Amid the atmosphere of the Alpine-centric Formula 1 drivers market last week, Esteban Ocon’s name was only apparent by his absence. Thanks to an agreement signed in June of last year, he is in the Enstone team until the end of 2024.
This is an attractive position for the 25-year-old to be captain of the team. Not officially, of course, but through a combination of holding the position and being alongside a teammate to be decided who will start the year de facto second.
Even if it was Daniel Ricciardo, who beat Ocon in their season together at Renault in 2020, he would come up with something to prove after two disappointing years at McLaren rather than sign a statement. This will reverse the dynamic that existed between Ocon and Ricciardo in the last round.
This will be Ocon’s first time in this position. After half of his first season in F1 with Manor in 2016, he spent two years alongside the more experienced Sergio Perez at Racing Point. After his season as a Mercedes coach, he arrived at Renault at the same time as Ricciardo. But even as he offered continuity in 2021, the arrival of big name Fernando Alonso once again derailed his path to lead the team. Barring another shock to the driver market, Ocon will be on the net next year.
Is my phone turned off, is something going on? pic.twitter.com/nBdeEhpYnd
– Esteban Ocon (OconEsteban) August 5, 2022
Team leadership is an obscure concept that is rarely enshrined in decades or, these days, in equipment of choice. But it is a prestige that performance gives it. The strongest driver will always be the most influential because it makes sense to be guided by which one is the best performer. This is the opportunity for Ocon in 2023.
You could say he balanced well between Ocon and Alonso in their 35 races together in the Alpine. Moreover, Ocon scored more points – 132 against 122. But points can sometimes be an unreliable witness when it comes to performance evaluation, and Alonso was generally the strongest performer, this year in particular.
But Ocon wasn’t far behind. At times, he was ahead, and although Alonso had the highest peaks in terms of pure performance, Ocon was close to him. What’s hard to judge is how much he has led the way for Alonso, especially given that they generally have similar arrangements. Ocon has even said in the past that Alonso was the F1 teammate he was closest to in terms of setup requirements.
This is despite their methods differing slightly. Alonso has always been a more improvisational driver, Ocon is a more classic-style driver who craves the feel of a good front end to set the car up right in the entry-park phase.
But given that he did well against Alonso, who often buried his teammates and was only pushed by exceptional people, Ocon has built up his reputation quite a bit over the past 18 months.
When asked about Ocon’s credentials to lead the team earlier this week, Alpine team manager Otmar Szafnauer backed him up. But he also pointed out one area that Ocon needed to improve.
“Esteban is an incredible talent,” said Ottmar Szafnauer, head of the Alpine team. “I worked with him at Force India [in] Sergio Perez days as his companion. He was as fast as Sergio and raced hard with Sergio. They were always together on the grid and sometimes they got together at the races.
“And we’ve seen what Esteban can do with Fernando as well, although Fernando has the skill and talent to get a lap out of the car really fast. He needs three or four laps which is 99.9%.
“The extra 0.1% comes with a few more laps, while Esteban takes a little longer to get the most out of the car. But in the end, on Saturday and then Sunday, he was there.
“So he needs to learn a little bit to get there a little faster, but we’re working with him on that.
And then, can he lead the team? Sure. He’s getting better and better. He’s got a race win under his belt. He’s got, for whatever reason — and some luck and reliability — but he’s scored really good points for us this year.
“And he’ll learn more by the time we get there next year.”
This is a fair assessment with potentially big criticisms – depending on how important a teammate’s guidance is in terms of working at that pace.
The other concern with Ocon is that he tends to suffer from very few tough weekends with mysterious car issues when the machine doesn’t give him the feel he wants.
Sometimes there was a real problem – for example in his tough run before Silverstone last year when there was a front suspension issue. But on other occasions the team found nothing – for example when they followed up on a fantastic weekend in Austria where they finished sixth with a terrible qualification in France where they questioned the car, albeit recovering to a solid race result.
In the end, Ocon’s credentials set as a good Grand Prix driver. He is a fast driver, able to consistently achieve good results and will not let the Alps down. But whether he could be more than that, surely something close to what there were hopes he might become in his early days when he was in the Mercedes books, is a bigger question. In the end, Mercedes decided George Russell as the driver with the most extreme potential, with Ocon considered more in the Valtteri Bottas class.
What Ocon should get next year is the chance to show his best. He’s in a moving midfield team, heading into his third season, has security for 2024 and will at least start as the team’s spearhead.
There’s a lot of ability there, and need to give him that he’s from a mediocre background by F1 standards and climbed to the top by getting buoyed by the results.
That’s why, amid all the chaos of the drivers’ market, it is the standing man who now has the perfect opportunity to realize his potential in F1.