We Need to Talk About Esteban

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With all but three teams confirming their full driver line-ups for the 2019 season of Formula 1, it is looking increasingly likely that 22-year-old French driver Esteban Ocon will be without a seat for next season. For critics and fans alike the possibility of this is mind-boggling, considering in the young driver’s first full debut season with Force India he was able to pick up a mightily impressive eighty-seven points, finish 8thin the drivers championship, finish in the top ten in all but two races and finish above the far more experienced and seasoned drivers like Felipe Massa and Nico Hulkenberg, who both had cars which could trouble the Force India on their day. But despite this impressive first season being followed up by a particularly solid second, it appears that Ocon is destined to fall victim to the politics of the sport.

The predominant reason Ocon has been unable to attain a seat for 2019 is due to his strong links to Mercedes, where he, like George Russell and Andrea Kimi Antonell are formally part of the junior driver’s programme. This essentially means that whilst the drivers can be loaned out to other teams, their loyalty is always to Mercedes and the team have the power to recall, move or promote the driver whenever they see fit. Whilst this junior programme ultimately ensures they can seamlessly replace an ageing or under performing driver with a new one, it also has serious unintended consequences for the drivers involved within it. The main consequence is that any Formula 1 team which has serious ambitions of progression or fighting for the championship, is unlikely to recruit a driver part of this sort of scheme, as it doesn’t provide long-term stability from which to build on. McLaren recruiting Ocon would, in many ways, be the motor racing equivalent of West Ham United signing Gabriel Jesus on loan from Manchester City. This move would be highly successful in the short-term, but the moment Sergio Aguero, or in Formula 1’s case, Lewis Hamilton were to retire or begin to lose his edge, the rug would be pulled out from beneath McLaren’s feet, and they would be left high and dry, being forced back to square one of getting another driver in. McLaren themselves have cited that Ocon’s Mercedes ties as an issue, with their CEO Zak Brown calling it a “tick in the wrong box”, while Renault’s Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul has claimed it was “something that was at the back of our minds”. Red Bull’s Christian Horner has even gone as far as comparing the Mercedes junior driver programme to an “anchor” for young drivers.

Ocon’s situation is made worse, with his continuation at Force India looking highly unlikely for a combination of reasons. In terms of finance, he has comparatively less sponsor-backing than that of teammate Sergio Perez, who is personally sponsored by Telmex, a communications company in Mexico responsible for 90% of the telephone lines in the country which was bought for $6.5 billion in 2011. For a smaller team like Force India, Perez is viewed financially as irreplaceable, not least due to his instrumental role in bringing in a host of Latin America companies such as Claro, Havaianas and Infinitum, in the form of sponsorship. Whilst Ocon is seen by many as a superior driver, Formula 1 remains a business, where teams like Force India need all the money they can get if they want to field a competitive car for years to come. Ocon securing a seat at Force India for next year has also been made less likely due to his frosty relations with his teammate on track. Fans and critics will remember not only the pair’s more recent crash in the first lap in Singapore, but also the scuffles between the two drivers in Belgium, Canada, Hungary and Azerbaijan in 2017, which have resulted in heated words being exchanged between the two drivers, with Ocon calling Perez “unprofessional”. All of this has made the probability of Force India naming an unchanged driver line-up for 2019, highly unlikely.

This has furthermore been made increasingly unlikely due to the new ownership of Force India, which is a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll, (father of Williams driver, Lance). With family members now owning the team, this upward move to a more competitive Force India, is inevitable for Lance. The possibility of switching Force India for Williams could have provided a last chance saloon for Ocon, which in many respects would have been a good move due to William’s partnership with Mercedes, which would have invalidated Ocon’s ties to Mercedes. Additionally, there is a distinct possibility that if Ocon were to hypothetically join Williams, he would be the first driver signed by the the team as a result his proven on-track record, compared to a younger and more inexperienced George Russell, who has recently been confirmed to be debuting in F1 next season at Williams. However whilst Team Principle Claire Williams has stated, “We [Williams] would be crazy not to be looking at Ocon” the probability of him signing for the team is slim, as it looks increasingly likely that they will choose Sergi Sirotkin over Ocon. Like Perez to Force India, Sirotkin is financially irreplaceable, with his Russian nationality helping him attract $15 million for Williams in the form of sponsorships from his home country. Williams, like Force India, needs the money that Sirotkin can provide if they have any hopes of becoming a truly competitive team again. This is especially the case considering George Russell, while a hot prospect, does not provide Williams with lucrative funding.

It appears, therefore, that due to politics, finances and developments off the circuit, Ocon is destined to have no permanent seat for 2019 and will be forced either to leave Formula 1 for the foreseeable future or settle for being a reserve driver for either his current team Force India, or potentially Williams. The crisis that is encircling Ocon and his career highlights that, like so many sports in the 21stcentury, what really matters happens in boardrooms, behind closed doors and not in the sporting event itself.

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