Esteban Ocon has always been a fighter

Esteban Ocon has been a fighter throughout his career, both in the junior categories of rallying and single-seaters. The Frenchman spent his teens competing in the French Renault Sport Trophy where he won five titles and claimed two other wins as a title runner-up across two seasons. In 2014, he entered the FIA European Formula Three Championship, where he contested 14 races and finished second in the standings to Marcus Armstrong.

Esteban Ocon is a 23-year-old Formula One driver from France. He is currently racing for the Force India team, but will be moving to the Renault team in 2019. He previously raced for the Racing Engineering team, and had a very successful season in the Formula Renault 3.5 series.

Esteban Ocon has always been a fighter.

HUNGARY’S BUDAPEST — Esteban Ocon’s Formula One career was on the verge of ending two and a half years ago. His contract with Racing Point was terminated at the conclusion of the 2018 season so that the team’s new owner, Lawrence Stroll, could free up a place for his son Lance, putting Ocon on the sidelines.

He went from racing F1 vehicles alongside Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, and Charles Leclerc to racing remote control cars with his friends in a French parking lot in less than a year. The issue was made worse by the fact that Ocon, who had excelled in his first two full seasons in Formula One in 2017 and 2018, had raced against (and defeated) Leclerc and Verstappen in junior formulae on his route to Formula One. He was well aware of his superiority over the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers, but there was a genuine risk that the rest of the world would never know.

Ocon, on the other hand, has always been a warrior. He raced in go-karts against Verstappen and Leclerc without a safety net since his family sold their home and lived in a trailer to finance his early career. Every time the engine started up and the visor went down, the pressure on the adolescent Ocon to succeed was immense. Failure was out of the question.

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Most Formula One drivers remember their karting days fondly, but Ocon said in a 2019 interview with ESPN that he “hated” that phase of his life since the family’s financial future relied heavily on his young shoulders.

Fortunately, skill triumphed.

After moving up the racing ladder from go-karts, Ocon knocked out Verstappen for the Formula 3 championship in 2014. He was subsequently signed as a junior driver by Mercedes, who gave him his maiden break in 2016 with the short-lived Manor F1 team, before impressing the rest of the grid with his first two full seasons with Force India, which later became Racing Point and is now Aston Martin.

In 2019, after making room for Stroll, Ocon rejoined the Mercedes F1 team as a reserve driver. In the paddock, he kept his head down, did endless laps in the team’s simulator, and allowed his manager, Gwen Lagrue, do the talking for him.

By 2020, he was back on the track with Renault, which was rebranded Alpine in 2021 to showcase the French automaker’s growing sports car division. Last year, Ocon earned his first F1 podium with a second-place finish in the Sakhir Grand Prix, although the team had not won a race since the start of 2013, when it was known as Lotus and under new management.

Ocon’s results dropped in this year’s French, Styrian, and Austrian Grands Prix soon after signing a new three-year deal with the team, despite a good start to 2021. As two-time world champion teammate Fernando Alonso got the upper hand, questions about the duration of the contract began to be raised, but modifications to the vehicle at the final round in Silverstone enabled him to regain his form. Fortunately for Ocon, it came just in time for his greatest professional chance.

“What a wonderful feeling,” Ocon remarked after winning his maiden Formula One race at the Hungarian Grand Prix on Sunday. “To be honest, I’m at a loss for words. It’s insane.

“We were just discussing it with the team not long ago, and we agreed that the next step for us would be the top step, like we did P2 last year.” We certainly didn’t expect it to happen today.

“I can be grateful for the team’s faith in me, you know?” We’ve just come off three tough races, and the team has put their faith in me. We overcome adversity and rediscovered our pace at Silverstone, and I believe we had a terrific qualifying session and race this weekend.

“Of course, there have been many accidents in that race, but we are in the situation where we are always pursuing chances. What a thrill it was to get it today. That is something I will never forget.”

Getty Images/Mark Thompson

True, Ocon would not have won in Hungary if Valtteri Bottas hadn’t caused the first-lap chaos, but the 24-year-old still deserves a lot of credit. Under pressure from Sebastian Vettel, the four-time world champion, who was in second position, Ocon did not put a foot wrong and made the difference when it counted.

Alpine only dared to think it might win the race after Ocon’s second pit stop on lap 37, and Ocon played a key role in ensuring he emerged ahead of Vettel after switching to new rubber.

After the race, Alpine sporting director Alan Permane stated, “I’m not sure we began to truly concentrate on winning the race until after that pit stop.” “The first part of the race was all about making sure we had the lead on the second set of tyres, and from there it was all about winning.”

“What was very nice was that when we told Esteban he needed to go flat out, he pulled 2.5 or 2.8 seconds on Sebastian, which allowed us to respond to Sebastian because even if he stopped first, we could pit a lap later and still come out ahead of him.” Pitting first exposes you to Safety Cars and other nasties, so that was a major consideration.

“There was that, plus Fernando [Alonso] and Lewis, of course.”

Even while Ocon deserves credit for his first triumph, it was still a team victory. The greatest danger to Ocon in the final stages of the race was not the Aston Martin in his mirrors, but Hamilton’s Mercedes cutting back through the pack, which was halted by teammate Alonso.

Hamilton was almost three seconds quicker than Ocon at one point in the race, and if he had gotten up to the top two cars in the closing circuits, he would have likely overtaken them. Alonso, on the other hand, made sure Hamilton didn’t have the chance.

Hamilton emerged in fifth position after a second pit stop for new medium tyres on lap 47, but with a vehicle that was considerably quicker than the four drivers ahead of him. In theory, he had enough speed to overtake the leaders before the conclusion of the race, but he needed to go by Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz fast to catch Vettel and Ocon.

On lap 54, he grabbed the rear of Alonso’s vehicle and tried to overtake him on lap 55, but the 40-year-old two-time champion held him off. On lap 57, Hamilton attempted again, but Alonso countered, pushing Hamilton to back out of Turn 3 as the two collided.

Fernando Alonso (right) helped Esteban Ocon win his first Formula One race Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

On lap 63, Alonso held off the seven-time world champion once again, expertly placing his vehicle in Turns 2 and 3 before forcing Hamilton to back out into the high-speed Turn 4. When Alonso made a mistake while braking at Turn 1 at the start of lap 65, Hamilton completed the move, but there were only five circuits remaining and the nine second distance to Ocon at the head of the pack was too large for him to close.

“The team didn’t tell me anything [about the overall race scenario], but I had a good idea of what was going on,” Alonso remarked. “I was watching the big screens because I knew Esteban and Vettel were battling and were two turns ahead of us, and with 20 laps to go and Lewis coming in 2-3 seconds quicker, it was probably enough to win the race.”

“I knew that any lap I could keep Esteban behind me was gold for him to win.” Second, I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to keep him for more than one or two circuits, but on the last few of turns, he seemed to struggle a little to keep up with me, which was enough for me to create a gap on the straight and defend.

Permane continued: “The defense of [Alonso] was unquestionably important. It was 11 circuits [he held him behind], and I’m sure Lewis would have passed Esteban at the end of the race if he had passed him on the first lap, as he did Carlos the first time around.”

Hamilton reclaims the lead in the championship battle.

It seemed unthinkable two races ago that Hamilton would be leading Max Verstappen in the championship standings going into the summer break, but in that time the Mercedes driver has converted a 33-point deficit into a six-point — potentially eight-point — lead.

The reason for the uncertainty about the extent of the advantage is Aston Martin’s decision to appeal Vettel’s disqualification from the race in Hungary, which may result in Vettel’s podium being restored and Hamilton being classified as third rather than second. Aston Martin was unable to provide a one-litre gasoline sample from Vettel’s vehicle after the race as required by the rules, but the team was confident on Sunday night that there was enough petrol remaining in the fuel system to meet the requirements. The vehicle has now been seized by the FIA, and Aston Martin may be able to appeal and reclaim their podium if additional gasoline can be discovered inside the system.

In any case, Hamilton’s lead in the drivers’ standings is surprising, considering his Mercedes’ previous performance. Red Bull looked to be dominating the vehicle development battle before the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, with a dominant performance at the two races in Austria in late June and early July, and a car that was obviously fast enough to win with a clean race in Great Britain.

So, what went wrong?

At the Hungarian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton regained the championship lead. Getty Images/DAVID W CERNY/POOL/AFP

The obvious answer is two first-lap incidents for Verstappen in Great Britain and Hungary. At Silverstone, his collision with Hamilton left him with just three points from his sprint race win on the Saturday and at the Hungaroring his collision with Lando Norris, which was triggered by Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas, left him with damage that forced him to settle for ninth place (or tenth pending the result of Aston Martin’s appeal) and two points.

But the most unexpected thing was that Mercedes was obviously the quicker vehicle in Hungary for the first time since the Spanish Grand Prix in May. While the team took a step forward with its final scheduled improvement package at Silverstone, all evidence suggested that Red Bull would remain the team to beat at the Hungaroring.

Owing to its slow corners, the tight track is frequently referred to as Monaco without the barriers, and although that comparison is somewhat deceptive due to the difference in corner radius between the two circuits, it is nevertheless a circuit where the cars run with maximum downforce. Hamilton struggled to manage tyre temperature between the four corners of his vehicle in Monaco, when the cars were last decked out with maximum downforce, but the high temperatures in Hungary seemed to assist Mercedes get the most out of its tyres and package.

“We did have the upgrade kit in Silverstone, and it seems to have provided us some helpful performance,” said Mercedes head trackside engineer Andrew Shovlin. “However, the vehicle was doing well here in terms of managing tyre temperatures, and we had a good balance with it.”

However, while Mercedes seemed to be progressing, Red Bull appeared to be regressing in Hungary. The team moved to a skinnier, lower-downforce rear wing for qualifying and the race after running their largest, most high-downforce rear wing during Friday practice. This indicates that the drivers were dissatisfied with the car’s balance during practice, and the only option to fix the issue was to reduce the entire package’s rear downforce.

Mercedes, on the other hand, was able to run its maximum downforce package throughout the weekend, resulting in a 0.4s qualifying advantage.

“To be honest, we’re shocked ourselves,” Shovlin remarked of the distance with Red Bull. “It’s a nice surprise, but having that margin to pole is still a surprise.”

“We felt this was a track that would suit them, and one of the things we worry about when we get to a maximum downforce circuit is that we are often racing around on maximum downforce, and then they put out a larger wing for Monaco and this place, but maybe they couldn’t balance that.”

“They ditched it on Saturday, and it seems strange to us that you’d run anything other than your largest rear wing here. We can’t say why they’re making those choices, but it’s possible they were having trouble running enough front end on the vehicle with the large wing, so they switched to the little one.”

Mercedes, on the other hand, understands it can’t depend on Red Bull’s struggles with vehicle balance to win the title this year. All indications from previous Grands Prix point to Red Bull being the team to beat in the next round in three weeks at Spa Francorchamps, and a victory for Verstappen would erase Hamilton’s points advantage if it remained at six.

Tensions between the two teams have reached boiling point in recent weeks, but the summer break will give both sides a chance to cool down before racing begins. Regulations will shut down the factories, limiting development, but it won’t stop engineers on both sides from brainstorming ways to squeeze more out of their cars when they return to the track in Belgium.

The good news for us is that the season is in ideal shape for the last 12 races, with Hamilton leading the standings and Verstappen ready to battle back as soon as racing starts.

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