Autosport – 22 August 2019

(Barré) #1


Andretti walked away, Hakkinen immediately outqualified
Senna for his comeback race at Estoril.
The year out can also have other, unexpected, benefits.
No driver wants to be out of a race seat, but it does offer the
chance to regroup, see things from a different perspective
and round off some of the rough edges that would remain
exposed if the relentlessness continued.
Daniil Kvyat is a superb example of this, citing the year out
as critical to his return this season as a more complete and
consistent driver with Toro Rosso. While he fell off the grid in
very different circumstances to Ocon after being dropped entirely
by Red Bull, he also spent the subsequent year as a simulator
driver for one of F1’s biggest teams – in his case, Ferrari.
“There were tough times after losing my F1 seat, but it’s
an important process of self-realisation, finding yourself,
what works for you, what doesn’t,” says Kvyat. “It’s about
understanding your weak points and working on them as hard
as you can, and small things here and there. Because everyone
has talent in F1, it’s about how to make the most of it.
“It was really good to have a year off, to help to see everything
from a different perspective, to have more mental rest because
those two or three years were quite tricky for me, and to realise
some things that I can work on and improve. I think it was
crucial to have the year’s rest; it was very important.”
It perhaps doesn’t feel like it for Ocon, but he is probably
benefiting from the same thing. If he does find himself as team-
mate to Lewis Hamilton, it will be the toughest test he has ever
faced. Every step up the ladder offers a more intense challenge
and most do crumble at one altitude or another. Pierre Gasly is
perhaps the best example of this as, after a strong season with
Toro Rosso in 2018, he struggled badly at Red Bull against Max
Verstappen and has now been demoted back to the junior team.
Precious few drivers prove up to it at the highest level.
Over the previous six years, Ocon has had to go through a great
deal. He’s had to adapt to cars from karts in Formula Renault,
beat Verstappen in Formula 3, win a tense GP3 campaign, dabble
in the DTM and make his name in F1 with Manor and Force India/
Racing Point. Then he’s had to come to terms with losing his
seat through no fault of his own. This year will have offered
the opportunity to consolidate that experience.
His ability or otherwise to maximise the potential benefits
of this year on the sidelines will not only have a big impact on
whether Ocon does get his dream shot at Mercedes, but also
on his capability to make good on his prodigious potential
when he does. At the very top level, even tiny weaknesses
that are invisible elsewhere can be ruthlessly exposed, so
Ocon will need to come back refreshed and better than ever.

ost drivers who set out on the road to Formula 1
never make it, and those who do find it almost as
hard to stay there as to get there in the first place.
But the rarest of breeds is the returnee – the driver
who arrives, disappears, then returns triumphant.
This is exactly what Esteban Ocon aspires to do, either by taking
Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes seat or landing a deal with a rival team.
In elite sport, a year on the sidelines is regarded as disastrous
for career momentum. Losing a year when you have a relatively
short competitive shelf life is never a good thing, but it’s not
necessarily the bodyblow some believe it to be. If Ocon is
frustrated, he just needs to look to the example of a certain
Fernando Alonso back in the early 2000s.
After a successful rookie season with Minardi, during which he
impressed those paying close attention despite not finishing above
10th and, on countback to a best result, ending up behind team-
mate Tarso Marques in the 2001 championship, Alonso was
benched for 2002. Like Ocon, he spent that season as test driver for
a manufacturer team – Renault, albeit with the benefit of 40 days
of running in 2002 compared to Ocon’s exclusively virtual driving.
What Alonso was able to do during that year extended beyond
just driving the car. He built relationships with key team members
and, by being embedded with the race team, gained a deeper
understanding of how things worked in preparation for his return

to the grid. It’s no coincidence that he bagged his first pole
position, thanks to a lower-fuel gambit, and podium on just
his second 2003 outing in Malaysia.
Such experience is invaluable and there are other examples
of top drivers for whom this approach worked. Felipe Massa had
an up-and-down debut season with Sauber in 2002 but, after
spending the following year as Ferrari test driver, returned to the
Swiss team in 2004 a far more rounded performer. Long since
under contract with Ferrari, this set him on a path to promotion
to its race team as Michael Schumacher’s team-mate in 2006.
Then there’s Mika Hakkinen, who originally signed for
McLaren as a race driver in 1993 but then found himself spending
most of the year as tester thanks to Ayrton Senna’s indecision on
whether or not to race. When he did get his chance after Michael

If Esteban Ocon returns to a full-time Formula 1 race seat in 2020, he’ll join a small

band of drivers who’ve made such a comeback in the top level of motorsport


One step back, two forward?

“If Ocon’s frustrated at a year on

the sidelines, he just needs to

look to the example of Alonso”


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