Following Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement from Formula 1 at the end of last season, there was a hole left in the sport greater than just that of the reigning world champion for 2017.

F1’s biggest rivalry - between Rosberg and Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton - was over. The bitter words and desperate on-track moves that made their battle so tense, so toxic was suddenly defused.

Rosberg’s replacement, Valtteri Bottas, has been typically Finnish in his approach at Mercedes, enjoying a cordial partnership with Hamilton that has done much to release a lot of the pressure that was brewing at Brackley.

Related Articles

Hamilton's chief rival for the championship has been Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, and while their collision in Baku dramatically changed the dynamic of their hitherto friendly and respectful battle, things are still calm.

Instead, the fight that has surprisingly emerged as being the successor to Rosberg/Hamilton comes at Force India, between teammates Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon.

After a first touch on-track in Canada when chasing a possible podium finish, their second coming together in Baku proved far more costly. Ocon’s attempt to bustle past his teammate through the narrow first sector backfired, leaving both cars with damage and forced to drop down the order. On a day that saw Daniel Ricciardo win the race and Lance Stroll take a podium for Williams, a shot at a big, season-defining result had gone begging.

Force India sat down with its drivers in the aftermath of the clash and made clear that such incidents could not and would not be tolerated. For a team that prides itself on being pound-for-pound one of the most impressive on the grid, frittering away one of the rare chances it gets to take on the big boys was a huge own goal.

Questions about the Force India drivers’ relationship remained heading into this weekend’s race after a minor collision at Turn 1 in Hungary, with Perez being asked on Thursday if another meeting was required to calm things down.

“No, I think what happened in Hungary was a very minor incident,” Perez said. “It was purely a racing incident. We didn’t even comment on what happened there, and we’ve moved on.”

They may have moved on from the incident, but the battle for supremacy between the Force India drivers was as fierce as ever. Ocon has surpassed most expectations during his first full F1 season so far, but Perez stressed on Thursday that nothing had surprised him.

“I was kind of expecting him to be on that level because of his experience and his knowledge,” Perez said.

“He already knew so many things that, when I came to Formula 1, everything was totally new for me, because I was never involved with a Formula 1 programme and so on.

“It definitely helps a lot when you have that experience and you work with different teams. It definitely opens up your panorama.”

“Are you afraid that now Esteban is coming to tracks he knows, new issues could arise?” a journalist asked, given Spa was the first race Ocon did last year with Manor.

“Afraid? I’m not afraid of anyone,” Perez quipped back.

“I just try to do my best job. I’ve been quite comfortably beating him pretty much every single race, every single qualifying, apart from one or two.

“Obviously Esteban is a competitive guy and a quick guy, and it’s always good to have that competition.”

Competition is always a good thing, yes - except when it goes too far and boils over as it would do on Sunday.

The first collision between Perez and Ocon was forgivable, albeit unnecessary. Perez held his hands up and took responsibility, and there was no harm done. The talk in the press room after the incident was instead about the balls Ocon showed by keeping his foot in.

As they have done for much of the season, Perez and Ocon found themselves together on-track during the first stint, running sixth and seventh. Given the pace of Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari, was the best result Force India could really hope for at Spa.

Perez fell back after receiving a time penalty for gaining an advantage by running off track, only to make up the gap to Ocon by using the undercut, much to the Frenchman’s confusion.

And so unfolded take two of their Eau Rouge moment. With a better run out of La Source, Ocon tried to get the inside line for the uphill right-hander, with Perez leaving him little room. Neither driver wavered, resulting in an inevitable collision as Perez drifted right, squeezing Ocon to the wall. Unlike the first clash, this time, there was damage: a ruined right-rear tyre for Perez and a broken front wing for Ocon.

Ocon was able to recover to ninth at the chequered flag, while Perez was retired late on, with the subsequent fall-out being made for all to see online. Both drivers posted videos stressing their innocence, but for the Force India bosses, the biggest picture was that it was an incident that should never have been allowed to happen - and would not be allowed to happen again.

War between teammates can sometimes be a good thing. It can push them on to reach another level, improving their on-track performances. A rule of economics is that competition leads to efficiency, and it’s true: if you’re being closely matched, you’ll keep working to find another gear.

But when it comes to Force India, war is, as the song states, good for absolutely nothing.

Why? Chiefly because Force India doesn’t really have any competition right now. The midfield battle is close, sure, but to put Force India in contention alongside Williams, Toro Rosso, Renault, Haas and, on occasion, McLaren is not accurate. Force India has moved cleared and is now marooned as the fourth-fastest team. It will easily capture P4 in the constructors’ once again, matching its best-ever finish from last year, and pocket the juicy prize money that comes with it.

Perez and Ocon aren’t really battling for much internally, then. Force India isn’t in a position where it has to back a horse for a world championship. They’re not trying to establish themselves as the favoured son. Were they at the very front of the field, it may be a different story.

The sad truth for Force India is that it won’t be winning any grands prix anytime soon. Both drivers naturally will want to do so, meaning the team is really a stepping stone to bigger things. For them, it is about proving themselves to the likes of Ferrari (who passed over Perez again to keep Kimi Raikkonen) or Mercedes (where Ocon is a junior and firmly a part of its future plans).

In his defence video on Twitter, Perez noted how he’d never had problems with a teammate in the past, playing the I’m not that kind of guy card. But he’s never really had this level of competition. At Sauber, he was with Kamui Kobayashi, and firmly stood out, particularly in 2012. With McLaren, his single-season stint was miserable, being put firmly in the shade by Jenson Button. Then with Force India, he was with Nico Hulkenberg before Ocon, and rose clear as team leader.

Ocon has emerged as one of F1’s brightest young talents this year, his stock arguably already higher than Perez’s ever was in his early time in the sport. For him, being walked over by the more senior, experienced teammate is not in the gameplan.

The dynamic at Force India is a strange one: a star of the future trying to make his name up against a previous up-and-comer who may have missed the boat for his shot at the big time. Both have points to prove; neither will back down or play nicely.

While Ocon is still in the early part of his career and is almost expected to get caught up in incidents given his inexperience, for Perez, there is little excuse - and even less to gain.

If anyone is going to be typecast as the villain, it’s Perez, and when he’s trying to do everything in his power to convince the top teams he’s worth a second shot following his ill-fated one-year stint with McLaren, such incidents will do nothing to help his cause.

Force India arguably has a line-up stronger than at any other point in its 10-season F1 history right now. But the gap to the chasing midfield pack must not be taken for granted or excuse dissent in the ranks. Perez and Ocon both want to prove themselves; quietly picking up points week in, week out with little fuss is the best way to do that.

Time will tell just what Force India’s new policy to dealing with its drivers on-track entails. But with neither Perez nor Ocon showing real signs of remorse, we might not have seen the last of 2017’s spiciest rivalry.

Comments

Join the conversation - Add your comment

Please login or register to add your comment

Even though the second incident looked like Perez fault I don't think that your young teammate should be trying such a risky move on the run down to Eau Rouge. Everything to lose and very little to gain for the team. I side with Perez on this and would have put him in the wall too. I don't see how Force India are going to manage this without upsetting one of the drivers other than to say "Whoever qualifies first finishes first" hold station. Will they listen ? Perez maybe, Ocon not likely.

I have friends at F India and they tell me ocon is no angel. They are not to happy with him. He is a hot head trying to prove a point to the team after he found out Perez pitted first. He didn't like that according to them. From my point of view he should have waited to past at Kemmrl straight. We missed out on a classic battle