Esteban Ocon, today's Hungarian Grand Prix winner, is on his third unique Formula 1 team. None of those three teams are the one he was under contract with when he joined the Formula 1 grid as a development driver. At just 24, he has already been out of the series once and his career has been in doubt just about every other offseason since he joined the series. Now, he is a race winner for Alpine F1 with a long-term contract already in place through at least 2024. This is how Ocon saved his career.
Ocon's arrival on the world racing scene came when he won the Formula 3 Europe championship over Max Verstappen in 2014. Verstappen went straight to F1 in 2015, but Ocon was sent instead sent to GP3. He won the opening race, but he would not grab a single further win from there; his championship at that level was instead won by a string of nine runner-up finishes in a row. With his fellow 2014 Formula 3 star looking effective in F1 already, this was enough to draw the eye of Mercedes; Ocon was called up to the DTM for 2016 to hold him before Mercedes found him an opportunity with Manor Racing in their final season. He joined Pascal Wehrlein as a Mercedes-affiliated driver waiting in the wings.
When Manor folded, Mercedes moved their now-prized prospect up to Force India. He put together a sensational eighth-place finish in the standings in that first season, just 13 points behind veteran teammate Sergio Perez. Better still, both fellow Mercedes prospect Pascal Wehrlein and new Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas failed to impress in their assignments for that season, making a promotion to the senior team in the near future a real possibility for Ocon. But 2018 brought stagnation, another respectable season for Ocon while Perez improved and Bottas did what he needed to do in the second driver role at Mercedes. No promotion was coming for Ocon.
Worse, his Force India team had been purchased mid-season by Lawrence Stroll, father of then-Williams driver Lance Stroll. The young Stroll was to replace one of the two drivers at the existing team, and Mercedes affiliation was not enough to save Ocon from losing that head-to-head challenge to the team's experienced senior driver in Perez.
Esteban Ocon spent 2019 out of the sport, held as a test driver by Mercedes while new Williams driver George Russell replaced him as the team's most promising prospect to replace Bottas.
He got back on the grid last season, but his hopes of joining Mercedes were already lost to time. The team had a chance to make the change before 2020, but they elected to keep Bottas and wait for Russell to develop as their driver of the future. That left him as the surprise replacement for Nico Hulkenberg at Renault, where he struggled to 12th in a season where teammate Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth in the standings. Ricciardo left for McLaren, Fernando Alonso came in the door, and it looked like Ocon was to be little more than the second driver to a 40 year old Fernando Alonso at the newly-rebranded Alpine program this season.
But his performance next to Alonso has been surprising all year. The veteran Alonso has had as many strong weekends as the younger Ocon, but both have consistently put in strong performances for a team with mid-level expectations and both have proved they can stay at the team long-term. Alpine had seen enough to sign Ocon to a serious extension earlier this month, a contract through 2024 that gives him job security at one team past the next season for the first time in his young career. Two weeks later, Ocon rewarded their confidence.
With some help from chaos at the start and a few key Alonso blocks further back in the field, Esteban Ocon became a Formula 1 winner at the Hungaroring earlier this morning. While Alpine's car still seems a step behind the top four teams in the series, Ocon has made it a winner. Next year, a new rule set is expected to shake up the balance of the grid. If Alpine makes a leap, he could make them winners many more times over the three remaining years on his deal. No matter what happens, though, his career is safe; Esteban Ocon has finally proven that he is a Formula 1 driver, not just a prospect.
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