Force India driver Esteban Ocon's performance at Italian GP proves he has all the qualities to become future F1 Champion

Matt Majendie 19:54 03/09/2017
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For the first time this season, Lewis Hamilton leads the World Championship, leapfrogging Sebastian Vettel to a three-point advantage following his sixth victory of the season at the Italian Grand Prix.

The resultant praise was deserving following on from a record 69th pole in treacherous conditions the preceding day, potentially paving the way for another world title depending on how Mercedes fare at the subsequent Ferrari-suited circuits.

For Hamilton, it would be a fourth world title but for Esteban Ocon, another notable star from Monza, the aspiration burns bright for a first World Championship win.

And the signs are that Ocon could well find himself alongside Hamilton as his teammate for the 2019 season should the stars align.

Ocon may not have earned the plaudits that Hamilton did as a rookie, partly because he does not have a race-winning car at his disposal as the Briton did during his debut campaign at McLaren.

But the 20-year-old has earned no shortage of praise simply because of the fact he has won points at every single race bar the Monaco Grand Prix.

Force India are quick and competitive this season although not in the same bracket as Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull for that matter, meaning the true chance to shine is when the field is levelled by the rain.

It was in exactly such conditions that Ocon shone to park his car third on the grid for Sunday’s race, the latest in a long line of facets that have him earmarked as a champion in the making, and then backing it up with sixth in the race.

Prior to this season, he had already done enough to leapfrog Pascal Wehrlein for a Force India drive, the German the favourite at one stage to join Hamilton at Mercedes.

Like Wehrlein, Ocon is on Mercedes’ driver development programme but is clearly in the No1 spot and, with every drive, Mercedes know that sooner or later they will have to make a decision on his long-term future.

He is tied into Force India for a second season but looks a reasonable bet to step up to the Mercedes team full-time in 2019 depending on how the Hamilton-Valtteri Bottas dynamic works.

Ocon has all the signs of a future champion. There are the drives in the junior ranks: first as a national then international star in karting, a European Formula 3 champion in 2014 – in which he beat a certain Max Verstappen to the title – and the GP3 crown the following year.

DTM followed in 2016 before Manor came calling for him to drive for the latter half of the season – and then Force India took what many thought was a chance, but how he has flourished.

After a troubled spell at McLaren, Sergio Perez’s stock had fallen but a series of podiums with Force India restored a reputation, in fact a career.

Ocon, to a certain extent, has undone that, causing the Mexican to pull off unnecessarily dangerous manoeuvres – most notably at the preceding race in Belgium – to fend off his young upstart of a teammate.

Had a terrific qualifying race: Ocon

Had a terrific qualifying race: Ocon.

It is the handling of his relationship with Perez that in some ways highlights his championship capabilities even now.

Not one clearly to suffer fools gladly, he accused his teammate of trying to “kill me”, in effect not afraid who he upset by saying how he had seen it in the moment. It was all very Hamilton-esque in the Briton’s infancy.

But in a calmer moment, he was able to show admirable maturity, adding: “We have lost points, we have lost money, we have lost parts of the car, it is enough.

“I am a professional driver and we are professional, Sergio and I. In the end, we are here because we are clever, I hope we will be intelligent enough to have respect and just move on.”

Such a comment hinted at another strength, that of being a team player. Ocon picked out his fifth place in Spain as his F1 career highlight, not because of the position so much but the celebrations with his mechanics on the pitwall as he crossed the line.

Then there is the intelligence, a race brain that defies his years and has left Force India, Mercedes and other suitors not so quietly impressed.

As for the team hierarchy, Force India chief executive Otmar Szafnauer said succinctly: “We knew he had the potential to do it. He has exceeded our expectation.”

Ocon’s expectations, though, are rather higher: “My target is to be world champion”. He’s started well in that quest.

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