2016 was a year that saw limited opportunities for rookie drivers. Jolyon Palmer finally got his chance at Renault, while Manor provided debuts for Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto, but despite a number of highly-rated drivers waiting in the wings, these were all seats where it was going to be hard to make an impact.
One such talent awaiting his chance was Esteban Ocon, who picked up the reserve driver role at Renault but was placed in DTM to continue his racing development by Mercedes, the team looking after his career.
It was a case of one rookie out and one rookie in at Manor during the summer break, with Haryanto’s funding drying up and Ocon stepping in alongside fellow Mercedes youngster Wehrlein.
Excelling in a back-of-the-grid car mid-season was always going to be a tough ask, but it came at the end of a hectic few months since the Frenchman had won the GP3 crown in Abu Dhabi in November 2015.
“It was crazy, yeah!” Ocon tells F1i. “I was not moving one day to another so I was OK, I was doing DTM and was with Renault so that was OK, I had a plan in my mind. I think I did the best I could with the Renault team, they were happy with how I was performing and how I was involved and all that.
“Then I had the call from Manor and that was racing so that was different, for sure another level! So I’ve been learning a lot with them. It’s been great, they gave me the opportunity. We had some good races and some tough races.”
2017 will see Ocon racing for Force India after being selected as Nico Hulkenberg’s replacement, and the 20-year-old admit it has been a whirlwind year in which his planned future has changed on a number of occasions.
“It feels like three years, actually! I’m surprised how quickly it happened, because I was supposed to be reserve driver at Renault and doing DTM. Maybe … well, in my mind it was the plan to go to Renault the following year so anything more was a bonus for me. But in the end it didn’t come along as a bonus but like a future career, so it’s much more than what we were expecting.”
Ocon clearly impressed while at Manor, where the comparison to Wehrlein was easy to make. However, he insists he didn’t focus on the fact that both drivers are part of the Mercedes program as he felt it would become too much of a distraction.
“I’ve been racing with strong team-mates before in the past, there were drivers in Ferrari etc. There were many team-mates that I had before that were linked with Formula One teams. OK now we’re in the same program which is different, but if you start thinking about this it’s a brake for yourself, so I took it like it’s a team-mate and I have to do the best job possible. So I was not overly stressed by this.
“[Mercedes] were just saying, ‘Now that you’re in, for sure people will judge you, so just do your best to do a good job.”
After only nine races with a team he joined in August, you could be forgiven for thinking Ocon had barely settled in before being told he would be driving elsewhere in 2017. For the Frenchman, it was plenty of time to understand the demands of F1 and where he would need to develop.
“[I’ve learned] a lot. It’s massive. Massive. Because arriving as a rookie late in the season and having to catch back up the 12 races I haven’t done, I’ve been learning a lot in a short period and I’ve gained a lot of experience, for sure. It has been hard and I have been getting closer to the speed and now I’m arriving at a great speed, I think. There are always things to improve even more and I’m learning all the time but I’ve learned a massive amount and now it’s details.
“The biggest surprise was just how tough it is, how important set-up work with the engineer is with the car. You can gain a lot of time by focusing more on the car than on yourself. For me it works better like this. Before, in the junior series I was mostly focusing on myself and saying, ‘Leave the car, I have to do a better job,’ but actually that’s not how it works here.”
In a telling statement, Ocon says he has found there is no room for a driver to reach F1 without being the real deal already, such are the demands on other aspects of the sport.
“You’re trained as a driver and arriving in F1 you’re supposed to have been taught everything, know everything about driving but you need to work more on the car. You are supposed to be a great driver already and now you have to work on the car. But there’s always things to improve on the driving, I don’t say I leave my driving on the side and I work on the car, but I focus much more on the car with the guys than on my driving.”
Force India’s Bob Fernley admits it was a spark of potential that caused the team to opt for Ocon over Wehrlein when seeking Hulkenberg’s replacement, having previously tested the pair in Austria in 2015. On that occasion, Ocon was second fastest in tricky conditions before handing over to Wehrlein the following day.
“The test helped massively, massively. I think if I didn’t do this test they wouldn’t even think about me. They wanted me, Force India wanted me. This test was a coincidence at first but in the end it was for something because now I got the drive with them. It has been good and they remember me well, I gave them a great test I think, that’s why they wanted me, and we were P2 at this test so it’s just a great one for me as well. I really remember it like one of my best tests.
“It’s great [to be wanted], but also it puts you under some pressure because they think big. They think that you will arrive and do a strong job so that’s what they expect. So I have to work very hard to do that, to deliver that. I haven’t delivered it yet so you need the hard work to be done.”
Referring him back to his earlier answer about having to be a great driver by the time you reach F1, I suggest to Ocon that he won’t be afforded much time to get to grips with a full season in F1, but he insists he is unfazed as he approaches his next challenge.
“No, but I’m not a rookie anymore. I did more than the rule says – two grands prix – so I’m not a rookie anymore!
“I have a two-year contract with Force India, so let’s see. First I have two good years to do, a lot to learn, a strong team-mate to be competing with… Let’s see. First I have to do a good job with Force India and then in two years you know how many things can happen. Looks at how much happened in the last six months already! We have time.
“In my mind I am staying there for two years.”
The impact he has made over his short time in F1 so far suggests Ocon will be staying in the sport for much longer than that.
The Spaniard joined McLaren ahead of the 2015 season but endured a difficult year as an unreliable and uncompetitive Honda power unit saw the team finish tenth in the constructors’ championship. This year saw an improvement as McLaren finished sixth overall, and while Alonso ranks two of his Ferrari seasons a his best performances, he believes the last season was also a very strong one for him personally.
“2012 is probably my best season in Formula One,” Alonso said. “Then it could be 2014 my second best. Then probably this one will be on the final step of the podium so far. I felt very confident in the car in every condition. Even the last 10 laps in Brazil [in the wet] I felt really competitive with 40-lap old tyres, things like that.
“That confidence in the car gave me the opportunity to drive at the limit on many occasions. Jenson is an incredible driver. Last year I experienced that and saw that and this year I was able to be in front of him many, many times. Even in qualifying we are 13-5, or something like that, but in three qualifyings I didn’t participate because I had the penalty already with the engine and so I did only Q1. So that [difference] could be even higher than that.
“I consider this year on a very high standard from my driving part of view. So happy with the things that we’ve done, happy with the progress of the team as well, so a completely different taste… Twelve months ago we were disappointed, but sad, many things were going on in our heads last year.
“Instead this year everything is optimistic and everything is joy. We know there is still a long way to go to become champions, but the feeling is a lot happier than last year.”
In our final episode of 2016, Mithila and Kunal try and decode how Lewis Hamilton managed to get himself on the cover of the TIME Magazine – from ‘Hammer Time to the TIME’, literally. While Formula 1 might have much to learn from how America organises their sports events, we’re glad they’ve not learned and adapted to the ‘oval racing’ concept! Thank you, Formula 1.
We spotted Bernie Ecclestone on Instagram. Who would’ve thought? And no, he wasn’t playing Santa Claus! Speaking of Santa, Formula 1’s favourite Santa this Christmas is Nico Rosberg. He’s left the most-desirable gift behind, but who will be the lucky recipient? On that note, we wonder how the Wolff-Bottas relationship isn’t already a conflict of interest. Wolff has voiced concern for Williams in case Mercedes do poach Bottas. Did he worry about McLaren at all when they attempted to lure Hamilton a few seasons ago?
Rosberg launched his book or photo-album or let’s call it photo-book ‘Finally’ last week. We loved the name and share our guesses of what it could mean for him. Daniel Ricciardo has already messed up the silly season for 2018 by publicly stating his two-year commitment to Red Bull Racing. In which case, has he called dibs on the Red Bull cockpit over Carlos Sainz Jr.? With three drivers and two seats, Red Bull already has a problem for 2018 more than a year before the season has started, the ‘problem of plenty’!
Finally, after all those overestimated PR statements, Ferrari admitted that they made a fool out of themselves in 2016. Sergio Marchionne’s advice to Sebastian Vettel for 2017 is ‘Keep Calm & Drive On’. Let’s hope that the Ferrari-Vettel-Raikkonen trio is able to enthrall us in the new season because a Mercedes-Ferrari rivalry with a Red Bull mixer would be absolutely thrilling and just the high that Formula 1 and its fans need. On that note, here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year and a Happy New Season!