Esteban Ocon on returning to F1, and fighting Max Verstappen
What does a French F1 wonderkid do when his seat gets nicked from under him?
If you’ve watched Netflix’s F1 documentary Drive To Survive, chances are you’ll have a high opinion of 22-year old French driver Esteban Ocon. He comes across humble, grateful and tenacious. Which is why it’s all the more heartbreaking when – spoiler alert – his episode ends with the gut-punch that he's losing his Racing Point seat to the more experienced – and heavily sponsored – Sergio Perez.
This season, Ocon’s working for all-conquering Mercedes-AMG as their reserve and test driver. TG caught up with him at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Here’s what Mercedes’ secret weapon is up to these days.
TG: Esteban, have you felt more famous since Drive To Survive dropped on Netflix?
EO: Yeah! I have a lot of people coming up to me and saying “Oh I saw you on Netflix, I’m following you now, good luck for the future. It doesn’t compare to anything I’ve done on TV before. So many views, so many people – I was not expecting it.
You came across like a really ‘nice guy’. After the Max Verstappen spat in Brazil (Esteban and Max collided when the Dutchman was leading the race, and there followed a pitlane altercation), would you stay Mr Nice Guy if that happened again?
I’m a professional, y’know? And it’s definitely not professional to push people around. Max got penalised, I got penalised, fair enough. Things shouldn’t happen off the track. We have to show the kids in karting the way forward. We’re in the spotlight. We don’t want to see this. It shouldn’t happen.
But if you got back into F1, would we be right to hype up the history – the beef – between you and Max Verstappen? Or is that all false?
No, it’s true! [laughs] But there’s been history with Max since 2010. We race close. There’s always been stuff going on. But it’s never left the track. There’s always been [battles] with me, Max and Charles [LeClerc], fighting in karting. Most of the time we used to race together, we didn’t all finish the race! But now we’re in F1, we’re representing big teams and we have to keep it clean.
It feels like there’s a fair few seats in F1 right now being, well, 'warmed'. Seats at Alfa Romeo, Haas, even Red Bull. How does it feel watching the sport thinking “I should be in that car”?
I’m not in a position to judge anyone, though some drivers are doing a better job than others. At the moment [my team is] trying to find solutions, there are discussions ongoing with many different teams. But at the moment it’s only talks, and I’ve learned that until the contract is signed, the seat is never for sure. But there will be opportunities, and we’ll have to work to see what’ll be possible next year, but at the moment it’s going the right way.
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What’s a week at work like for Esteban Ocon now?
For non-European races I leave Tuesday or Wednesday, do all the media and sponsor stuff, I drive guests around in the AMG GT R, assist in the team debrief, and help the guys when I see stuff. For example, in Austria I spotted the front-wing damage on Lewis’s car first. I’m not just sitting around, I’m helping out the engineers and using my experience.
For European races I leave a bit later. I’m in training Monday-Thursday when there’s no media appearances, then I’m in the race support room in Brackley, and then after FP2 we set up the simulator the same as the real car on track, and from 7pm they send the set-up and I’m testing in the simulator until 3am. For Austria, I did 220 laps in the simulator. [The real cars] do less than this! It’s hard work, but it pays off.
After that, I go from Brackley to Heathrow, sleep for half an hour in a hotel, then get on a plane and go to the race. And then I have a good sleep!
Sounds like you’re incredibly busy…
I’m busier now than when I was actually racing. I thought I’d have more time to gain weight and train, but that’s not gonna happen…
Do you get any holiday time? What do you do with a day off?
This summer I’m doing a road trip with friends, from Saint-Tropez to Monaco, to Modena, Sienna, some of the Mille Miglia roads…
But you’re a racing driver. Surely when you go on holiday the last thing you want to do is drive a car?
I love to drive, to cruise along, it’s a pleasure. Except when you’re in traffic. In my life, if there are no cars, I don’t know what I’d do. The only thing I love is the smell of fuel and the sound of cars.
So what will you do when motorsport goes electric?
Err, well it’s quick! But I hope [motorsport] will not go fully electric. It won’t be the same.
Which F1 race do you look forward to most? Obviously you’re French, but your home grand prix is pretty boring, no?
I know, but from one year to another that can change. For example Baku, in 2016, you remember?
Erm, no. Which says it all.
There were no overtakes. But the year after it was me and Perez colliding, Stroll on the podium but getting passed on the line by Bottas, and then the year after was crazy again. So, two years crazy, one year boring. It depends on conditions, the cars – maybe next year the French GP will be the most exciting…
Well, sure. You’ll be racing in it…
[laughs] Yes, I hope so, I cross my fingers!
Your Mercedes-AMG team boss Toto Wolff has said the team won’t block any move you make away from the team if you get another drive. What do you make of that?
This is fantastic. It really means Toto and my team are fully supporting me and want me back in a car no matter how. When I hear that’s it’s very special to me. They really believe in me.
Would you make a move like Daniel Ricciardo, dropping down to a slower car?
I don’t know [laughs] I need to be back in Formula One – we’ll see. But it’s my target to be in a competitive car.
What was your reaction to the controversial moments in Canada and Austria (Vettel’s penalty and Verstappen’s overtake)?
They’re borderline moments. But I think fights should be won on track, and left there. In Austria, I think they were right to not impose a penalty.
I want to ask you about radios. There’s a lot of criticism about that as soon as you guys have a car near you or get overtaken, you’re all straight on the radio, whining. Are you instructed by the team to complain?
You’re trying to win the race every way you can. I agree, it feels like we always complain. That’s because the FIA will hear you and will look at your case. If you get your comment in at the beginning, people will be looking at it.
Who was/is your favourite driver to battle in F1?
Fernando [Alonso]. That was awesome. Always a fair racer, always cool. Hmmm, who else? He’s probably the only one! [laughs]. Nah, I have respect for every driver, really. What we do is a tough job and if you start lacking respect for a driver, it’s not nice. If you start to stress when you’re next to say, Fernando or Kimi, they won’t give you the position.
[At this point, Esteban is collared for selfies with guests. He's in quite high demand, you see...]
Is this your first time at Goodwood, Esteban?
Yeah, my first time. I’d not heard of it when I lived in France, which is a shame. It’s kinda crazy actually, the fans… this is the number one place for a hardcore, pure car fan.
The first time I drove the hill climb was on Gran Turismo. It’s narrow, it’s tricky, it’s tight, you need to use the grass a bit – it’s fun. But I’d like to have pushed a bit more. But I’m not allowed to push for a lap time.
I love the heritage of F1 – I grew up watching the fight between Fernando [Alonso] and Michael [Schumacher] and I watch the old races on YouTube. That’s what gave me the motivation to race.
Let’s talk road cars. What do you drive?
I’ve always had Mercedes cars – but I’ve only had my license since 2015! My first car was a Mercedes A250 AMG. I was shaking when I got that. Full AMG package, Harmon-Kardon sound… it was epic. Then my second car [laughs], when I was 19, was a Mercedes-AMG C63 S. The Edition One, with the stripe. It was the first one in France.
Right now I’ve got a C63 S saloon, and in two weeks I’m getting an AMG E63 S. Drift mode, off the line, perfect!