Esteban Ocon Has a New Challenger
Esteban Ocon and Alpine have been a fairly effective pair. Although the team has not put together a world-beating car in his time with them, Alpine has been able to fight at the front of the mid-pack for the past three seasons and Ocon has led the charge. However, despite winning the program its first race since being re-branded as Alpine, he has never been the clear #1 driver.
This is the fourteenth installment of our driver-by-driver preview of the 2023 Formula 1 season. This weekend, we will be covering Alpine. You can find the rest of our previews here.
A tumultuous relationship with former teammate Fernando Alonso ended when Alonso decided to leave for Aston Martin in 2023, but Ocon's time racing next to a comparable talent is hardly over. Former Toro Rosso and AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly is joining him in the other Alpine this season, opening the door for another year of uncertain hierarchies.
HOW HE GOT HERE
Ocon was a revelation in his first Formula 3 season, his third season in cars. He beat fellow first-year F3 drivers Tom Blomqvist (now in IMSA with Meyer Shank Racing) and Max Verstappen (now an F1 world champion) on debut in a nine-win season, one that earned him some global attention and a brief test drive appearance with the then-Lotus (now Alpine) team that season. However, while Verstappen got an immediate call-up to F1, Ocon was instead sent to the GP3 series that has since merged with what was once Formula 3 Europe to take the Formula 3 name. He won that championship on debut, too.
Ocon had joined the Mercedes farm system before that GP3 championship season, but Mercedes had no open affiliated seats in F1 for 2016 and no need to see Ocon in Formula 2. They sent him to the DTM instead, where he ran half a season while making some test driver appearances for the then-Renault (now Alpine) team. He finally joined the F1 grid as a driver after the 2016 Summer break, finishing the year out with Manor before earning a prestigious seat at what is now Aston Martin. He put together his statistical best year ever in his first full-time season the next year, finishing eighth in the championship and missing the points just twice. He struggled to 12th in 2018, leading new team owner Lawrence Stroll to pick then-teammate Sergio Perez over him as a lead driver next to his son Lance for 2019.
After a promising start, one bad season left Esteban Ocon out of F1 for 2019.
Ocon instead served as the Mercedes reserve driver in 2020, but a call from what is now Alpine ahead of the 2020 season got him back on the grid. He was handily outscored by Daniel Ricciardo, but he scored points in nine of 17 rounds, more than enough to ensure he returned for 2021. He won his first race that season, and has been committed to Alpine long-term ever since.
HOW 2022 WENT
Although he missed out on any podium finishes, 2022 was another career year for Ocon. He finished in the points in all but six races, scoring enough to grab eighth in the driver's standings and help Alpine secure fourth in the constructor's championship. He also outscored Fernando Alonso by 11 points, scoring a rare head-to-head victory over one of the most celebrated drivers in the past two decades of auto racing. The highs were not particularly high, but consistency in a competitive car was enough for Ocon to tie his career-best championship finish and continue his effective run as a mid-pack driver getting results for a mid-pack team.
GOALS FOR 2023
Alpine finished fourth in the 2022 constructor's standings, but they scored just 173 points to 515 scored by third-place Mercedes. The team is ambitious and, by size, should be exactly the sort of group most benefitted by the relatively new financial regulations introduced two seasons ago. So far, the team has been able to narrowly beat out other mid-pack teams but has been unable to move any closer to the front of the grid. The hope is that their switch to a new driver model, bringing in Pierre Gasly alongside Ocon and allowing two different younger drivers to grow together with the team, can be the next step in that process.
In theory, it sets up Alpine well for the future. In practice, it puts Gasly and Ocon into a battle to find out if either can establish themselves as a lead driver now before the team grows enough that the discussion is a problem. That battle comes with two big caveats, that Alpine would be focused on just one contender if it wound up in a championship hunt and that Alpine would be able to get into a championship hunt in the next few years at all, but it is worth considering.
Like Gasly, Ocon will have to find a way to work well alongside his new teammate now as they help develop the car and hope for shots to win races. He'll also have to keep an eye on the standings and fight to show that he is faster in qualifying and on race day. As we saw with Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. in 2021 and early 2022, a lead driver is more than just the driver who ends a season ahead in the championship standings. The driver who will be pushed for a fight for a championship early will be the one that Alpine thinks is best-positioned to win it.
A SUCCESSFUL SEASON LOOKS LIKE...
But that is a problem for the future. Alpine is not expected to leap into title contention any time soon, so the more immediate focus is on keeping the team among the best in the mid-pack and scoring another impressive finish in the constructor's standings that matter so much to mid-field teams. The best thing Ocon can do next year is continue to score points in most races. Bigger individual moments would help, too; he has just one podium in his career (his win in Hungary in 2021) and could help his case significantly by adding another this season.
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