By Luke Power
Formula 1 doesn’t entertain many rags-to-riches stories. It’s a well-publicised fact that getting anywhere in motorsport costs money. Want to race a season alongside fifteen-year-olds in British F4? That’ll cost you somewhere in the region of £350,000, estimates Mercedes boss Toto Wolff.
Maybe he was jesting when he said you either need a “rich daddy” or a “sugar daddy” to get into F1, but, sugar daddies swatted aside, you or your sponsors are still going to have stumped up millions of pound coins by the time you secure your first F1 seat.
That’s what makes Esteban Ocon’s journey all the more remarkable. Born to a pair of immigrants in the historic Norman town of Évreux, he could only afford to compete in junior karting because his parents sold the family home and set about rearing a future F1 GP winner out of a caravan.
For years, the Ocon army of three lived in those close quarters, racking up gargantuan fuel bills on drives across the continent to different races. Ocon’s father, fortunately, a mechanic, would work on the car through the night, perfecting the machine that the family’s fortunes depended upon. The rest of the family thought his parents were insane. When race day came, Ocon could not afford to crumble. As they say, a diamond was formed under the pressure.
With multiple titles under his belt by his early teenage years, Ocon’s big shot came in 2012 when Éric Boullier noticed him and signed him for Gravity Sports Management, a talent roster affiliated with Renault F1. Suddenly the financial burden on his family was somewhat eased. For the first time in his life, Ocon had a wider team around him, and this paid dividends.
Out of a crowded field featuring future F1 drivers Max Verstappen, Antonio Giovinazzi, and Nicholas Latifi, Ocon stormed to the 2014 F3 European Championship, finishing 58 points ahead of his nearest competitor.
But the threat of being dropped was always there, and at the end of the season, Ocon’s worst nightmare came true: his Lotus driving academy shut down, casting Ocon adrift, a log flume on the river to sporting oblivion.
The next season, Verstappen, who had finished third in F3, was offered an F1 seat with Toro Rosso, much to the jealousy of Ocon, who simply didn’t have the funds to compete. While nobody would deny that F1 drivers are extremely talented, the system is nowhere near as meritocratic as it could be. Ocon, the reigning F3 champion, was facing the prospect of having to leave the sport altogether.
In the winter of 2014 and 2015, Ocon saw his dreams slip away. He even began working as a mechanic with his father, but, ever the optimist, he made a call to one of the most influential men any teenager could have in their contact book: Toto Wolff, who he had met at Hockenheim in 2014. The German remembered him. A few weeks later, Wolff found him a drive in GP3.
Ocon admits that, without Wolff, he would have had to trade high-speed racing for even speedier food-making in McDonald’s. But Ocon seized his opportunity, winning the GP3 title, and in 2016 he made his F1 debut for Manor Racing.
By now, the 24-year-old is in his sixth season in F1, and it’s fair to see that the Frenchman doesn’t tend to grab many headlines. Since the heady days of coming 23rd in the Championship in an uncompetitive Manor Racing car, Ocon has served his time as a mid-table competitor, scoring points consistently but only tasting the sweet podium champagne (or sparkling wine, as it is this season) on two occasions.
Indeed, a few weeks ago, pundits suggested that his new contract with Alpine might have been undeserved after Ocon subsequently went four races without scoring a point and was well off the pace in qualifying.
But the narrative around Alpine’s affable Frenchman changed when Ocon won his first GP with a glittering performance in Hungary at the season’s most recent race.
Rain before the race and during the first lap sparked mayhem. After Bottas locked up and slammed into Lando Norris at the first corner, several drivers were affected, and the field parted like the Red Sea for Ocon to steamroll through.
Five drivers were out by the end of the first lap and a red flag was issued shortly after. With the rain fading during the stoppage, Ocon couldn’t believe his luck when race leader Lewis Hamilton started again on wet tyres and had to pit a lap after the restart, allowing Ocon to storm into the lead. The F1 gods were smiling on him.
He wasn’t going to let anyone take that position from him. Amid all the surprises and entropy of the day, his driving was calm and metronomic.
With some excellent defensive work from seasoned teammate Fernando Alonso, who kept a resurgent Hamilton at bay for a long time, Ocon was able to cling onto his lead until the end. In a comical but endearing episode, he completely flunked the post-race procedure, forgetting where the winner was supposed to park their car for the cameras and doing an extra victory lap in his jubilation.
On the podium, Ocon’s facial expression was a cocktail of bemusement, awe, and delight, as if he was a kid who had ended up there accidentally and might never be there again.
But we hope he will be there again. The man’s pilgrimage to the heights of F1 has been nothing short of astonishing. Long may his tenure continue.
Image: Stefan Brending via Creative Commons