Is Esteban Ocon about to get the “Vandoorne treatment”?
Does any driver on the 2021 F1 grid have a more important season ahead than Alpine’s Esteban Ocon?
After harshly getting the boot from Force India at the end of 2018, following two closely-matched seasons against highly rated teammate Sergio Perez, Ocon returned to the sport in 2020 and found life tough after a year out.
Return of the prodigy
Ocon signed for Renault at the end of 2019, on an initial two-year contract, meaning that 2021 is a contract year for the Frenchman. Coming off the back of a relative thumping from Daniel Ricciardo, there’s no guarantee that Ocon will earn a new deal for 2022 and beyond, putting his place in the F1 paddock itself in doubt.
Ricciardo didn’t just beat Ocon, he annihilated him. Not only was the qualifying head-to-head a brutal 15-2 in the Aussie’s favour, two-car finishes also went the #3 car’s way 9-3.
For a driver under pressure to deliver, the last teammate you wish to be announced alongside you is Fernando Alonso. Just three years ago, Alonso’s sheer ruthless destruction of Stoffel Vandoorne knocked the Belgian, who came into F1 with a big reputation, out of the sport and into Formula E.
With Alpine’s young driver academy brimming with talent, and with rumours of Pierre Gasly being interested in the team not going away, Ocon cannot afford a Vandoorne-style hammering, especially after he was so comfortably dispatched by Ricciardo.
It’s not all doom and gloom though
However, not all signs are bad for Ocon. After all, the Frenchman had some impressive performances throughout the first two years of his F1 career. Ocon scored points in each of his first five Grand Prix for Force India in 2017 on his way to an impressive 8th in the World Championship.
His second year at Force India was less consistent, but still saw Ocon only narrowly beaten by Perez, this time by 62 points to 49. More concerning however, were the growing tensions between the pair on track.
The rift began in Canada, when Perez ignored team orders for Ocon to be allowed past to attack Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull. Then followed an embarrassing and costly collision In Baku, before a scary coming together at Spa nearly led to a huge accident between the pair.
The rivalry continued into 2018, with yet another inter-team crash at Singapore, putting Ocon out the race, leading to an outright ban on racing between the pair for the rest of the season.
With new major shareholder Lawrence Stroll taking control of the team midway through the season, Ocon, who doesn’t provide huge financial backing, was inevitably going to be booted out for Lawrence’s son, and then Williams driver, Lance for 2019.
Ocon was due to sign for Renault, however a late decision by the team to take Ricciardo from Red Bull left the Frenchman without a seat for the first time in his career. Ocon used this year on the sidelines to work behind the scenes with Mercedes, undoubtedly gaining insight on what it takes to drive for a world championship winning team.
And it’s world championship-winning potential that Ocon has to start showing against Alonso this year to have any long-term future in the sport.
Although Alonso left the sport still at the top of his game in 2018, two years out will undoubtedly have left a little rustiness and it’s vital that Ocon gets out the blocks early and lays down his authority on the battle.
Ocon did end 2020 with a career-best P2 in Sakhir followed by points in Abu Dhabi, where he outqualified Ricciardo, and needs to carry that momentum into the new year.
If he doesn’t, just like Stoffel Vandoorne, Ocon’s F1 future may be totally dead.