Before the start of the 2014 FIA European Formula 3 Championship, all eyes were on Ferrari protégé Antonio Fuoco, Dutch rookie Max Verstappen and 2013 runner-up Felix Rosenqvist, but another driver has shown them all the way this season – Esteban Ocon.
Driving with the colours of the Lotus F1 Team as part of their young driver programme, the Frenchman has so far dominated the Euro F3 season, winning five races and finishing on the podium six other times. He is currently also on a run of six consecutive pole positions in the series, and nine consecutive appearances on the podium.
Ocon progressed to European Formula 3 having competed for the ART Junior Team in the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 series in 2013 that heralded two race wins and three additional podium finishes on route to third place in the championship behind current Formula Renault 3.5 Series drivers Pierre Gasly and Oliver Rowland. All this happened after being inducted into the Lotus F1 Junior Team at the beginning of the season.
“Lotus F1 Junior Team takes our previous i-Race Professional young driver academy and builds on it to be more closely aligned with the Formula 1 team and all the benefits brought by this association,” said then Lotus Team Principal Eric Boullier at the time. “We have announced seven highly talented drivers, many of whom will be competing against their fellow team-mates from the programme. “We’re offering an in-depth and highly beneficial training regime, which should encourage these drivers to develop and perform at their very best. Motorsport can be daunting for young drivers, particularly everything that occurs away from the track, so we hope to give our drivers the very best preparation possible for their future careers.”
The next stage for Ocon was to progress into European Formula 3 in 2014, and to prepare himself he participated in the 2013 season-closing Macau Grand Prix for Prema Powerteam, and finished the race in tenth position. It was enough for Prema to sign Ocon to one of their seats for 2014, and Team Principal Rene Rosin had no doubts choosing Ocon was the right choice.
“When we evaluated new, young drivers to add to our team for the 2014 season, we had no doubts on Ocon, as he has proved his talent throughout his developmental path,” said Rosin to Autosport in January.
“This impression was corroborated by the Macau weekend, when he progressively improved his pace and made it to the top 10 on one of the world’s toughest street courses. I definitely think that Ocon will be a frontrunner in the European F3 series.”
On the announcement of his deal with Prema, Ocon was delighted to be bringing the Lotus colours to the series and the Frenchman was hopeful of following Raffaele Marciello and Daniel Juncadella to the European Formula 3 Championship title, both of whom won it with the team.
“I’m very happy and proud to have been chosen by Prema Powerteam for the 2014 campaign,” said Ocon. “After Macau and the winter tests, I feel ready to deliver and carry the Prema and Lotus F1 Junior Team colours to the top.”
His debut at the World Endurance Championship supporting Silverstone weekend could not have gone much better for Ocon. A second place in race one was followed by a win in race two and a third place in race three, plus the Frenchman took pole position for races two and three.
“I was a bit disappointed with my start in race one, but I took a good one this race,” said the Frenchman after his maiden win. “It was all about keeping the tyres, more or less, keeping consistency and bringing the car home to victory.”
Another win followed the following round at Hockenheim, and a further win was taken on the streets of Pau. It was not without controversy around the streets in France however, with two of his main rivals criticising Ocon for failing to leave enough room. Both Felix Rosenqvist and Max Verstappen crashed out of the race while challenging Ocon for the lead.
“I was up on him as we went up the hill, and he was all the way to the left and then braked super-early,” said Rosenqvist after the second race in Pau. “I braked earlier than the lap before, went for the right and when I had my left-front to his right-rear he moved to the right and gave me no more space.”
“I was already next to his front wing and tyres,” said Verstappen after the third race of the weekend. “The rules say you must leave a car width of space, but he just turned into me.”
Stewards looked at both incidents and deemed them to be genuine racing accidents, but Ocon did not let the controversy affect him as he moved onto the Hungaroring. Three pole positions and two wins saw him extend his championship lead to a mammoth 82 points over closest rival Tom Blomqvist.
“It has been a good weekend for me,” said Ocon after his second win in Hungary. “I was among the front runners in every session and I consistently scored valuable points. Nevertheless, there still are things I need to improve, for instance the start. In this race, my start was okay, but I had to watch out for Felix Rosenqvist, especially in the opening stages.”
Esteban Ocon as a race car driver is most definitely work in progress, but the Frenchman has made an outstanding start to his career. He has the backing of a Formula One team in his pocket, and is leading a very competitive European Formula 3 Championship field, and comfortably.
Expect to hear the name Esteban Ocon a lot in the next couple of years. France’s renaissance in motorsport continues, and Ocon is one of the countries very best young drivers.