Amid the maelstrom created by the announcement of Fernando Alonso’s return to Formula 1 with Renault in 2021, few spared a thought for Esteban Ocon. Not many have lined up as Alonso’s teammate In F1 and lived to tell the tale – metaphorically speaking – so it’s not unreasonable to worry that this might be the start of him being marginalized at Renault.
But there’s reason to expect things to be different with Ocon. His fallow year as Mercedes test driver after being ousted from Racing Point for genealogical reasons rather than performance ones has led many to forget just how good he is. And therein lies the key to his making this partnership with Alonso – he simply needs to do what he’s best at and perform.
That he’s already on good terms with Alonso is a promising start. While the perception some hold of Alonso as destructive and dismissive is unfair, you do need to command his respect to be able to work with him effectively. Ocon has already talked about exchanging enthusiastic text messages about the Renault project with Alonso, and ahead of last week’s Austrian Grand Prix endorsed him as the teammate he wants. In this case, it’s down to a combination of having followed Alonso’s exploits as he was growing up (he was just four when the Spaniard made his F1 debut with Minardi in 2001), and building a rapport with him as an F1 rival.
“I have a great relationship with Fernando,” said Ocon recently. “The [Alonso] helmet I have, the only swap I did between drivers, was with him. And he was the one with Michael [Schumacher], his fights back in the day. That gave me the love for the sport”.
Granted, he probably at least had a pretty good idea of what was coming when he said this at the Red Bull Ring last week. But we can be confident of Ocon’s sincerity. After all, you only have to look at Ocon’s history with Max Verstappen to see it’s difficult for any antipathy to remain shrouded.
The question is, will Ocon’s love of F1 be extinguished by being in the same team as Alonso? The problem isn’t really about how Alonso conducts himself – it’s about what he can do behind the wheel. In F1, your most important rival is your teammate because they are the only one with the same opportunity in terms of equipment. Alonso is one of the toughest measures imaginable.
Stoffel Vandoorne could tell you all about that. He’s the most recent ‘victim’ among those whose reputations have been damaged by lining up alongside Alonso. Vandoorne has a mighty junior CV and a huge amount of ability, yet he managed just 12 points compared to Alonso’s 50 at McLaren in 2018. After a promising first full season the year before, this sunk him in F1 terms.
Ocon faces a less unfavorable situation. It would take considerable effort for Renault to produce a car as fundamentally flawed as McLaren did. And if there’s one thing Alonso excels at perhaps more than any driver, it’s hustling the best out of problematic machinery. While Vandoorne was, unsurprisingly, constrained by the rear-end instability of the car, Alonso was able to work with it. He relied on his sheer confidence, his countless adjustments and supreme control to make that style work, and did more with that car than all but the very greatest drivers would have done. This was the perfect storm that drowned Vandoorne.
Ocon can take confidence from the fact that being Alonso’s teammate is only a career death sentence if you don’t perform. Lewis Hamilton went up against him and thrived, while Jenson Button held his own superbly late in his career when paired with Alonso at McLaren. Those are both world champions, so the bar is set high. But it’s possible.
Ocon is a seriously quick racing driver. As a champion both of European Formula 3 and GP3 (before the two merged to create the current F3) he was one of the special ones in the junior ranks, and proved himself over two consistently good seasons with Racing Point after his toe-in-the-water half season with Manor in 2016. He fits in as part of this stellar group of ‘next generation’ talents that includes Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz, George Russell, Alex Albon and Lando Norris – even if his place in that group has been forgotten by some over the past 12 months.
A subdued weekend in the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix wasn’t the comeback he had hoped for, although he did still pick up eighth place after an underwhelming qualifying compounded by failing to get a valuable tow during Q2. Add to that an 18-month racing hiatus, the delay to the season and his first race outing for a new team and it’s understandable the he struggled to launch his campaign well – literally.
“There were a lot of little details that we could get better,” Ocon says of his Austrian GP. “On Friday, we had some issues that limited our mileage on [practice] race starts. It’s difficult to get a race start, we only have the three at the end of the practice session and I could only get one! There’s a few things I can also improve on my side and plenty of performance that we can unlock, so we’ll try and make that work.”
Ocon only lost one place, to Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, on the run from the start through the first corner, but it’s clear he sees that as a missed opportunity to compensate for the difficult qualifying. That says plenty about his desire to improve.
The priority now, before he has to worry about Alonso, is show how good he is up against Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian drew some serious pace out of the Renault in Austria, and in his second season with the team, is well established. But Ocon has the advantage of knowing that Ricciardo is on his way out, so he does have the chance to make Renault his own before Alonso has his feet under the table as a full-time race driver. That’s an advantage Vandoorne didn’t have, as Alonso was his teammate for his first full season.
Just because Ricciardo is leaving doesn’t mean that Ocon will explicitly be favored. After all, Renault still needs to get its $25 million’s worth out of the Australian. But knowing someone has decided to walk away always has a subtle effect within a team, and there will certainly be no subtle forces working against Ocon. That can help build momentum if Ocon does his bit behind the wheel.
And Ocon has already proved himself in F1’s midfield. During his second season with Racing Point in 2018, he was fastidious in his attention to detail as he rounded off some of the rough edges of his game. And he had to be. Up against Sergio Perez, he faced a benchmark who is consistently a powerful force in the midfield and capable of incredible tire management in races thanks to his sensitivity of feel and throttle.
While Ocon managed to establish himself as the stronger driver over a single lap, he still had to work hard on his game on Sundays. While he finished behind Perez on points in ‘18, were it not for the clash with Kimi Raikkonen that put him out of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and cost a hatful of points, Ocon would have been ahead.
This proves he has that combination of underlying ability and pace, the capacity to extract the speed over a lap, with the ability to learn and improve. He can also be calculating in race situations, which we saw at Spa in 2018. In the first race following the team’s rescue from administration, he nosed into the lead by a few inches approaching Les Combes. But he realized that he risked taking out himself and Perez were he to try and hold it, and fell back into line behind his teammate. A year earlier, when the pair clashed several times, things might have been different. Of course, he still had his moments, with the needless Verstappen clash at Interlagos later that year showing that certain rivalries can impair his judgement.
The year out of a race seat might also have helped. While he’d have been better off racing, those forced onto the sidelines but still in the fold as a test driver – as Ocon was with Mercedes – have the chance to take a unique perspective on how grand prix racing works. Plus, he was part of the best team of them all, and will have seen Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in action up close. Ocon will have learned a thing or two about his rivals and how to go about things that should help him once he gets into his stride this year.
Ocon has the fundamental ability to be a race-winning F1 driver. He has the time to bed in at Renault, experience under his belt and the characteristics needed to make the most of them. And he doesn’t lack for confidence. This will all be in his favor, provided he can get up to speed quickly with Renault.
Alonso certainly likes things to be done his way in a team, and he does believe the focus should be on him. But that still leaves space for the other driver. Renault will give the pair equal equipment, so it will be down to Ocon to ensure he makes the most of it and, through sheer performance, ensures Renault really is a two-car outfit.
Performance is everything in F1. It’s not easy at the top level of any elite sport, so it’s down to Ocon to prove he can cut it with the best. Chances are, he will. After all, he’s had to prove himself every step of the way in his career given he didn’t come from a monied background. He’s used to pressure, he’s used to proving himself and, most importantly, he doesn’t believe he’s second-best to anyone. Not even Alonso.