Renault’s Esteban Ocon is one of a number of new generation drivers on the Formula 1 grid, but his rise hasn’t been as smooth or as rapid as he would have liked compared with that of his contemporary Max Verstappen.
The pair faced off in the 2014 European Formula 3 championship, with Ocon taking the title by a significant margin over Tom Blomqvist and Verstappen ending up third in the driver standings.
But while Verstappen was immediately fast tracked into Formula 1 at Toro Rosso, Ocon spent the next year competing in the GP3 Series, where he was once again crowned champion at the end of the season.
Even after that double success, Ocon found his way into F1 thwarted and he started 2016 competing in DTM. The French driver admitted that it had been deeply frustrating to have to watch on from the sidelines while Verstappen’s star in F1 was making a rapid ascent.
- Ocon recalls his biggest – and sorely missed – karting rival
“I won the title in Formula 3 but the tough moment for me was that Max had signed a deal to race Formula 1,” Ocon said in a column for the official Formula1.com website.
“Well done to him, definitely, but when I saw the news it was difficult to swallow,” he admitted. “He was third in the championship; I was winning, and I didn’t have a seat in any category at that time.
“I did a few tests in GP2, but there was nothing really confirmed. The Lotus F1 junior programme had difficulties at the time and I wasn’t going anywhere, so it was quite a challenging moment.
“But I used that as motivation. I knew I had to work hard and keep on top of the junior categories if I was to make it to Formula 1,” Ocon continued. “It was my ultimate target: not necessarily wanting to face Max again, but rather joining him in Formula 1.”
It’s a rivalry between the pair that goes all the way back to their karting days.
“I think the first time I raced with Max Verstappen was in 2010,” Ocon recalled. “It was a tough year for me transitioning into international racing. Karting is very tough anyway. I was alone with my dad pretty much fighting the big teams.
“Max and I were always quite close on track and sometimes it came too close! In 2011 we were fighting for the 2011 world series championship and he won in the end.
“I remember a race in Italy: I came out on top, but me and him were a long way ahead of the rest. It was a rivalry which started then, and it soon became even bigger.”
Ocon claimed nine wins in the 2014 European Formula 3 series with Prema alongside team mates Nicholas Latifi and Antonio Fuoco. But Verstappen went one better with a strong run of results in the latter half of the season, including clinching all three race wins in a weekend at both Spa and the Norisring.
“Max started to become strong and he was challenging me for wins and suddenly he was the guy to beat,” recalled Ocon, who himself swept the board in the Moscow round.
“We were fighting to get [the triple] all the time. In that Moscow race he came close to beating me and we banged wheels a couple of times, just like the old karting days.”
Ocon got his long-awaited F1 break with Manor at Belgium in 2016, after a number of free practice outings with Renault. The following season he secured a full time race seat at Force India that lasted for two years.
“Finally, I had achieved my dream of racing in F1. All the hard work had been worth it, and now it was time to start the next part of the story.”
Unfortunately the team’s financial troubles led to Ocon being replaced by Lance Stroll for 2019, leaving him on the sidelines once again.
Ocon has now returned to his former home at Renault. He had been expecting to make his race debut for Renault in Australia alongside Daniel Ricciardo, until the last minute cancellation of the race due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“I can’t wait to go racing again,” he admitted. “Until then, stay safe and speak soon!”
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