Despite what has been said about the 2020 Formula 1 season, it will be an intense, possibly fascinating year. While the main changes in regulation will come in 2021, this year sees the comeback of Zandvoort (with a crazy banked corner), teams are closer than ever and Esteban Ocon is back in the game. He might be only 23, but he’s already got five years of experience in Formula 1. And after a one-year break in his career, Ocon is back in the bucket seat of the promising Renault F1 R.S.20. We met with him during the pre-season tests in Barcelona last week, together with his sponsor Bell & Ross. (fun fact: he often wears his watch under his driving glove…)
Brice Goulard, MONOCHROME – How and when did your career really get started?
Esteban Ocon – In Motorsport, there’s not really a turning point. It’s more a gradual process. The more you make you way up to higher categories, and as soon as you start winning races in junior categories, below Formula 1, that’s when everything really starts to get serious. For me, it was around 2013-2014 (back then, Esteban was racing in Formula Renault and then in Formula Three), as soon as I began racing in open-wheel championships. After that, everything goes fast in this industry. Once you start winning in lower categories, major teams are looking at you.
What about the current state of your career?
First of all, I’m back in Formula 1. I missed 2019, or at least I wasn’t racing. I arrived in Formula 1 in 2016, raced then in 2017 and 2018 and it would have been logical to continue this way, but the situation changed and I couldn’t race in 2019 (Ocon joined Mercedes as their reserve driver in 2019 after which he was replaced at Racing Point by Lance Stroll for the 2019 season). But I’m back with a major team, Renault F1, for several years. It’s all positive. Just being back on the track is already big for me.
Do you compare yourself to any of the legendary drivers, such as Alain Prost?
I obviously can’t “compare” myself to Alain Prost (another French driver active in the 1980s and 1990s, now part of Renault F1 team). Alain is a legend, an inspiration… And I have the chance to have him around now, he’s giving me advice, I’m working together with him. I can’t compare myself to him. I’m simply trying to learn from his experience.
What does Prost bring to you?
Alain has the keys to success. He’s made it where I want to succeed. So having him around me, to be so lucky to work together with him is great. Especially this year, as it marks a comeback for me and I have to work with a new team. And even though it’s not my first year in Formula 1, it remains a challenge. Having him next to me is very helpful, on many levels, whether on the team side or on the piloting side… His experience is helpful on all levels.
Is there another driver who inspires you?
The answer is simple. Back when I was younger, my idol was Michael Schumacher, also his battle with Fernando Alonso in 2005-2006. This is what gave me the desire to, one day, become an F1 driver. I’m so lucky when I go back to the Renault F1 factory to see the R26 that was driven by Fernando back then.
What are your short-term and long-term objectives?
“I’m here to be a champion, one day!”
Participating for the sake of participating doesn’t drive me. What I want is to evolve in my career and come to the point where I can fight for the crown one day. Certainly, it won’t be this year. We still have a lot of work to do. The objective of the team is to fight for the 4th place in the constructor’s championship, to score points in all races. On a personal level, the objective is to stand on the podium at least once. But this year, 2020, it will be difficult to rank higher than that. We mainly want to progress and be even stronger in 2021, maybe, to fight in the top 3.
In 2017, you scored 87 points in the championship (with Force India). Do you think it’s realistic to make the same score this year?
Well, that’s definitely what we want this year with Renault F1. In 2017, the team ended in 4th position in the constructor’s championship, and I finished in 8th position at the driver’s championship. And we have the same kind of results in mind for this year. This is our target.
We know that significant regulation changes will come in 2021 and that 2020 will be more of a transitional year with minor updates. What does that mean for this upcoming season?
First of all, because the regulation is close to what we had last year, all the teams will be very close, and the lower-end teams will get closer to the major teams. The mid-range battle will be intense. The gaps were tight in 2019 and will certainly be tighter in 2020. Still, the ranking we’ve seen in the past years will probably remain the same, at least for the top 3 teams (Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull).
“However, in 2021, everything can change.”
As there will be significant changes in regulation, the team that will design the best car will have the advantage in the first part of the season. So in 2021, anything could happen. This year, it will mainly be about progressing, getting closer to the top 3 teams or maintaining its position.
In this instance, 2020 could be a fascinating season for the public?
Of course! At least we’ll try our best to make 2020 a nice racing season. We’ll certainly see some great battles in our mid-range position, with multiple teams on the same level. I don’t really know how the fight will be in the front, but for us at Renault F1, it will be intense.
You’ve achieved good results in these pre-season tests. The car seems to be very good.
Indeed, but we must be careful. It certainly is pleasant to see yourself, at the end of the day, in the top 3. The pre-season tests don’t really count. Each team has a different test programme. The ranking isn’t really accurate. Teams are working discreetly, sometimes not on pure performance. We’ll only have a clear image in Australia, for the first GP.
What’s the idea, for you, with these pre-season tests?
First of all, it’s about “getting back in the game”, to dust the rust off, as I’ve been racing for a while now. But it comes back fast! But it’s also learning from Daniel Ricciardo, who has won some races, achieved some pole positions, and who has great experience. And of course, it’s the time we use to understand the car and to fix problems that could occur. But for now, I’m comfortable with the car, I’m feeling better and better each day I’m driving.