It’s been the silliest of silly seasons, hasn’t it? 5 teams have confirmed their driver line-ups for the 2019 season, and we already know that 5 teams will be making at least one change to their current line-up (6 if Daniil Kvyat returns to Toro Rosso as rumoured). We’re seeing young drivers earning promotions to the top teams after impressing, drivers like Daniel Ricciardo moving to a new project at Renault, and a prolonged farewell tour in Kimi Raikkonen’s case. Not to forget that Fernando Alonso also called it quits in the middle of all this. But despite there being a much higher than normal number of changes, there remains one outlier.
When Force India was saved from administration by a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll, talk began of his son and current Williams driver Lance switching teams and replacing one of Force India’s current drivers. Now that it’s looking more of a when rather than if he gets a seat, the future of Esteban Ocon looks to be very precarious as Sergio Perez is more than likely the driver who will be retained. It’s a desperately unlucky situation for Ocon at the moment, given that the younger drivers expected to be his competition in the future in Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc have earned promotions to better teams, whereas Ocon is staring at the exit door of F1.
It would be impossible to suggest that Ocon doesn’t deserve a seat in Formula One next season. Since coming into F1 after a successful junior career (winning both the European F3 and GP3 titles in his only season in the championships), he has produced some exemplary performances that has lived up to the hype as a potential future world champion, and has proven to be more than a match for his much more experienced team-mate in Perez. He also showed his promise this year at Spa when despite Force India having to re-enter as a new constructor under a new name and ownership, Ocon managed a stunning 3rd place in qualifying by mastering the changing weather conditions when he needed to most. But Ocon’s options of a 2019 seat are closing and with Williams looking like the only option for him, there is a very realistic possibility of a 2019 grid without Esteban Ocon on it, and that would be a sad state of affairs for Formula One.
We’re in the era of F1 where junior drivers have a greater chance of earning a spot on the grid if they are linked with a manufacturer’s junior team or “academy”, which is the case for Ocon with his Mercedes backing and a number of other drivers such as Leclerc, Gasly and Lando Norris. But even that has it’s own problems as it restricts the number of options these drivers have in terms of potential teams. For example, you’re never going to see a Mercedes-backed George Russell gain a seat at Sauber because of Ferrari’s influence in the team, likewise the Ferrari-backed Antonio Giovinazzi is very unlikely to earn a seat at a team linked to Renault or Mercedes. Unfortunately these links only creates a logjam for any driver seeking a drive and often drivers will have to find a seat in another series for the time being, which is what Ocon will most likely have to do.
This isn’t the first time a talented driver with prominent backing is left with no option but to leave F1, as has been the case with Pascal Wehrlein, but the sheer dependence on up-and-coming drivers needing backing to enter F1 means it will not be the last occurrence either., and it may even become the norm. If Ocon is to leave F1 in 2019, it’ll most likely be a short sabbatical before he returns in 2020, and so it should be because he’s too good a talent to leave out of the sport. With the issues surrounding Force India this season and the driver market filling out as it has done, Esteban Ocon has become a victim of circumstance and even his Mercedes backing is struggling to resolve his future. I like Ocon as a person and as a driver, and it isn’t unreasonable to consider him as a future world champion. But it would be a damn shame if F1 politics interferes with his career for too long.