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Understand the Esteban Ocon Case

Article written on August 10th, 2019. Reading it nowadays can help you to understand why Esteban Ocon got without seat in 2019 and what actions he had to take to get back on the grid in 2020.

 

Esteban Ocon, a Hispano-French driver who raced in Formula One between 2016 and 2018, is one of the most talked names when speculation in the driver market begins. After all, the 22-year-old driver, patronized by Toto Wolff, was considered by many supporters as a promise of a future star. However, he got out of the 2019 grid. Why did this happen? Does he still have a chance? His case is complicated, but we will explain everything.

1- Early career

Esteban Ocon is a rare case in Formula One. As this is an expensive sport (pieces, engineers, mechanics, simulators, etc.), drivers are expected to bring sponsorship to help with their team expenses. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of drivers are of a wealthy background. Ocon is one of the rare exceptions. Born to a humble family of Spanish immigrants from Malaga, capital of the province of Andalusia (the poorest in the country), the young driver owes his entire career to Toto Wolff. Ocon even claimed that if it wasn’t for the current Mercedes’ Team Principal, who gave him an opportunity to join motorsport, he would be working in fast-food restaurants to help his family income. The relationship between Wolff and Ocon is the key to understanding the driver’s current situation.

Esteban Ocon and his parents, Laurent and Sabrina

In 2014, Ocon was the champion of European Formula Three, one of the main categories to the entry in Formula One. However, the young driver promoted that year was Max Emilian Verstappen. The young Dutchman, son of former driver Jos Verstappen, debuted at Toro Rosso in 2015, while champion Ocon remained anonymous until mid-2016 when Manor signed him to replace Indonesian Rio Haryanto at the Belgian Grand Prix. Ocon finished his debut year without points in 23rd place. His first point came with the following year’s Australian Grand Prix, which Esteban finished in 10th place.

2- Similar case

Pascal Wehrlein is a German driver who was also patronized by Toto Wolff. Son of a German father and African mother from Mauritius, he made his Formula One debut at Manor in 2016 at the Australian Grand Prix. He became Ocon’s mate after the resignation of Rio Haryanto. At the end of the season, Manor filed for bankruptcy and announced that it would no longer compete in Formula One.

Pascal Wehrlein

To ensure his patronized boys remained, Toto Wolff landed good deals: Wehrlein was sent to Sauber, replacing Brazilian Felipe Nasr, and Ocon to Force India in place of German Nico Hülkenberg. The Rede Globo, a Brazilian company that owns Formula One broadcasting rights in the country, even speculated that Nasr would go to Force India because he outperformed his fellow teammate, Swedish Marcus Ericsson. However, Nasr was left out of the category and Ocon got the seat. Initially, many Brazilian fans were angry at Toto Wolff and Esteban Ocon.

As Sauber’s car had the worst performance of the grid, Wehrlein only scored twice, with seventh place in the Spanish Grand Prix getting six points and tenth place in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix getting one point. His teammate was the only driver that did not score that year. By 2018, Sauber would have to sacrifice one of its drivers to hire Monegasque Charles Leclerc, GP2 champion (another great category to entry in Formula One) and a member of Ferrari Driver Academy. Leclerc is patronized by Nicolas Todt, son of current International Automobile Federation (FIA) president, Jean Todt (Ferrari Team Principal between 1993 and 2007). Sauber at the time was a team subordinate to Ferrari just like Toro Rosso is to Red Bull today. Having to choose between Tetra Pak-sponsored Swede and Toto Wolff-patronized German, the Swiss team opted for Ericsson, and Wehrlein was fired.

Wolff put Wehrlein in the position of Mercedes’ third driver, along with the young Englishman George Russell. Toto promised Pascal that he would fight until the end to secure him a seat in Formula One, but Wehrlein expects this until now. Displeased with the situation, the German joined Ferrari as a third driver, replacing Russian Daniil Kvyat, who was returning to Toro Rosso after being fired from the team.

3- Relationship with other drivers

In the days of the access categories, Ocon befriended Canadian Lance Stroll, whose father, Lawrence Stroll, was the owner of the best European Formula Three and GP2 team, Prema Powerteam. Ocon was champion of the 2014 European Formula Three season with this team. Lance did the same in 2016, breaking the record of “youngest champion” of the category and the first Canadian to win the title. Some critics measured that Verstappen drew more attention than champion Ocon for taking third place with a much lower car (Van Amsterfoot Racing, powered by Volkswagen). It is legitimate noting that Verstappen was the big sensation of 2015. The automotive newspapers only spoke about him, whether by his records, his accidents, or his bold moves that guaranteed him good scores. Max was elected FIA Rookie of the Year in 2015. All of this contributed to overshadowing Ocon’s image for a year and a half.

With Stroll, Ocon had a “Prince and Pauper” kind friendship, as both came from very different backgrounds. Nevertheless, the friendship between them both proved that wealth does not define character. Being rich does not mean being bad or good. Being poor does not mean being good or bad. And later on, let’s see that this really applies.

With Wehrlein, Ocon had no considerable conflict, a situation quite different from that of his Mexican counterpart Sergio Pérez, his Force India teammate. The two met on occasion, especially at the 2017 Belgian Grand Prix, when a touch between them at the Eau Rouge entrance squeezed Esteban against the pit wall. Ocon accused Pérez of “trying to kill him,” infuriating Mexican fans, who offended him on social media. Claiming security reasons, Esteban hired armed security for himself and his parents at that year’s Mexican Grand Prix. Another example of friction between the two was at the Singapore Grand Prix when Pérez beat Ocon out of the race.

The conflict between Pérez and Ocon at the 2017 Belgian Grand Prix. Ocon accused Pérez of trying to kill him

4- Beginning of the crisis: Force India’s bankruptcy

In 2018, Force India owner Vijay Mallya was investigated by the Indian authorities under suspicion of corruption. British courts were already negotiating his deportation to India. With accounts in the red and low reliability, the team started the bankruptcy process. According to Mariana Becker, a journalist for Rede Globo, an American businessman and a Russian were interested in buying it, but no agreement was reached.

Seeing an investment opportunity, Lawrence Stroll set up a consortium of businessmen and bought Force India, with Mallya assuming any pending issues regarding his term of office, including the lawsuit Sergio Pérez filed against the team. Stroll’s son Lance, who had had a good season with Williams in 2017 (getting a podium, a start from the front row and three records), suffered from an uncompetitive car in the English team. It was speculated that when Lawrence bought the team, Lance would transfer to it.

Article from the journal Independent, that mentions the 405 jobs saved by Lawrence Stroll

As explained at the beginning of this article, Formula One needs drivers to bring sponsorship to maintain the sport. Pérez is sponsored by companies such as Telmex and Claro and the state government of Jalisco, Mexico. Ocon, for its part, was sponsored only by Toto Wolff.

5- Attempts to contract with other teams

  • Mercedes: The sponsor upholds Niki Lauda’s wishes.

According to the press, Toto Wolff had adviced Ocon before the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix. He would have said that if it did not make it difficult for Lewis to overtake Hamilton after the pit stop, Esteban would take the second Mercedes seat, as Finnish Valtteri Bottas outperformed Hamilton. This would have occurred well before the purchase of Force India (which was made on drivers’ vacations before the Belgian Grand Prix). Ocon facilitated Englishman overtaking in all races.

That is, months before Force India went bankrupt and was sold, Esteban Ocon was already set to leave the team. However, then-Mercedes adviser, three-time champion Niki Lauda, ​​advised Wolff to give Bottas one more chance. The Team Principal accepted the request and renewed Finn’s contract for another year. In the case Ocon left Force India, which was most likely not to bring the same benefits as Pérez, Wolff would have to work hard to put his pupil into a new team.

  • Renault

In 2018, the French team had Spanish Carlos Sainz Jr. and German Nico Hülkenberg. The first was called in to replace Fernando Alonso at McLaren after the two-time champion announced his retirement. The second had its contract renewed. As a result, Renault had a seat available for 2019. According to press reports, Toto Wolff was negotiating the transfer of Ocon to this team, as the driver was no advantageous neither financially nor in terms of performance, as his results were below those of Pérez.

Nevertheless, nobody could have predicted a turnaround in Red Bull. The announcement that the Austrian team would run with Honda engine in 2019 displeased one of its drivers, Australian Daniel Ricciardo. Fearing to pass through a series of crashes like McLaren in 2016 and Toro Rosso in 2017, Ricciardo opted to leave Red Bull and signed a contract with Renault, filling the team’s second seat. This was the first door that closed to Ocon.

  • McLaren

Dissatisfied with the results of Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne, the English team dismissed the driver and hired Carlos Sainz Jr. to replace Fernando Alonso, who would retire at the end of 2018. Consequently, a seat would be available at McLaren too. Sources say Toto Wolff also contacted the British team to secure a seat for Ocon. However, the team opted for a young English driver who had been in the team development program for years. His name was Lando Norris, the son of an English billionaire businessman. With that, a second door closed for Esteban Ocon.

  • Williams: the Lance Stroll case

If 2017 was a glorious year for the English team, as Lance Stroll’s podium earned it fifth place in the constructors’ championship, 2018 was ruined by the incompetence of its engineers. Lawrence Stroll was one of the team’s main sponsors, along with the SMP bank, which sponsored Russian Sergey Sirotkin. The British engineering team led by Paddy Lowe failed to create a competitive car, with promises of improvements that were always postponed. Embittering in the last positions of the grid, the drivers were unfairly accused by the team’s problems, as they had more spotlight.

Obviously, Lance was unhappy with the team’s incompetence and unfair treatment by the press and fans. It was also clear the dislike of Claire Williams, Team Principal, and daughter of founder Frank Williams, for the Canadian driver, and the clash between Claire and Lawrence created a heavy mood in the squad. Remembering that it was the second time that the Williams family’s mismanagement had led the team into the hands of an outside investor (Toto Wolff in 2009 and Lawrence Stroll in 2017). Lawrence realized that the investment would not be worth it and found an opportunity on Force India purchase.

Although his father took over as the new owner of the team, Lance did not transfer to it. This is the first argument to rebut the accusation that has fallen on the Canadian: that his father would have bought Force India to give his son a better seat, even if he had to sacrifice his friend. If Lawrence were simply a father trying to please his son, he would have paid for Ocon’s contract termination and put Lance on the team immediately. That’s not what happened. Esteban remained on the team, now named Racing Point Force India, until the end of the year.

Many expected Lance and Esteban to switch teams. In other words, Stroll would go to Force India and Ocon to Williams. With Sirotkin’s underperforming performance and Stroll’s departure, the English team would have two vacancies. Toto Wolff stepped into action, placing his pupil in one of Williams’ seats. His name, GEORGE RUSSELL.

The young Englishman was a member of the Mercedes driver development program and served as the third driver of the German team. A long time ago, he had been waiting for an opportunity in Formula One. Wolff did not explain why he chose to secure a seat for a rookie rather than the sponsored who was running out of chances. He merely claimed that Russell had qualifications for the vacancy.

At the same time, there was speculation about Robert Kubica’s return to the grid. The Polish has been out since 2011 when he suffered a serious accident that left his left arm injured. His manager was none other than the champion of 2016, Nico Rosberg. Kubica’s return was a risky investment: his team would have to spend more money to adapt the car to his shortcomings, and there was no guarantee that he would perform well. Rosberg claimed that Polish companies would be willing to sponsor the pilot and that the country’s fans had been looking forward to Kubica’s return since the retirement of Brazilian Felipe Massa.

  • Toro Rosso: Pupil of Toto Wolff? No way!

Toro Rosso went through an unrivaled chair dance. Dissatisfied with Daniil Kvyat’s successive crashes, the team ran in 2018 with Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley. However, the second was also involved in a series of collisions that angered the leaders of the Italian team.

With Hartley fired and Gasly promoted to Red Bull after Daniel Ricciardo left for Renault, there were two seats available. However, two factors hindered Ocon’s chances. The first is the fact that Toro Rosso is a team subordinate to Red Bull, and usually, its drivers are linked to it: they are either young people from the development program or have been demoted from the team. Esteban had no ties to Red Bull. The second factor was Ocon’s connection with Toto Wolff. Team chief Franz Tost even claimed that he did not want drivers linked to Mercedes on the team. Perhaps the team feared an espionage scandal like McLaren’s in 2007 or that Ocon would tell Wolff the secrets of the team, that used Honda engines.

6- Esteban Ocon’s image

  • Stroll is thrown into the fire; Ocon delays to help his friend

Lance Stroll made his Formula One debut in 2017 for Williams at the age of 18 at the Australian Grand Prix. Three successive retirements and accidents at free practices made the press and fans forget about his European Formula Three achievements (like his title and record) and consider him a “pay driver”. This unfair fame accompanied Lance to his third-place finish in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where he broke the record for “youngest rookie to score a podium”. Ocon had no podium so far, even with a superior car, and remained so until the end of his career.

With the problems Williams faced in 2018, the reputation of “pay driver” came back to Stroll, mainly because the media blamed the drivers for the poor performance of the car, even though it was the engineers’ responsibility. When his father, Lawrence Stroll, bought Force India in the second half of the year, saving the jobs of 405 workers, fans of Esteban Ocon, full of deadly rage, attacked Lance on his social media with the most terrible offenses possible, some even of racial content. Little was said about the saved jobs, or the advantages Pérez and Stroll would bring to the team, or that Ocon’s lack of sponsorship and results hindered him in the case. Some simply would not admit that a Canadian Jewish driver of Amerindian descent who had a podium, a start from the front row and three records would replace a white European driver with no podiums and no records.

However, the most surprising in this case was Esteban Ocon’s reaction. Force India was bought in August 2018. Ocon only spoke out about the attacks on Lance in September 2018. Within a month, the media and fans had enough time to launch slanderous rumors about the Canadian, while his friend since Formula Three era watched all quietly. Ocon called the attacks “irrational” and launched a story on his Instagram in which he emphasized his friendship with Stroll despite their “different backgrounds”. Why did Ocon take a month to help his friend who was suffering one of the dirtiest defamation campaigns in Formula One history? Why did Ocon point out differences in their “background”, as Stroll suffered racial offenses and attacks for being rich (which 99.9% of pilots are)?

Ocon’s Instagram post defending Stroll a month later
  • Crash into Verstappen at Brazilian Grand Prix; the final gavel

With 99.9% of seats unavailable for Ocon, his chances of staying in Formula One were scarcer. On November 11th, 2018, the Brazilian Grand Prix happened at Interlagos Circuit in São Paulo. Although Lewis Hamilton took pole position, Max Verstappen took the lead and was on his way to victory. Esteban was 16th and coming out of pits when he accelerated and ignored the blue flag, crashing into Verstappen. The two drivers temporarily left the track, allowing Hamilton to overtake. Verstappen came back in second, with damage in the car. Ocon received a 10-seconds of stop-and-go penalty. Hamilton’s victory was credited by this incident.

After the podium ceremony, Verstappen sought Ocon to clarify the situation. With a smirk on his face, Esteban replied that he was “faster” and therefore had the right to be in front even with the blue flag.

(Note: Believe me, some people believe in this lame excuse to this day.)

Verstappen was enraged at the mockery and set off for physical aggression, successively pushing Ocon until both were separated. Max left the room visibly annoyed, while Esteban continued to laugh and mock the Dutchman. Then he dared to say that “Max didn’t act like a man”. Is disrespecting the blue flag, which obliges the lapped cars to let the front drivers pass, a man thing? Is making fun of the injured person instead of assuming the mistake and apologizing for it a man thing? Is seeing your friend being a victim of defamation and helping him only a month later a man thing? Is accusing the teammate of attempted murder a man thing?

Ocon makes fun of Verstappen after the move that prevented his victory
  • Verdict: guilty of maximum allegiance to Toto Wolff; Sentence: to be without a seat for 2019

Ocon’s reaction to the crash with Max Verstappen spawned two theories to explain it: the first is a possible resentment of Esteban for Max’ promotion to Formula One in 2015, even though he was third in 2014 European Formula Three while Hispano-Frenchman had been the champion; The other is that Ocon was sending a message to Toto Wolff that he would be a great driver for the team, as his actions undeniably secured Lewis Hamilton’s victory.

While this image would benefit him for Wolff, it earned Ocon a bad reputation with the other teams. Esteban came to be seen as a loyal agent to the Mercedes team leader, and his presence in other teams could mean espionage, betrayal, and double loyalty. Ocon gained nothing from the Verstappen accident: he did not score, received a penalty, and had his reputation tarnished. The only beneficiaries of the event were Hamilton for the win and Valtteri Bottas, who was fourth in the championship ahead of Verstappen. Nevertheless, that did not last until the end, as in the last race of the year in Abu Dhabi, Max took third place and took Bottas’ position in the championship, just three points behind third-placed Kimi Raikkonen.

After the Brazilian Grand Prix, Claire Williams announced that the British team had hired Robert Kubica, ending all chances for Esteban to continue in the top motoring category. Wolff had no choice but to place him as Mercedes’ third driver.

7- Myths and truths

  • Myth: Stroll is to blame for Ocon’s departure from Formula 1.

Stroll did not take the seat immediately after his father bought Force India with the help of a business consortium. Even though they could afford a contract termination, the new team owners let Ocon run for the team until the end of his contract. Ocon was also tipped to leave the team before purchase. Pérez brought advantages to the team by being the best performing driver and still having good sponsors, something Esteban did not do. The choice for Pérez was based on offer and demand, a golden rule of the market.

Ocon tried vacancies on other teams, but all had other plans. Renault opted for Daniel Ricciardo. McLaren chose Lando Norris. Mercedes has renewed Valtteri Bottas’s contract. Toro Rosso has hired Alexander Albon and Daniil Kvyat (who had a career podium at the time, one more than Esteban Ocon). Stroll is no more guilty than Ricciardo, Norris, Perez, Bottas, Albon, Kvyat, Russell, and Kubica for Ocon’s exit. Remembering that Stroll has a podium, a start from the front row, and three records on his carrer, skills that Ocon does not have. Blaming Stroll for being in Formula 1 while Ocon is out is the same as blaming Ayrton Senna for having more titles than Rubens Barrichello.

  • Truth: Ties with Toto Wolff has reduced Ocon’s opportunities in Formula One

Esteban’s countless compliments to Mercedes’ team chief and the move into Max Verstappen’s at the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix prove that Ocon is very devoted to Toto Wolff, his patronize on sports. The other teams feared that a double agent would generate an espionage scandal or that their secrets would be leaked to the German team.

Many may think that because Mercedes has one of the best cars on the grid (if not the best) it would not be interested in information about other teams. However, teams always watch the performance of their competitors (see McLaren in 2007) for improvements and strategies.

  • Myth: Ocon was an outstanding driver and his departure was a great injustice.

Ocon was surpassed by all his teammates during his Formula One career. In his debut year in 2016, he trailed Pascal Werhlein in the final results. , although both scored zero because they entered Formula 1 midway through the year. In 2017 and 2018 was surpassed by Sergio Pérez, with 87 points against 100 in the first year and 49 against 62 in the second. This myth was created by journalists who, for personal reasons, focus on defaming Pérez, Stroll, and Verstappen rather than praising Ocon for themselves. The driver data proves this.

In two and a half years of career, Ocon failed to win a podium, a front row start, a pole position, or a record, totaling only 136 points. Comparing to other riders of the same age group: Max Verstappen broke two records in his debut year and four more the following year, the same year he got a victory, five podiums and a start from the front row; Lance Stroll got a podium, three records, and a start from the front row in his debut year; Charles Leclerc did not achieve great results in his debut year, but a year later he has so far achieved two poles and five podiums. Remembering that in his debut year, Ocon was unable to score.

  • Truth: Ocon’s choices earned him a bad name in the paddock

The 2017 Belgian Grand Prix case, where Esteban accused Sergio Pérez of “trying to kill him”, is one of the examples of the narrative war the driver fought in his career. Perez even claimed that Ocon likes to victimize himself and make his rivals look like villains. The theory has foundations.

During his career, Ocon’s choices, whether racing maneuvers or press statements (including their lack/delay), made Pérez look like an “impulsive driver who could even kill his teammate”, Stroll looks like “an evil capitalist who buys seats in Formula One” and Verstappen looks like “an uncontrolled brawler who assaults his opponents”. All these media figures eventually turned against Esteban, who in front of the other teams got the image of “a treacherous and incompetent driver who gets along with no one but Toto Wolff”. With such a reputation, it is difficult to get a seat in Formula 1 because the teams are not trusted.

8- Comparisons between Ocon and Wehrlein

Pascal Wehrlein entered Formula 1 with Manor in 2016. He did not score points due to the poor performance of the car. In 2017 he was promoted to Sauber, where he scored in the Spanish Grand Prix and Azerbaijan Grand Prix. No sponsors who could help the team’s accounts, although it outperformed teammate Marcus Ericsson, was fired from the team to make way for Ferrari protégé Charles Leclerc. In 2018, he was named third Mercedes driver by godfather Toto Wolff, who promised a return to Formula One. As the promise was never fulfilled, he joined Ferrari as the third driver and was never seen on the track again.

Esteban Ocon entered Formula 1 with Manor in 2016. He did not score points due to the poor performance of the car. In 2017 he was promoted to Force India, where he scored 18 times but finished the championship with 13 points less than his teammate Sergio Pérez, who won him in 2018 as well. No sponsors who could help the team’s accounts and underperforming his teammate were fired. In 2019 he was placed as the third driver of Mercedes by godfather Toto Wolff, who promised him a return to Formula 1 (earlier he would have promised Bottas’ seat).

9- Conclusion

Esteban Ocon’s departure from Formula One in 2019 and his uncertainty for the future are the result of the poor choices the Spanish-French driver made during his career. Leaving gratitude to Toto Wolff in his head, Ocon handed his future into the hands of his godfather, who had failed to secure a vacancy for his other sponsor, Pascal Wehrlein. The lousy relationship with Sergio Pérez, the delay in helping longtime friend Lance Stroll as he suffered defamation, and move into Max Verstappen that allowed Lewis Hamilton to win at the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix earned Esteban a tarnished reputation (double-loyal and victimhood) and distrust of the other teams (who opted to sign Daniel Ricciardo, Lando Norris, Alexander Albon, Daniil Kvyat, George Russell and Robert Kubica). His results were not enough to justify his deserving of the seat at Force Point, Force India’s heiress, and his choices set him apart from the rest of the grid. The image of an “excellent driver wronged by others” is just a media invention of malicious journalists whose interests focus more on defaming Pérez, Stroll, and Verstappen than on extolling Esteban’s great achievements in Formula One, which have so far not materialized. If Ocon has a chance to return to Formula One? Yes, but it will depend on the strategy adopted by Toto Wolff. At the moment, Ocon’s situation is almost identical to Wehrlein’s.

Esteban Ocon and Toto Wolff: Formula One’s most troubled marriage

 

10- Sources

Photos

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