With teams confirming their 2019 driver lineup it is looking less and less likely that Esteban Ocon will be on the grid for next season, a surprise when you consider that he beat Max Verstappen to the Formula 3 title, won the GP3 title in his first attempt and has been nothing but impressive since he started in Formula One, but where has it gone wrong?
Esteban Ocon is a Mercedes junior along with Formula 2 championship leader George Russell but both looking like they won’t feature on the Formula One grid for next season. Ocon is in his second season with Force India and has compared favourably compared to his highly rated teammate Sergio Perez, he also holds the record for the most consecutive finishes from the start of his career (27 races). So why is it that Ocon’s future looks in doubt?
It all started to look complicated when Force India went into administration, the team’s future looked uncertain but the team were confident to find a buyer. It would end up that a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll (Father of Lance Stroll) would purchase the teams assets to allow the team to continue. Racing Point Force India would be a new entry into Formula One (due to complications buying the original entry) but questions started about Lawrence’s intentions with his son Lance, it was clear that Lawrence desired to put his son in the Force India sooner rather than later, due to Perez’s commercial backing and that he was in effect the one to save the team by putting it into administration so that a new buyer could be easily found that he would be the one remaining with the team and not Ocon.
Mercedes would now have to find Ocon a new drive for next season, it was looking like Mercedes would be able to place Ocon at Renault, the team had an appetite to run a French driver and with his obvious talent the move would make a lot of sense. During the summer break however Daniel Ricciardo took the F1 paddock by surprise by announcing that he would be partnering Nico Hulkenberg at the French outfit from 2019, this caught all not to mention Mercedes and Ocon by surprise and another door closed on Esteban Ocon. Part of the reasoning for Renault not to sign Ocon was due to his Mercedes ties Cyril Abiteboul confirmed:
“I have to accept the fact that without discussing with Red Bull we would not have had Carlos this year, and I think it was great to have Carlos, so I think on balance we still did something good last year.”
“But having to do that again – one more year or two more years, 2019 and ’20 – in years we are supposed to, if we are to comply with our road map, start competing with top teams… Being dependent on that top team, a competitor, for a very important resource, felt a little bit awkward.”
Speculation then started that Mercedes were discussing a mid-season switch to McLaren replacing the struggling Vandoorne and remaining with the team for 2019. McLaren would be another good option for Esteban, the team were on in the process of a rebuilding phase and are close to Force India in performance but the Woking based squad would opt for their own junior Lando Norris. Zak Brown confirmed that yet again Ocon’s Mercedes ties were a contributing factor in not signing him:
“Esteban is someone that we rate extremely highly, and I think any time when a driver, you’re looking to something long-term, has ties to another manufacturer, that’s a tick in the wrong box”
“Hopefully Esteban will get a ride, or maybe stay where he is, because he certainly deserves to be in Formula 1”
So where does Esteban Ocon go now? Both he and fellow junior George Russell will struggle to find a drive for next season with most teams having signed or close to signing it’s drivers. The only realistic option is Williams who run Mercedes engines in their cars but may need some financial incentive to sign one of Mercedes’ drivers, Toto Wolff has already stated that paying for his drivers to get seats is unlikely.
“If you’re lacking either a partner team like Red Bull has with Toro Rosso, or contractual relationships like Ferrari has with Sauber or Haas, then it’s very difficult to find the right place for young drivers.”
“99% of our resource goes into running the team. The young drivers, beyond the emotional aspect, also needs to make commercial sense.”
Mercedes have already dropped one of it’s drivers, Pascal Wehrlein who is tipped to either join Toro Rosso or make the switch to Formula E. It is perhaps more likely that both of Mercedes remaining junior drivers will take a year outside of F1, Russell may take up a reserve role with Williams with potential FP1 outings where Ocon will more likely take a test and reserve role with Mercedes, there is speculation that an IndyCar team has approached Ocon for a 2019 seat which would be a good stop-gap for him while he takes a year out of Formula One.
It is a great shame that Ocon may lose out on a drive in Formula One in 2019 but we certainly will see him again. Mercedes may look at Ferrari and Red Bull closely who decided to take a risk on their juniors Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly respectively and see how they perform in the front end of the field. If they perform then Mercedes may decide to give Ocon the nod at Valtteri Bottas’ expense. Lewis Hamilton won’t be in Formula One forever and Mercedes need to think about their long-term future, Ocon certainly should be one of the first names they discuss as a potential Hamilton replacement to lead the team.
There have been many twists and turns in F1’s silly season this year and we certainly haven’t seen the last of it, perhaps Ocon still has a chance at a drive but it is more likely that he will follow in the footsteps of Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg and take a year out, it may give Ocon some comfort to look at these two as their careers have been long in Formula One.
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