AFTER MISSING OUT ON A SEAT IN 2019, THIS YOUNG HOT-SHOE IS OUT TO PROVE HIS WORTH. JOB ONE: KNOCK OFF OUR DAN...
THICK MOB has formed rapidly, building around a plain white Renault Koleos. It’d be a strange sight if it wasn’t for the fact that a beaming, mile-wide smile is clearly visible in the back seat.
The trademark grin of Daniel Ricciardo is unmistakable, and it’s drawing people closer with seemingly magnetic force. The Honey Badger is making a sponsor appearance at a Renault event before the Aussie GP and local fans are desperate to get a glimpse of their hero – it would be one of the only interactions members of the public would have with Ricciardo all weekend.
As the affable West Australian saunters with effortless cool into the shade, the excited fans are hot on his heels, held back only by Ricciardo’s entourage of helpers. He begins a Q&A with fans, and they hang on his every word.
Off to the side, idly admiring a TCR race car, is a young man being completely ignored by the gathered F1 fans. It’s Esteban Ocon, Ricciardo’s new Renault teammate.
Cutting a tall and wiry figure, he has an almost awkward, gangly stance thanks to his lengthy limbs. His teenage appearance is mimicked by a sleep schedule that regularly exceeds 14 hours a night. Dressed in full Renault merchandise with designer-ripped jeans and accompanied by one or two people in similar garb, you wouldn’t give him a second glance if you didn’t know better.
As Ricciardo’s ever-growing throng obscures him from view, Wheels sits down with Ocon to find out what makes the Honey Badger’s worst nightmare tick.
Ocon speaks with confidence, each word released with purpose, wrapped in a thick French accent. Up close you realise just how tall he is: at 186 centimetres, he’s one of the tallest drivers on the grid. However, his silhouette is not imposing, with ultra-thin limbs in contrast to the more gym-toned, physique commonly associated with F1 drivers.
Born in Évreux, Normandy, the Ocon family didn’t have much wealth – his father was a mechanic in their hometown – nor any involvement in racing when Esteban first got behind the wheel. A smile spreads across his face as he recalls the early days of his career, absently picking at a thread on his jeans.
“My dad is a mechanic, so he works on cars, and runs a little garage by himself. No involvement really in motorsport, but a lot of passion,” he recalls.
Passion. It’s an Ocon personality trait with deep roots, the first seeds planted by his hard-working father.
“I was going to sleep in the evening and one car was not starting, and in the morning I was waking up and the car started. It was the passion developing in me the whole time,” Ocon continues. “My dad is still doing the same things that he was doing back in those days.”
Ocon’s career started in karting, with his raw, unrefined talent enough to win a national championship in his second year of racing. At 14 years of age Ocon’s trophy cabinet was swelling with silverware, and he attracted the attention of Gravity Sports management, an associate of then Renault F1 team which ran its junior driver academy. Chosen by F1 team principal Eric Boullier, Ocon’s career had been granted a lifeline, and brought funding his father would never have been able to provide. Esteban’s family had given up almost everything to support him until that point. But with opportunity, comes challenges.
“I had pressure very early on in my career as a kid. In around 2008 I signed on with Gravity, which was the Renault Academy of the past, and I had to deliver,” Ocon recalls.
While he had backing, the support was devoid of broader performance context, meaning results on a spreadsheet became more important than impressive displays of talent at the track.
“In karting, [key] people were not often there at the track, watching what I was doing, so I had to deliver on paper,” he explains. “It was all about results, and I had a lot of weight on my shoulders as I was supporting the future for my family. It was not easy as a young guy to live like that.”
Diamonds are made under pressure, and Ocon rose to the challenge. His junior career peaked in 2014 when he won the European Formula 3 Championship in convincing fashion. Leading the title fight from the season opener against rivals like Max Verstappen, Tom Blomqvist and Antonio Giovinazzi, Ocon never conceded his position and was crowned champion with a round to spare. He says he relished the win-or-bust situation.
“If I had to do it again, I would. I’m living my dream at the moment, so it’s fantastic to have help from people like [Boullier],” Ocon concludes.
Following his ’14 F3 title, he claimed the GP3 crown the next year and was poached by Mercedes-Benz to join its driver development program. It became rapidly apparent to all that Ocon’s speed was no flash in the pan. He was seriously quick and imbued with the kind of fierce natural talent and passion that would eventually propel him to the gladiatorial pantheon of F1. Joining the grid in 2016, he rose from minnow Manor to join midfielder Racing Point (nee Force India) in 2017, and began giving veteran teammate Sergio Pérez all kinds of hell.
At Racing Point the now 23-year-old earned a reputation for being a brutal, stubborn racer unwilling to concede his position – even if it meant putting a teammate into the wall, or spinning a race leader. His style of driving was a sharp wake-up for grid veterans who thought they could bully the new kid off track.
Ocon was crowned Euro F3 champion with a round to spare, besting competition that included Max Verstappen, Tom Blomqvist and Antonio Giovinazzi
But when he wasn’t smashing carbonfibre wings, he was ragging an underdeveloped chassis to within an inch of its life, impressing many in the paddock with his speed.
However, as any motorsport follower knows, raw talent isn’t enough and when the cash-strapped Racing Point team hit the skids, Ocon was collateral damage.
Having an F1 drive yanked from beneath his feet seems to have humbled Ocon somewhat. A victim of the vicious backroom paddock politics, Ocon was left high and dry during 2018’s silly season musical chairs.
When it ran out of funding, Racing Point was saved from bankruptcy by billionaire fashion magnate Lawrence Stroll. It became immediately clear that nepotism would be inevitable and Stroll’s son Lance would join the team, leaving a single seat over which Ocon and Pérez would fight. The Mexican driver was one of the investors that saved the team from going under, forcing Ocon to pack his bags – so the hunt for a new home began.
Talks were initiated with Mercedes-Benz as a potential replacement for Valtteri Bottas. However, despite Ocon being contracted to the German manufacturer on a multiyear development deal, the switch was vetoed by team principal Toto Wolff personally. Wolff thought Ocon too young to be vaulted into the top team just yet.
There was also a seat available at Renault. However, history will tell that Ocon didn’t wear black and yellow overalls in 2019, as Daniel Ricciardo made the shock move from Red Bull to join the French manufacturer.
The music stopped, and Ocon – one of the brightest young talents on the grid at the time – was left without a seat. He would spend the next 12 months as Merc’s reserve driver. That role might sound like a cushy job but it turned out to be hard yakka due to a gruelling simulator regime that Ocon readily admits almost “destroyed” him.
“I mean, the season I had was very, very demanding,” Ocon told Autosport last year. “I was not sleeping for two days [at a time], it was quite crazy – the amount of travel I was doing, and the amount of hours I was doing in the simulator and then travelling to the track, doing stuff for Mercedes. They used me well ... but a lot.”
Long hours cramped in a hot simulator, cranking out a mind-numbing number of validation laps, staring at the screen; it was a significant mental challenge for Ocon but he remained singular in his focus. He needed to get back onto the grid.
“It was difficult. Last year I tried to apply myself 110 percent; I didn’t want any regrets,” he tells Wheels. “I think regrets are the worst thing you can have in life.”
At this point Ocon pauses, clearly contemplating his next words carefully. It feels like there is more to be divulged but a Renault media minder suddenly hovers into view, prompting a more guarded, sanitised response.
“Daniel is living a very different life than I am,” Ocon chortles. “He is more LA, Miami and Monaco, and I am more ... simple cities”
“I wanted the team to see that I am hungry for a comeback, and it worked in the end. I’m here now, and that’s what is important.”
Despite coming out of F1 purgatory and finding himself a place on the grid, for Ocon navigating those off-track political skirmishes remains more of a challenge than piloting the fastest race cars on the planet.
“Politics is more difficult than any on-track battle, definitely,” he states emphatically, staring out across Albert Park’s lake. “It was a big part of my last year, trying to sort out my future.
“This is something that made it difficult in 2018. We had the best opportunities possible and we missed out on a misunderstanding. It wasn’t a nice year but I really made sure with all of my management that I was involved in all of the discussions. We managed to get our future sorted and that was very important.
“Only once that has all been put away can you focus on the proper stuff, and that’s racing, and that feels good.”
Ocon’s relationship with his teammates in the past can best be described as rocky. He’s either been wiping the floor with them, or butting heads as he did with Perez at Racing Point. The two tore up so much carbonfibre that the team had to hand down a stern edict which banned the duo from racing each other on-track.
It’s well within the realms of possibility for Ricciardo and Ocon to fall into the same destructive trap, with both having a serious point to prove in an F1 midfield that’s more competitive than ever.
“If you speak with Daniel…” Ocon catches himself, before starting the sentence again quickly with a small adjustment.
“If you speak about Daniel he is one of the nicest guys in the paddock, so there is no problem with him at all,” he states almost matter-of-factly. “We have a good relationship at the moment. He’s bringing a good energy to the team, and hopefully it will stay like that the whole year. He is one of the best, so it is a great chance for me to be teaming up with him, and I can’t wait to get started.”
So it’s all buddy-buddy for now, or until the green flag is waved. But we’ll have to wait until the second half of the year – at the very least – to discover how the pair’s relationship survives a truncated season of racing. F1 is on ice indefinitely and under a cloud of uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the globe.
Until then, the Frenchman and the Australian are working together in an attempt to elevate Renault’s F1 team into a serious podium contender.
“We have weekly meetings. We are on the simulator quite a lot, and we have meetings on most of the performance and tech stuff at the factory,” Ocon explains. “We work very often together, and that’s why it is quite important that we get on with each other, just for us to be moving forward quicker than the others.”
Asking if they spend any time together outside of work prompts a laugh from Ocon, who doesn’t seem to gel with the Australian’s playboy lifestyle.
“He is living a very different life than I am,” he chortles. “Ricciardo is more LA, Miami and Monaco, and I am more ... simple cities.”
Those ‘simple cities’ include Ocon’s hometown, where his father still works as a mechanic.
“It is the same garage, but I helped them build a bit bigger one,” he says with a wide smile. “He has all the nice tools, everything he needs ... it looks like a racing shop, which is pretty cool.”
Our conversation by the Albert Park lake ends at this point, and it’s clear that Ocon is happiest talking about his family. His answers are honest and earnest, no longer shrouded with a layer of PR-speak.
No fans would sit in the grandstands at Albert Park that weekend, and Ocon would not be measured against Ricciardo on-track. He returned home to France, to continue his training surrou nded by family, where he is happiest. And that’s a concern for Aussie F1 fans. A happy, focused Ocon could be Ricciardo’s toughest challenge yet, and if the F1 2020 season does begin, we have no doubt the two will be putting on one hell of a show.
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