For a driver that has quietly made a name for himself as one of Formula 1’s up-and-coming stars in the 12 months since his race debut, Esteban Ocon’s rise up the ranks has hardly been straightforward.

A little under a month shy of his 21st birthday, Ocon has become part of the furniture in F1, going from being of the number of youngsters banging on the door to someone with his feet firmly under the table.

Ocon’s debut at last year’s Belgian Grand Prix came about in unexpected circumstances when Rio Haryanto’s funding fell through, prompting the now-defunct Manor team to call on the second Mercedes junior to partner Pascal Wehrlein for the remainder of the season.

Ocon had been in the mix for an F1 seat for some time, hitting the headlines back in 2014 when he charged to the FIA European Formula 3 title against a field including Lucas Auer, Antonio Giovinazzi, Felix Rosenqvist and - most notably - Max Verstappen.

But as Verstappen was making the move up to F1 for 2015, subject to much analysis given his age, Ocon was scrambling for a seat. His links to Gravity Sport Management and Lotus had given him an FP1 run-out in Abu Dhabi at the end of his title-winning campaign, but plans for a move into GP2 fell apart amid the uncertainty that both parties faced.

As a result, Ocon had to move sideways into GP3, making his debut in the category in Barcelona in 2015. On the very same weekend, Mercedes announced it had signed him up as an affiliate member of its young driver programme with a view to him coming fully on-board the following year.

It would be an affiliation that would pay dividends down the line. Ocon produced one of the most anomalous championship wins in racing in 2015, taking the GP3 title despite winning just one race - his debut - with a stunning run of nine straight second place finishes through the middle of the season.

Mercedes moved quickly to snap Ocon up as a full member of its driver programme for 2016, as well as parachuting him into DTM. A deviation from his single-seater roots, Ocon hardly set the world on fire in the series, but it proved to be a decent holding pen until a better opportunity arose - which is where Manor and Haryanto’s lack of fortune came in.

Ocon made a solid debut at Spa, qualifying just half a second shy of Wehrlein in the same car despite no prior testing and finishing 16th as the penultimate classified finisher. The impressive form many expected to follow did, with Ocon’s shining moment coming through the rain and gloom of Interlagos.

Ocon’s qualifying display was, again, solid, lapping just 0.005 seconds off Wehrlein and two-tenths off a spot in Q2 - hardly disappointing for Manor. But bigger and better things would follow in the race.

The 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix will always be remembered for one driver: Max Verstappen. Forget Lewis Hamilton’s stunning wet-weather drive at the front of the pack that so nearly took him to a fourth world title. Forget what Ocon did, spending the bulk of the race in the points after nailing his strategy, dicing his way through the safety car and red flag mayhem that unfolded.

Ocon’s run was such that finishing P12 - Manor’s best result of the year bar Wehrlein’s run to 10th in Austria - was a disappointment for him. He’d been so close to scoring points that may have taken him above his fellow Mercedes junior in the drivers’ championship - but in the pecking order, he’d already done exactly that.

Following Nico Hulkenberg’s move across to Renault for 2017, Force India was given its choice of Mercedes’ two F1 juniors. Wehrlein had more race experience and more points, but after working with both youngsters in the past, Force India said it wanted Ocon.

The move up the grid gave Ocon the chance to really prove his quality - something he has done consistently through 2017. The Frenchman may have outraced teammate Sergio Perez just once, but points in all but one race and a best finish of P5 in Spain have only supported the case for him being a future F1 star.

One of the biggest stories of the season has been Ocon’s battle with Force India teammate Perez. The Mexican was expected to lead the team’s charge this season, and while he has been on top, Ocon has been very close behind - and in Baku, when they clashed, too close, even.

“These days rookies, they arrive into F1 really well prepared, especially him. Not being such a rookie and always involved in Formula 1 teams helps,” Perez said of his teammate.

“You can see straightaway he’s very well prepared. I think he’s been a good challenge, and has been up to speed. It’s good for the team.

“I was kind of expecting him to be on that level because of his experience and his knowledge. He already knew so many things that, when I came to Formula 1, everything was totally new for me.

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

While former F3 rival Verstappen may be battling further up the field, already comfortable within a top-line team, the Dutchman has also been keeping an eye on Ocon.

“I think clearly everything is going alright,” Verstappen said. “It’s a bit difficult for me to judge as I’m not involved in the team and know exactly all that is going on,but it’s clearly going really well.

“As a driver I always had good competition with Esteban, so for sure he’s a good driver.”

Ocon’s form is such that he is already being linked with a move up to Mercedes down the line, appearing to now be the team’s ‘plan B’ should another situation like Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement announcement arise.

Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff said recently that Ocon still needed “a couple of years” before he would be ready to move up, yet with Mercedes taking its time to decide on Valtteri Bottas’ future as it plans beyond 2018, he must surely be a name in the mix for its plans.

But what has really changed in a year for Ocon?

In his eyes, not a great deal.

“It’s been one year already. It has been mega fast, but now I’m not a rookie anymore,” he said during Thursday’s FIA press conference at Spa.

“What has changed? Not much, I would say, except that I have been learning massively since the beginning.

“I’m feeling just more comfortable with the weekends, with the races and just working with Formula 1 teams of course.

“Now, I hope it’s just going to be easier to race on the tracks that I have already raced last year.”

With knowledge of the circuits to come and a full season of racing under his belt, Ocon is now ready to get his head down and firmly establish himself as one to watch in F1.

And if his form so far this season is anything to go by, he is more than ready to do exactly that - and continue to make Perez's life difficult.

"This season I was getting faster and faster in qualifying, I beat him in Budapest, at the last race before the summer break. I’m just getting closer to him all the time - just giving him a hard time, that’s my target for sure," Ocon said.

"We raced really close now just before the summer break together. I hope that it will me that I’ve already raced some races last year for the second half and I will make sure I can beat him for the rest of the season."

So many of F1's stars have emerged as young - somewhat precocious - chargers who had rocked the boats with their more experienced teammates. Perez isn't letting the pressure from Ocon get to him, though.

"I’m not afraid of anyone. I just try to do my best job," Perez said.

"I’ve been quite comfortably beating him pretty much every single race, every single qualifying, apart from one or two. My main focus is to get the most out of the car.

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

Both Ocon and Perez are in a similar position, looking to find a way into the front-running teams down the line. While Perez has the experience and, currently, the results, the potential Ocon boasts would make him the favourite to step up in the future.

The way the current silly season is unfolding, 2019's driver market could be especially silly - and it may be the two Force India drivers who play a key part in its movements.



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