Over the last few weeks, Force India has been all over the news, thanks to the team going into administration and the subsequent change in ownership. There was doubt about whether the team would be racing at the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix. Gladly, things have been sorted out and the team is indeed racing albeit under a new name Racing Point Force India.
Firstpost had the opportunity to take an exclusive interview with Esteban Ocon, the French Force India driver, who is also a Mercedes junior driver. Interestingly, Ocon made his Formula 1 debut exactly two years ago at the 2016 Belgian Grand Prix for Manor. He leapfrogged to Force India in 2017, where he was impressive with his consistent performances. Throughout the 2017 season, Ocon finished every race except one - 2017 Brazilian Grand Prix, where he was clipped off track - and scored points in all but two races.
Thanks to his undeniable talent and association with Mercedes, Ocon is a name to watch in the next generation of Formula 1 drivers.
Here's an excerpt from the chat with Ocon, who talks to Firstpost about his 2019 drive, the targets set by Mercedes, how he ranks his performance against teammate Sergio Perez and more.
How would you rate your performance against your Force India teammate Sergio Perez this season?
You’ve jumped straight into it! Well, I would say it’s been a big improvement compared to last year. I think Sergio had the edge in the first half of the last year and this year, I have stepped up. I am very happy with my improvement, so I need to keep at it.
Do you feel you have done enough to retain your seat with Force India next year?
I hope so! (laughs)
With Lawrence Stroll now leading the consortium that owns Racing Point Force India, Lance Stroll’s move to the team is a subject of ‘how soon’. There are rumours that the switch could happen mid-season and the delay could be purely contractual. In the mid-season driver shuffle, either Perez or Ocon could find themselves in a difficult situation that would require them to find a drive in another team in the middle of the season. It could also be that one sits out for the rest of 2018, with the hope to get a confirmed drive for 2019.
Ocon's Mercedes junior driver status also means that the World Champion team will be working behind the scenes to ensure that he has a drive for the remainder of 2018 and for 2019.
There’re a lot of talks - you to Mclaren, you could’ve been at Renault, then there’s a possibility of Williams too - where would you like to go? There are 12 cockpits available.
I can’t really point out any one team, because all the teams in Formula 1 are special. It’s special to be in Formula 1 already as a driver. I don’t think any driver can say ‘I want to go there’. It’s a bit more complicated than that. We’ll see what my future will be.
Do you at least know what your future is going to be?
No, not yet. I know what the discussions are and I know there are opportunities in different places. There could be opportunities here as well (at Force India). We will see.
Ocon’s Mercedes status means a discount on the engine bill for Racing Point Force India. This could be one of the bigger reasons for the team to consider retaining Ocon over Perez. But let’s remember, Perez brings along a sizeable chunk of sponsorship too. So, making a decision to choose between the two drivers becomes a really tough one.
Rival teams have allowed Force India to retain their earnings from the sport. In view of this development, deciding Stroll’s partner in the team might not need to be a purely financial decision.
Is there any chance whatsoever that you might not have a seat in Formula 1 next year?
If it's the case that I don’t have a race seat, I would be massively disappointed.
Would you rather race for a slower team or take a year’s break from the sport?
Racing in a F1 is always a good thing. So, if you have no choice, then racing for a slower team is already good. Of course, you want to be improving all the time and that’s my target in my career. I hope I can continue this way.
Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean are some of the other drivers on the grid, who took a break (read: were forced to) for a season only to return to Formula 1 in the next. However, Mercedes might not be too keen to have Ocon take a break in 2019, especially since an opportunity for a promotion to their works team might come around in 2020. Mercedes’ other junior driver, Pascal Wehrlein, failed to find himself a drive for 2018 and is currently racing in DTM.
The combinations of where Ocon could end up racing in 2019, are too many. Let’s hope for Formula 1 and Ocon’s sake that he ends up in a competitive team.
There's a chance that you at Mercedes might race Charles Leclerc in Ferrari and Max Verstappen in Red Bull Racing in the future and fight for World Championships - how do you rate these two drivers?
I would love that for sure. If it is to fight for the championship, fighting with them would be a pleasure. I’ve raced with them in go-karts. The last race we were all together was in the (karting) World Cup. I remember fighting for the lead for 2-3 laps. Charles had pushed Max right into the grass and it was just Charles and me for the rest of the race. It was good fun! If this is the case in the future, it would be good memories to look back on.
A lot has been said about the targets that Mercedes has set for you. Can you tell us more about these targets?
They are performance targets, reliability targets, approach targets in terms of how I work with the team - they are many different aspects.
So you mean Force India sends a report card to Mercedes?
I don’t think so. Probably they do, I don’t know (laughs). A team like Mercedes, they know everything.
When you say a reliability score, what do you mean?
Finishing races and not crashing too many times, basically
Most special highlight of the 2018 season for you?
I would say qualifying in P6 in Monaco. This was really unexpected because we were not expecting to be that fast and we were. We then finished P6 in the race as well, which was an awesome achievement.
Across our interviews with Lance Stroll, Charles Leclerc and Esteban Ocon, it was evident that most drivers in the midfield still aren’t sure where they will end up racing in 2019. In the case of Force India’s drivers, let’s hope that Stroll’s promotion doesn’t end up being a nightmare for either Perez or Ocon as both drivers equally deserve a Force India seat.
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Updated Date: Aug 25, 2018 13:25:35 IST