Ocon.

As Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton stepped off the podium at Yas Marina Circuit and drifted into the silence of the Abu Dhabi night, the curtain came down on another thrilling Formula One season.

In the aftermath of Sunday evening, much discussion centred on the season’s key talking points – from Hamilton’s dominance, the closing gap between Mercedes and Ferrari, new cars in 2018 but most intriguingly Esteban Ocon’s future as an F1 superstar.

Fifteen months on from his debut at the Belgian Grand Prix, the Frenchman has captured the imagination of motorsport fans worldwide with his swashbuckling displays for Force India this year.

Eighth in the drivers’ standings, the 21-year-old accumulated 87 points in 2017, just 13 points shy of his experienced Force India teammate Sergio Perez in seventh.

The Evreux native may have only outraced Perez just once, but points in all but two races and a fifth place at the Spanish Grand Prix marks a scintillating rookie season any young driver would be hugely proud of.

But away from his class and aggression on the track, Ocon’s relationship with his Mexican colleague has not all been rosy, with the British-based Indian team threatening to impose strict orders on the pair following three collisions this season – the most notable of which came in Spa in August.

It’s never nice to see team-mates bickering to the press in the aftermath of races, but in some respects, it’s admirable to see the confidence of a young man trying to challenge a driver who has six years more experience in the sport.

It could also be argued that Perez enjoyed his second-best season to date based on the pressure imposed by the young upstart.

With Force India cementing their status as the fourth-best team on the circuit, they clearly boast the most exciting driver line-up outside of Hamilton/Bottas and Max Verstappen/Daniel Ricciardo – something that will make for an off-season full of hope.

But away from potential team success, Ocon needs to elevate himself to another level in the new year if he is to be the lead driver at Force India – and he’s proved over these past months that he is not far off the top positions, particularly with his stunning drive at the Canadian Grand Prix.

Fastest across the weekend in Montreal, he may have finished as the second-best Force India driver in sixth, but there was no doubt who was more impressive after Perez defied team orders when Ocon clearly had the pace to challenge Vettel in fourth place.

With further improvements set to be made on the new car, there is every possibility Ocon will challenge for podiums in 2018 – and test the dominance of the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Eighteen top-10 finishes in his first full season certainly prove his potential, but he has to challenge further up the grid in his second campaign if the bigger teams are to step up and show interest.

As part of the Mercedes drivers programme, he is a strong contender to replace Bottas at the Silver Arrows in 2019 should they part company with the Finn.

It would be a serious coup for a driver with his potential to earn a seat at Toto Wolff’s side – a career move that would further enhance his prospects of being a future world champion.

With better knowledge of the tracks after a baptism of fire season debut, Ocon certainly has the attributes to fulfill great promise.

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Ferrari raise the bar and other talking points from the 2017 F1 season

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Valtteri Bottas became the final winner of this year’s Formula One season after he held off Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday.

The 28-year-old Finn, who started from pole position, led from the lights to the flag apart from a spell following his first pit stop when Hamilton was in control.

Hamilton claimed his fourth world championship with two races to spare after he took an unassailable lead over Sebastian Vettel in Mexico last month.

Here, Press Association Sport looks back at five things we learned from the 2017 campaign.

What was your highlight from the season?

Let us know on our Twitter and Facebook pages.

Ferrari raise the bar… but Vettel faltered

The season may have ended in a rather underwhelming fashion, but that should not detract from what has been a strong year.

Ferrari raised the bar and in Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel the sport finally witnessed the two greatest drivers of their generation going toe to toe for the first time.

For much of the year it looked as though the championship would go down to the wire with the season swinging from Mercedes to Ferrari and Hamilton to Vettel only for the latter’s charge to capitulate in the Far East.

Hamilton acted like a man reborn following the departure of his long-term foe Nico Rosberg, and while Vettel crumbled under the pressure in Baku (penalised for deliberately swerving into Hamilton), Singapore (crashed out from pole) and Mexico (damaged his car after a first-lap collision with Hamilton), his rival delivered his fiercest performances when it mattered most.

Hamilton’s qualifying lap at a rain-soaked Monza – where he was more than one second faster than anyone else – and victories at five of the six races staged after the summer break cleared his path to glory.

But with only minor tweaks to the regulations over the winter, expect Hamilton and Vettel to do it all over again in 2018.

Sebastian Vettel.

New owners under pressure

Liberty Media promised to revolutionise F1 following their £6.4billion purchase in January and swift removal of the long-standing Bernie Ecclestone from its helm.

But aside from improving F1’s reach on social media (albeit from a starting point of zero) it is a sport largely untouched from Ecclestone’s days in charge.

A 13 per cent drop in the prize money pool (some £32million) for the first time in recent memory has done little to endear the new regime to the teams, while the new logo, unveiled after the season finale in abu dhabi, courted disdain rather than pleasure.

Liberty’s vision for the future is also unclear which is becoming a growing source of frustration for most of the teams.

“If you look at this year we have accomplished a significant amount,” Sean Bratches, F1’s American commercial boss, argued ahead of the season finale.

“This is a journey and not a destination. We have great aspirations for this sport. You don’t flick a switch and things happen. I can assure you we are going 24/7 and working to make this sport as great as it can be because we believe there is a huge opportunity.”

Nowhere for McLaren to hide in 2018

Glasses of champagne were shared between members of McLaren and Honda on Saturday evening as they toasted the final race of a partnership which has been doomed from the start.

It was hardly a surprise to see the broader smiles were on the faces of McLaren personnel rather than those from the Japanese manufacturer.

This has been a torrid three years for both parties, but McLaren, who will be powered by the more competitive Renault outfit next year, will now hope to finally turn a corner.

The famous British team, a winner of 20 world championships, has hidden behind Honda’s failings for too long and in 2018 it will be time for them to deliver.

What next for Ricciardo?

Daniel Ricciardo has emerged as one of the sport’s most likeable figures – thanks in part to his so-called ‘shoey’ celebration in which he, or an invited guest, swigs champagne from his sweaty race boot.

But despite finishing ahead of his team-mate Max Verstappen in the championship, Red Bull have made it clear that it is their intention to build the team around the 20-year-old Dutchman.

Aside from Hamilton, who is due to pen a new deal with Mercedes, Ricciardo is the major player out of contract at the end of next season.

With Mercedes and Ferrari circling, it will be fascinating to see where the Australian ends up.

The future is in safe hands

While question marks remain over the sport’s owners, the future of Formula One, in terms of its on-track quality at least, appears more certain.

Verstappen, who turned only 20 last month, put reliability woes from the opening half of his campaign to one side to record two impressive victories in the latter stages of the season, while 21-year-old Esteban Ocon has thoroughly impressed in his first full term in the sport.

There is British interest for the future, too, with Lando Norris, 18, signed up as a McLaren reserve driver for next season after winning the European Formula Three championship, while George Russell, the 19-year-old Englishman who sealed the GP3 title this year, impressed on his recent practice run-outs with Force India.

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Lewis Hamilton and Esteban Ocon among winners in our end of season F1 awards

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When Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton crossed the finish line at Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday to seal a dominant Mercedes one-two, fireworks shot out from above the stands to draw the curtain on another F1 season.

It was another remarkable campaign for Hamilton as the 32-year-old sealed a fourth drivers’ title, finishing in front of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by a comfortable 46 points.

It was not the competitive season we were all hoping for but Ferrari did put up somewhat of a fight to challenge Mercedes, and Vettel walked away with five race wins in 2017.

The two Red Bulls — Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen — combined for three grands prix triumphs.

Here, we look back at the year that was with driver of the year, team of the year and rookie of the year awards up for grabs.

DRIVER OF THE SEASON

LEWIS HAMILTON

The Briton won nine races – more than any other driver this season – en route to sealing a fourth world title and levelling drawing level with Vettel (four world crowns) in the process.

He looked virtually untouchable at Silverstone, Monza and Austin – and capitalised effectively on Vettel’s retirements in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

The 32-year-old was a different class and it will be difficult to see him beaten in 2018 as he eyes Juan Manuel Fangio’s haul of five world titles.

TEAM OF THE SEASON

MERCEDES

No surprises to see the Silver Arrow secure a fourth successive constructors’ championship with Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas on the podium 13 times each.

Ferrari will be expected to make further improvements during the off-season, but will it be enough to close the strong gap in the championship?

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

KIMI RAIKKONEN

He may have finished fourth in the drivers’ standings, but the Ferrari driver has failed to win  since the Australian Grand Prix in 2013.

If it wasn’t for the reliability issues of Max Verstappen and the recent retirements of Daniel Ricciardo, the Finn could well be lower in the standings.

For a driver on the fifth highest salary, the 38-year-old does not justify his position as an elite driver with the second best team in the sport. Could 2018 be the Ice Man’s final F1 season?

RACE OF THE SEASON

AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX

The F1 season blew into life in Baku in June as Vettel swung into Hamilton after wrongly thinking his rival brake-tested him.

The German was hit with a stop-and-go penalty, handing Hamilton the advantage to take the honours. However, the Britons headrest came loose later in the race and he was forced to pit for repairs allowing Vettel to finish ahead of him.

Away from this incident there was plenty of drama, with the Finnish duo of Bottas and  Raikkonen clipping each other, while Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez collided – not for the first time this season either.

Azerbaijan F1 Grand Prix

ROOKIE OF THE SEASON

ESTEBAN OCON

Few rookies have enjoyed such a consistent start to their F1 careers as the Frenchman finished eighth in the drivers’ standings and scored points in every race except two this season.

The 21-year-old has accumulated 87 in the driver’s standings, just 13 points behind his experienced Force India team-mate Sergio Perez in seventh position.

DRIVER TO WATCH IN 2018

MAX VERSTAPPEN

The flying Dutchman endured a mixed campaign, with seven retirements in 14 races, but managed to clinch points in every race that he completed.

His standout performances included wins in Malaysia and Mexico, as well as podiums in China and Japan.

A bold statement to make, but except the 20-year-old to challenge Hamilton and Vettel for the title in 2018.

TEAM TO WATCH IN 2018

RED BULL

With Daniel Ricciardo collecting nine podiums and Verstappen closing out the season in flawless fashion, Christian Horner’s men should challenge Ferrari for second place in the constructors’ championship next season.

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