In Conversation With Esteban Ocon, France's Newest Formula 1 Star
VICE Sports sat down with rising F1 star Esteban Ocon to discuss the new grand prix season, his old rivalry with Max Verstappen, and looking down on his rivals as the tallest driver on the grid.
Image by James Moy Photography
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
The first thing that strikes you about Esteban Ocon is his height. By normal standards he is reasonably lofty, standing at a lean 6"1, though not to the extent that people might do double takes in the street. In the Formula 1 paddock, however, Ocon towers over many of his competitors. The 20-year-old will be the tallest man in the sport this year, narrowly shading the driver he will replace at Force India for 2017, Nico Hulkenberg, by a couple of centimetres.
The second striking characteristic is how normal Ocon seems. Whereas many young drivers can, quite understandably, come across as nervous and intensely media trained, the Frenchman acts more like your average 20-year-old, slouching comfortably in his seat and answering questions with a breezy calm. This is not to suggest he is unprofessional, but nor do his answers feel rehearsed or dishonest.
He is also not entirely convinced that being tall is particularly unusual in F1 these days. "The young drivers coming in are getting taller and taller," he tells VICE Sports when we speak at the Force India factory. "You can check!"
So we do – and he's right. Both Max Verstappen and Williams rookie Lance Stroll stand just under 6"0, meaning the three youngest guys on the grid are also among the tallest. It's the veterans who will be looking up to them this year: Felipe Massa (5"5), Fernando Alonso (5"7) and Kimi Raikkonen (5"8) are the most experienced drivers in the sport, but they're also among the shortest.
Enlightening though it may be, we didn't travel to Silverstone just to talk about the increasing height of grand prix drivers. Ocon is a rising star of Formula 1, a man marked for greatness before he was out of his teens. After a part season with tail-enders Manor last year, 2017 sees him step into considerably more competitive machinery at Force India.
Having debuted at the top level a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday, it's fair to say that Ocon's rise was a rapid one. As he explains: "We were on holiday with my parents and some friends when I was four. There was a small go-kart track, so I had a go and it went pretty well for a first time. So then I was pushing my dad to get me a go-kart to do more, because I really loved it. They bought me a go-kart for Christmas and I started on the grass outside my house, then it was races with my dad as mechanic.
"In 2009 things started to get serious – I was winning races and titles – and the Gravity Academy, which was the Lotus F1 junior programme, took me under their wing, paying for my go-kart. But I still had my dad as my mechanic!"
Asked if there was a driver he followed as a kid, Ocon quickly replies: "Michael." A surname is not required. "I was always watching what he was doing. He was the one who made me want to get to Formula 1." As a youngster Ocon raced with a replica Schumacher crash helmet, and still retains elements of that famous design today.
As the trophies stacked up he moved to a professional kart team, then into Formula Renault single-seaters. From there, Ocon's progress was swift: European F3 champion in 2014, GP3 Series champion in 2015, then a Mercedes seat in the German touring car series DTM last year. Before the season was out he'd be parachuted into the Manor F1 squad, making his debut at one of F1's most Iconic tracks: Spa-Francorchamps.
"Spa was really cool," Ocon enthuses, though he admits that it's not among his favourite circuits to drive. "All the work that had been done, everything my parents sacrificed to get me there, it came to something. And my dream came true as well, so it was amazing to start at Spa with Manor."
He flew under the radar during his nine-race spell with the now-defunct British team, though there seemed to be a permanent buzz about his potential. When Hulkenberg announced he'd be swapping Force India for Renault, Ocon emerged as a serious contender for the seat.
It is to their credit that Vijay Mallya's squad picked him. While some of their midfield rivals have elected to look for a combination of talent and budget, Force India hired Ocon almost entirely for his ability behind the wheel. It helped, too, that he made a good impression at a one-off test for them in 2015 and that he is now part of the Mercedes-Benz junior programme (the German powerhouse manage Ocon's career and also supply Force India's engines).
"I was hearing a lot of rumours, but I don't believe anything until I see it," he says of the Force India deal. "But it just happened – I came here to the factory and met with Vijay, Otmar Szafnauer, Andrew Green, Tom McCullough – all the important guys. Then I started to realise that it was happening; I'm glad they gave me the opportunity."
Looking back, he recognises the importance of his run for the team back in 2015: "I think if hadn't tested for them before, they probably wouldn't have thought of me [for 2017]. It was just a random test back then, but it helped my career in the end. I took it very seriously and it was one of the best experiences I've had in testing. Everyone worked very closely with me and I really enjoyed the atmosphere in the team."
We put it to Ocon that 2017 will place real pressure on his shoulders for the first time. After all, 2016 was a part-season in a car that no one expected to perform, allowing him to learn away from the spotlight. Now he's arrived at a team coming off the back of their best campaign to date and with a realistic shot at emulating 2016's fourth-place finish. The youngster, however, is dismissive.
"There's always pressure. Last year I wasn't even sure I would continue in Formula 1 [in 2017], so there is always pressure. There's no more now than I had last year.
"After the Formula 3 title I almost didn't race the following year, because no one was supporting me [financially] until Mercedes came in. So I'm used to pressure. This was probably the first time in my career that I knew what I was doing the following year!"
Ocon considers his F3 title to have been a turning point, with the subsequent GP3 success "confirmation" of his abilities. It was also where he first raced with a man who he hopes to go up against again in F1: Red Bull star Max Verstappen.
"We had big battles – banging wheels on the straight, doing everything that was possible to pass each other," Ocon recalls. "So for sure it was a tough year, but I won [the title] with a full weekend left at the end of the season and I was quicker than him.
"It's never easy to do what Max has done [in Formula 1]," he continues. "He was a strong competitor in F3; what he's done in F1 is a target and I want to race with him again at the front in the future. But at the moment I'm not there – there's a lot of work to do first, so let's see this season if we can do it. "
Shifting back to 2017, how has Ocon prepared for his first full campaign in the big time? "Mega training," he replies, sounding as if he's still a little sore from it. "Every day, 9am to 9pm. Very, very hard days. I've put everything into this. It's going to be a very hard year and I want to be ready for the challenge."
He says he has set targets "for myself," adding that he's hoping for regular points and "podiums in some races." Whether he can do this will depend largely on the car he has at his disposal. Testing never gives a clear indication of how the competitive order will stack up, but a simplistic reading of the times suggests Force India will remain where they were in 2016: behind the top three of Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari, vying with Williams to be the top midfield team. If that's the case, regular points and perhaps even the odd podium could be within Ocon's grasp.
The fact that his career is overseen by Mercedes-Benz is significant. Valtteri Bottas has a one-year deal at the team, while Lewis Hamilton has no shortage of interests outside the sport, meaning the next contract the Brit signs could be his last. Be it in 12 months or three years, there is a real chance that Ocon could step into the Silver Arrows car at some stage – if he delivers at Force India. 2017 is in one sense preparation, but it is also an audition.
Again, he seems unfazed by it all. To close, he gives a very Gallic shrug when asked what the worst thing about his new job is. "Nothing," comes the eventual reply. "How can you complain? You are going all around the world, visiting the best places..."
If he can show well in his first season at Force India, Ocon will have earned himself a ticket for a few more round-the-world trips in the years to come.