An F1 career did not come easily to Esteban Ocon, who has been bouncing around the outskirts of either getting or missing an F1 seat nearly every offseason since 2014. But 2021 was a turning point on track, one that led Alpine to respond with a long-term contract extension that gives him job security through 2024. It is the first real job security of his career.
This is the eighth installment of our driver-by-driver preview of the 2022 Formula 1 season. This weekend, we will be covering Alpine. You can find the rest of our previews here.
The contract was signed in June. A month and a half later, he reinforced Alpine's vote of confidence with his first career win. For at least the next two years, Ocon is the future of Alpine.
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. That was the year he finally secured his F1 future long term.
HOW 2021 WENT
Despite Alpine losing its week-to-week shot at midpack competitors at Ferrari and McLaren, Ocon returned to consistent point-scoring form in a season where he scored points in 14 of 22 races. It was not enough to beat teammate Fernando Alonso, but it was enough to prove he belonged in F1 and earn Alpine's long-term commitment to his career.
Most importantly, though, he capitalized on chaos in Hungary. With Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton both caught up in drama, Ocon was able to grab his first career lead. Alonso provided solid blocking, Ocon pushed hard on a clean track, and, by the time Hamilton was back within range of fighting the leading Alpine, he had no tire to fight for the win. Ocon became a race winner, joining Sergio Perez and Pierre Gasly as a surprise new winner in the past two years.
GOALS FOR 2022
Ocon may win again soon, but any expectations that Alpine to be a team capable of battling for wins in 2022 might be misplaced. Even with a new budget cap that benefits mid-pack teams that were already spending at around the budget cap number annually and a new downforce concept that will require every team on the grid to design significantly different cars from 2020 and 2021, Alpine is more likely to move up the mid-pack than move to the front of it. So, like every driver on the grid but those at Ferrari, Red Bull, and Mercedes, Ocon's sights need to be set on improvement within the group he'll be racing against.
Ocon and teammate Fernando Alonso were both consistent point-scorers for Alpine, but the gap between Ocon and Alonso in races was notable. While Ocon took the highest honor of Alpine's season, the gap in other races was enough that Alonso actually beat Ocon in the series standings despite Ocon's race win accounting for just over a third of his points on the season. Ocon actually had a narrow lead in head-to-head qualifying, but he'll need to match Alonso's race pace if he hopes to lead the Alpine team in 2022.
A SUCCESSFUL SEASON LOOKS LIKE...
Despite a few sensational races, Ocon has just two career podiums. In 2022, his best chance to show serious growth is to turn consistency with great peaks into consistent greatness. That means fighting for podiums more often in a middling car. If he can take two or three in 2022 while Red Bull and Mercedes stay at the front of the grid, he could reach as high as fourth or fifth in the 2022 championship standings.
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