2017 will see many new tales told. Valtteri Bottas will show his mettle against Lewis Hamilton (confirmation pending.) and we could see a titanic battle for the world title with the Mercedes pair and Red Bull’s superstars. But an interesting tale will develop at Force India as Esteban Ocon is pitted against Sergio Perez.
Ocon was chosen over Pascal Wehrlein to advance from Manor to Force India. The Frenchman replaced Rio Haryanto at the British team after the German Grand Prix last year, the Indonesian’s funds drying up. Prior to the Manor drive, Ocon had taken in part in several FP1 sessions for the works Renault team. He had also been in contention for a seat at the Renault team, before the French manufacturer decided against getting things complicated with Mercedes, who actually run Ocon as one of their junior drivers. The move to Force India was a surprise by some after Wehrlein’s star performances, notably Bahrain, Austria, and in qualifying in Spa and Monza. But no one doubts Ocon’s turn of speed and he did a commendable job in the MRT05 with just half-a-season’s worth of racing and no testing prior to jumping into the car. The question is though, with the seismic rule changes for 2017 and Force India’s great finish to 2016, what can we expect from Ocon whilst he is at the team?
Force India’s fourth place finish in the 2016 constructors standings was nothing short of remarkable. The team went up against better funded and equipped teams such as McLaren and Williams. But, both of those teams had trouble this year. McLaren were vastly better than in 2015 but were still not quite at the same performance level as Force India. Williams looked to be fourth best at the season’s start, but the FW37 slipped back as the VJM09 went forwards from a troubled beginning. Sergio Perez took podiums in Monaco and Baku and narrowly missed out on similar with Hulkenburg at Spa and Brazil, Perez also just lost out in Brazil to Max Verstappen.
“We’ve had our eye on Esteban for a number of years and have followed his progress through the junior categories where he delivered outstanding results”.
The team once again used funds wisely and the car got better and better as the season went on. This all indicates a strong year for both the team and Ocon. After the post Austrian GP test last year, the team had the French driver instantly on their radar for any future drive. When Hulkenburg left for Renault, he was seen as the ideal choice for 2017 alongside Perez due to his speed and work ethic. A fabulous drive in the Manor at Sau Paulo, where he ran as high as 8th at one point, convinced Force India he was the man they wanted and he was duly signed up.
So what of 2017? Well, Perez has already said the team could potentially fight for the top three. This though would require the team to have a huge head start on some of their rivals and realistically, seems unlikely. You have to assume that Mercedes and Red Bull will lead the way, potentially neck and neck with Ferrari up there with them too if they can get their own act together. This would then lock out the top three. McLaren surely will improve further too – They’ve got to. Podiums, perhaps even the odd win must be a target for McLaren, as ambitious as that may be. Williams will be the big question mark. What can they do to get back amongst the big boys? Losing Bottas will be a blow, but the blow will be low. Paddy Lowe is clearly on course to join the Grove based team and with his gardening leave possibly slashed to make up for Bottas leaving for Mercedes, he could help them improve early on. Let’s not forget Hulkenburg’s Renault team either, a factory squad aiming high.
“I’m still relatively new to Formula 1, but spending half a season at Manor Racing has given me some valuable experience and I feel ready for this new opportunity with Force India”.
In conclusion, it looks like 2017 could be tough yet significant year for both Ocon and Force India. If they can at least maintain their 2016 form they could yet steal some podiums and this would give Ocon the chance to really shine. With a full preseason of testing nicely under his belt before Melbourne, he will be better prepared than he was for the Manor drive. He is a fast and racey driver who will probably give Perez a good run for his money. Fourth place, or at least top five, could yet be a realistic goal for the team. If the car is capable, I fully expect Ocon to take at least one podium this year. Wehrlein, now at Sauber, will no doubt be fuming if that were to happen. Ocon must not let the potential Mercedes drive to distract him either. Show well at Force India, and if Bottas does not perform as hoped or expected in the Silver Arrow, big things could really head young Esteban Ocon’s way for 2018…