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OPINION: Mercedes’ young driver programme is squashing the potential of future stars

3 Mins read
Esteben Ocon - Mercedes
Credit: Daimler AG.

Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport are at risk of damaging the careers of their most talented young drivers, with Esteban Ocon at risk from being dumped from Formula One.

The Frenchman looks likely to see his role reduced to that of a reserve driver for 2019 after failing to secure a race seat.

Ocon was dubbed a ‘future Mercedes World Champion’ by his boss Toto Wolff earlier this season when rumours of the 22-year-old’s struggle to land a drive for next season began to surface in the media.

Lance Stroll’s father, Lawrence’s financial takeover of Racing Point Force India has potentially handed his son a promotion to the Silverstone based team, showing Ocon the door.

Next season Scuderia Ferrari will have their very own Charles Leclerc on the grid in Melbourne. McLaren F1 Team will have Lando Norris. Aston Martin Red Bull Racing will go one better with both Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly. However, Mercedes are still yet to see a single talented youngster of their own race in one of their cars.

The purpose of a young driver programme is, like any other sporting academy, to nurture the most talented youngsters through their transition into becoming professionals.

Esteban Ocon during a two day test at Silverstone. Credit: Daimler Media

Twice in the last five years Mercedes have found themselves, through no fortune, with two of the most talented youngsters on the grid.

First, Pascal Wehrlein, a talented German with the ability to turn a slow Sauber and an uncompetitive Manor into a points finishing car. Something that neither Marcus Ericsson, Antonio Giovinazzi nor even Ocon could ever do.

Wehrlein’s stock was rising only second to race winning teenager Verstappen’s by the end of 2016, when the then 21-year-old would have heard the news that reigning World Champion and fellow Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg was to retire.

Despite winning 19 out of the 21 races that season, Mercedes had a turbulent year. Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton came together in Barcelona sparking sensationalism from the world’s media after the pair pushed each other to a pointless Spanish Grand Prix.

Then there was Abu Dhabi. Hamilton’s refusal to obey team orders from the most powerful men at Mercedes as he tried to back up his teammate into throwing away the title left more than a bad taste in Toto’s mouth.

The team were still hungry for success, but sick to the stomach of an inter-team rivalry that could, and probably would, have robbed them of both world titles if their competition was stronger. See McLaren’s 2007 season for fine example of that.

Mercedes had plenty of CV’s to flick through as they began the selection progress for Nico’s replacement. But it was soon clear to see that they were wanting a man content with playing second fiddle.

Pascal Wehrlein. Credit: Daimler Media

The team were left with just two real options. Either promote their own protégé, Wehrlein, or sign the calm and collected Williams star, Valteri Bottas. The latter of the two will start his third season as Hamilton’s teammate in March.

Wehrlein was forced to settle for a seat racing a contender for the slowest car on the grid, Sauber, finishing twice in the points and ahead of his teammate in eleven of the 18 races he started for the Swiss team.

Nevertheless, by the end of that season Ocon, once a tier below Wehrlein in the academy, had finished 18 races in the points behind the wheel of a stronger Force India, and with Sauber’s engine supplier, Ferrari, desperate to elevate Charles Leclerc’s career as quickly as possible – Wehrlein was out for good.

Bottas may have been forced to surrender race victories this season to help Hamilton’s charge for a fifth world title, but the Finn is still yet to win in 2018 and has been handed a contract extension.

Now with Formula 2 champion George Russell’s arrival into Formula One with Williams Martini Racing, Ocon must be feeling nervous that history could repeat itself.

Ocon has been immense during his short time in the sport. But if Russell demonstrates even half the ability that Leclerc has during his rookie season, then the young Brit’s CV could be the most attractive to lands on Toto’s desk when either Bottas or Hamilton depart – and with that Ocon would join Wehrlein in what could become a growing scrapyard of Mercedes young drivers.

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