Why we watched him in 2017
Through the final nine rounds of the 2016 F1 season, his first chance in F1, there wasn't much screaming at us that Esteban Ocon would be a significant force in F1 the following year. But, for 2017, he undeniably was.
With a capable lead driver in Sergio Perez, Force India were considered likely to build on 2016 and repeat a fourth-place finish in the constructors' standings. They were not, however, expected to run away with it. And, they can thank Ocon for that. The frequently similar pace he and his teammate shared, and a similar refusal to back down for the other driver, meant the two came together on track more than once, creating several highlight reel incidents with significant effects on their individual places in the championship.
Post-race interviews and radio messages only added fuel to those fires. Ocon's profanity-laced relay to the team following the incident in Belgium was a Kimi Raikkonen level of honesty, and exactly what a viewer felt as it unfolded. For most the year, the young Frenchman held the F1 media line, saying what he needed to with an actual smile on his face but, in the heat of the moment, or even an hour afterwards, he (thankfully) held nothing back.
Their inability to avoid each other while also driving a car only behind the top trio of teams led to a fast-paced and wild-west (as wild as the modern F1 gets) season for Ocon and Perez. It was stunning, and provided additional entertainment during a season that saw the first real fight for the drivers' championship in years.
On-track and away from Perez, Ocon proved to be a capable passer with an eye for keeping the car out of the margins, logging 21 total places gained over the course of the year and only one retirement. That sole retirement took place while deftly going around the outside of Romain Grosjean during the opening lap of the Brazilian Grand Prix when the Hass driver lost the rear of his car and collected Ocon in his accident.
World Drivers Championship Performance
Unfortunately, the reality of Formula 1 and the hierarchy of teams that exist within it meant that Perez and Ocon were the only true competition for each other over the course of the year. The points comparison, and subsequent places in the championship, tells the story of the two Force India drivers perfectly. They finished in seventh and eighth, 100 points to 87, with the vastly more experienced Perez pulling out ahead.
As previously discussed in the team season review, most of the edge in performance that Sergio Perez enjoyed was accumulated before the summer break. When the teams returned to the track, it was clear Ocon had raised his game to a point where he matched or out-fought his teammate over the rest of the year. A driver in his first full season of F1 able to equal the pace of Sergio Perez, and out-pace more experienced rivals like Nico Hulkenberg, Carlos Sainz and Felipe Massa, was outstanding.
The difference in qualifying was less than one-tenth off his teammate and, while Perez owned a 15-5 advantage in race finishing positions, they fought each other to a dead heat over the final 11 races (minus the one retirement during that stretch). He also bettered Perez by finishing in the points in 18 of 20 races while setting a new F1 record for the number of consecutive completed races to start a career.
The final standings list him as eighth in the championship though his talent and potential would certainly list him higher. With the top six positions basically guaranteed to the top three teams, it leaves the Force India drivers to fight it out as best-of-the-rest. I expect we will see Esteban Ocon at the top of that list in 2018.
Qualifying during the Italian Grand Prix was one of the worst sessions of the year, with torrential rain having a heavy impact on the proceedings. But as with every rain-soaked session, there was a silver lining as the grid's young talent heavily influenced its upper echelons. As part of that ascending talent, Esteban Ocon would start third after qualifying fifth. Both the Frenchman and another potential star, Lance Stroll, had seized the opportunity to outclass their teammates, not to mention other, more experienced strong rain drivers and past champions. Ocon would start a full six places ahead of Sergio Perez and two places ahead of the (at the time) championship leader.
A return of the sun for race day meant Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari would undoubtedly start the race in full force and potentially run away from the rest of the field. But it cannot be overlooked that Ocon largely held his own, caught and passed the aforementioned Stroll, finished three places up on Sergio Perez and took eight points away from the weekend.
As always, with a driver of his talent, there were several other weekends of quality results to choose from; Ocon also had two well-earned fifth-place finishes in Spain and Mexico, but it was his ability to stand out in adverse conditions that largely separated Italy from those other worthy results.
It was tempting to pick Ocon's dreadful Monaco weekend, where he started 15th and realised his only non-points finish, as his worst weekend of the year, but after the massive potential of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix being flushed down the toilet, it simply had to be there.
In the race of the year, Ocon threw away a definite podium with even the potential for a win with a clumsy, unnecessary collision with his teammate. It was an immature move that cost the team a huge achievement and kicked off the internal war in earnest.
Along with Vettel's likely title challenge, Lewis's chance for title number five, and the possible return of McLaren to the podium, the plight of Force India, and Esteban Ocon in particular, is one of the big stories to follow in F1 next year. In 2017, he showed the talent and racecraft that mark him out as a potential, if not likely, champion.
So long as he doesn't hire Fernando Alonso's career advisor, Ocon should find himself in line to get a top drive in the near future. 2018 is the year he will establish that as a reality or show that 2017 was just a flash in the pan, something I consider highly unlikely.
For Force India, next year will likely see them cement their status as the best of the midfield, where they will remain until a team budget cap comes into play. This means we will likely see another great car that just can't quite reach the development level of the top three teams, but leaves the actual midfield competition in the dust. And with both drivers returning to the team in 2018, it seems extremely likely we will see another year of hard-fought intra-team competition.
Maybe next year, though, it will take place without the loss of points and see Ocon in a position to realise a podium or win in the event the other teams falter. With a young driver the possibility always exists for some regression from their current form, but this will not happen to Esteban Ocon.