Formula One’s newest race winner is surely one of the sport’s most deserving success stories. Esteban Ocon’s victory at the last round in Hungary was one to savour because this young man really has made it the hard way. Going into this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix the Frenchman is focused firmly on the future, so much so that this may be the last time he speaks about the experiences that forged his formidable character.
In a sport where major financial backing is imperative to advancing and that world champion Lewis Hamilton recently decried as a “billionaire boys’ club”, Ocon bucked the trend and F1 is all the richer for it. The 24-year-old, who secured a stunning debut win before F1’s summer break at the Hungaroring, shares a similarly humble background to that of Hamilton. His father, Laurent, with his mother, Sabrine, runs a garage in Normandy where the young Ocon found Dad literally getting his hands dirty was a thing of entrancement.
“When I was going to school in the morning I would see a car not working, being taken apart,” he says. “Then I would come home and that car was suddenly coming alive. This is how I grew up, every day the same thing: my dad with dirty hands and there was magic where there was the smell of fuel and rubber. The magic of the car coming alive.”
It clearly worked a spell, after a chance go on a karting track aged four, Ocon was hooked and his mother and father stepped up to an extraordinary extent to give him a shot at pursuing his dream. They sold their house and lived in a caravan to back his early career in karting, with his father taking on every possible role to keep his son racing, truckie, engineer, the planning, logistics and mechanic all in one.
It was a remarkable effort, with absolutely no guarantee of success and one Ocon has repeatedly acknowledged. “They were the biggest supporters of my career but that is too small of a word,” he says now after reaching a race-winning pinnacle that was a distant ambition back then. “They sacrificed their own life and put it to one side for me to be able to chase my dream. They sacrificed everything they could for me to continue my racing career.”
Here in Spa as Ocon, his Alpine team and teammate, the double world champion Fernando Alonso prepare for the second half of the season, he reflects on that time from a position of confidence and ambition for the future having signed with Alpine until 2024.
The win in Hungary was wholly earned having led and withstood an assault from four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel for 65 laps, almost the whole race. Yet had he not handled similar, stifling pressure when his family’s very future depended on his performance on track?
“Yes, it’s not something I like to talk about those times, it’s probably the last time I will talk about it because it brings back pretty tricky memories,” he admits. “I was young but I never really had time to be young or to live and grow up as a normal kid. I didn’t have the right to fail, I had to succeed. I felt the weight on my shoulders very early on, which made me grow up quicker at a young age.”
It is a sobering admission from such a personable and upbeat young man but it has clearly stood him well through what by any standards has been a testing career. Having beaten Max Verstappen to the Formula 3 title in 2014 and winning the GP3 championship a year later he was taken on as a Mercedes junior in 2016 and made his F1 debut for Manor that year before the team went bankrupt.
Force India (now Aston Martin) took him on in 2017, however at the end of 2018 he was dropped by the team as new owner, the billionaire Lawrence Stroll, put his son Lance in the car. Ocon had performed well but had no muscle against this boys’ club. He was forced to sit out 2019 as the Mercedes reserve driver, a crushing blow.
He admits he was afraid he would not make it back but maintained his self belief and a fierce work ethic. It paid off when Renault (as Alpine were then) took him on in 2020. It was a new lease of life he grasped as he adapted to his new squad after a year out including a second place at Sakhir and this season, now settled, has held up impressively in the shadow of Alonso.
Hungary was vindication then of a talent that has long been admired. Of course he was placed in a position to go for the victory by accidents across the grid on the opening corners but Ocon delivered brilliantly. He held his nerve with aplomb against Vettel and with the full knowledge that Hamilton was charging after him from the back of the field.
“I took it out of my mind quickly,” he says. “I realised it was a huge opportunity, but thinking about the result is the best way to not get it. That’s where the pressure gets to you and you lose focus. I cleared my mind.”
The mental strength he possesses is clear as indeed it transpired was his tactical acumen when it mattered. Having battled Vettel earlier in the season at Imola he had analysed the German’s approach and used the knowledge to great effect. “He sees the weakness on where we are slower and where there could be an opportunity and he was trying to attack me in that exact spot,” he says. “I was making sure that I was pulling just enough gap for me to be safe in that moment.”
This is the decision making and thoughtfulness of a champion and Ocon is determined to try and reach that goal. The Alpine chief executive Laurent Rossi certainly believes he has what it takes.
“It was a confirmation for me,” he said. “I had a lot of faith in Esteban. He is incredibly resilient. He has had a very difficult career, not the best conditions but he has always pushed through and in Hungary he showed that. He was given a great opportunity which he seized.”
When Renault returned to F1 as a works team in 2016 their aim was to be fighting for the title within five years. That time is up and now badged as Alpine the target remains the same but they remain solidly in the midfield. The team are hoping for a major step forward with the regulation changes next year and a hoped for levelling of the playing field as the budget cap begins to take effect.
Rossi is expectant that Ocon can be at the forefront of that resurgence for the Enstone-based team in what he describes as a 100-race plan to return to the podium.
For the moment a repeat win this season is unlikely but Ocon has definitively made his mark and given a salutary reminder of a fearsome talent. Now he can enjoy the plaudits he and indeed his family did so much to genuinely earn. The times that had made the difference remembered as he took the flag in Budapest.
“There were lot of things that crossed my mind at that moment,” he recalls with a smile. “The first thing was the sacrifice of my parents and the way that we got here. There is the top of the iceberg everybody sees – the victory – but underneath is 20 years of work.”
Red Bull announced at Spa that they have extended their contract with driver Sergio Pérez for another year. On track Valtteri Bottas was quickest for Mercedes from Verstappen in first practice. In the afternoon Verstappen was on top although the Dutchman crashed out at the end of the session, with Bottas just in front of Hamilton in third.