Ocon on F1 return, being mentored by Prost and going up against Alonso

Crash.net's Lewis Larkam sat down (virtually) with Esteban Ocon to discuss his return to F1, getting advice from a four-time world champion, and becoming Fernando Alonso's teammate...
Ocon on F1 return, being mentored by Prost and going up against Alonso

Esteban Ocon has bounced back from one of his “toughest years” of his career to return to the Formula 1 grid this year with Renault.

Despite being regarded as one of the most highly-rated young drivers in the field, and having impressed during spells at both Manor and Force India, Ocon lost his seat to Lance Stroll for 2019 when Lawrence Stroll bought the team and rebranded it as Racing Point. Left with no alternative options, the Frenchman was forced into an 18-month lay-off in the F1 wilderness.

But having missed out on a Renault seat last year following Daniel Ricciardo’s arrival, Ocon was picked up by the French manufacturer to complete his comeback to F1 this season. In Austria, he made his first start since the 2018 season finale in Abu Dhabi.

Crash.net sat down with Ocon (virtually) ahead of last weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, where the 23-year-old opened up about his long spell on the sidelines, being mentored by four-time F1 world champion Alain Prost, and the prospect of becoming Fernando Alonso’s teammate…

Lewis Larkam: After such a long spell out of F1, how good is it to be back racing again at Renault, a team you have history with from your junior days at Lotus?

Esteban Ocon: It’s fantastic to be back racing again, I’m very happy to have found the grid again this year. Of course I was very disappointed with how the last season has been, but that is all behind [me] now. It's exciting days and an exciting challenge that we have ahead. The team is improving year-by-year, and [will be] challenging for the top in the future. This is fantastic and of course it is great to find a way to work with each other, because we have been talking together for a long time and we finally made it. 

LL: Just how difficult was your spell on the sidelines, especially when you had to watch your rivals progress in their respective careers at the same time? 

EO: Of course it was not great, not easy to watch. Seeing the guys I raced with at the top, racing in great cars, having good results... Of course it works a bit on your mind and you are never sure if you are going to be coming back at some point, because there is nothing certain in Formula 1. It has been tough, one of the toughest years I had last year, but it paid off in my dedication and how much I have worked. And now I am here. 

LL: You had to wait even longer for your comeback due to COVID-19. How have you found adapting to F1’s ‘new normal’? 

EO: The transition is of course very different this year, not having the fans, not having such an atmosphere that we [usually] have on grands prix weekends - it’s quite strange. But if that’s the only way of having Formula 1 back, I think everyone is happy to work it out like that until our fans can come back. 

LL: Have you seen enough from this year’s Renault to believe the team has what it takes to lead the midfield? 

EO: I think we’ve shown some promising stuff from the first few races. I think the pace of the car is a lot better than what it was last year, how it feels as well. Of course there are still things we need to be on top of, we’ve missed some opportunities but we are now looking forward to turning that around to pick up all the opportunities we can have. 

Ocon on F1 return, being mentored by Prost and going up against Alonso

LL: The big focus for Renault looks to be on the regulation overhaul coming in 2022. Are you confident it will help Renault return to winning ways in the sport? 

EO: That’s clearly one of the targets. The change of the regulations is going to be impressive and everyone will try to get the best car possible to fight for the top, and hopefully Renault will do that as well.  

LL: There’s only been one French F1 world champion in history (Alain Prost). How determined are you to become the second?

EO: Yes I believe I can do it, definitely. The good thing is I often have Alain on the phone, he’s giving me tips. Alain has the key of success and his words and advice are so important. I definitely want to follow his path, and how he works and everything he gives me is a boost to my career and to my way of working. Even if I could have half of his career it would be an amazing result. 

LL: What have you learnt from Alain? 

EO: He has given a lot of advice and we are very often in touch. Just on the work ethic, I think Alain has been very, very good at guiding me, as well as how to settle into the team. If I needed some help on some stuff, he was there. I’m definitely working on that side. 

LL: With Daniel Ricciardo leaving at the end of the year, do you see this season as a real opportunity to stamp your authority on the team and impress?

EO: It’s a very important year for me being my comeback year. It’s also my first year with a works' team, a big team. I’m not putting pressure on myself for this to be the year I need to impress, I’m just trying to do my job the best I can and hopefully it will work out. 

LL: You will have Fernando Alonso as your teammate next year. Going up against a two-time world champion must be an exciting prospect, what was your reaction when you were told the news?

EO: It was definitely great to have him in the team, Fernando is a legend. He will have a lot with him to bring to the team. I was very happy with the news. For sure I can’t wait to get started and to be working with him. 

LL: Being teammates with Alonso famously hurt Stoffel Vandoorne’s reputation at McLaren. Are you confident you can avoid a repeat of that?

EO: I didn’t think about it too much. Once again I’m going to try the best I can and work with the team. I know the challenges and I know Fernando is a quick guy, but I think we have a lot to play together to bring the team forward first. We will see what happens. 

LL: Will going up against Alonso be the toughest challenge of your career? 

EO: I don’t know, we will see… (smiles). It’s hard to say because it’s not happened [yet]. 

Ocon on F1 return, being mentored by Prost and going up against Alonso

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