Heading into this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Esteban Ocon has said he is hoping to finish the season “on a high”, with his future beyond the floodlights of Yas Marina currently uncertain.
“It’s always a bittersweet feeling when you get to the end of the season,” he said, “but the main motivation is to finish on a high, especially when there is so much at stake in the championship. The last couple of races have been very disappointing, but there’s still one last chance to score a good result before the end of the year.”
Force India currently lie seventh in the constructors’ championship on 48 points, sandwiched between McLaren and Sauber. They, of course, had to start from scratch at the Belgian Grand Prix following their buy-out and rebranding over the summer break. Their fight-back has been rather remarkable, ignoring the coming together between Ocon and team-mate Sergio Perez on the first lap in Singapore.
Heading into Abu Dhabi, tens of millions of dollars worth of prize money is at stake for the team, and Ocon is keen to deliver.
“Abu Dhabi is always good fun. We travel there when it’s getting cold in Europe so it feels a bit like you’re going on holiday. It’s a wonderful paddock too – one of the best – and I always feel very relaxed there.
“I have a lot of good memories from Abu Dhabi: it’s the place where I first drove during a Formula One weekend and I was crowned GP3 champion there. The start of that race in 2015 was incredible – I knew I had to take the title right there on lap one and I did it.”
Ocon knew that his future at Force India was in doubt even before the summer break when, as mentioned, a consortium led by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll bought out the team, making it more than likely that son Lance would make the jump from Williams for 2019. Ocon’s fate at Force India was then sealed when Sergio Perez renewed his contract with his team, leaving the Frenchman out in the cold. For a long while Ocon had been linked to the second seat at Williams alongside fellow Mercedes junior George Russell, however it was announced this morning that Robert Kubica had been signed instead.
Ocon has since been linked to a role with Mercedes as simulator and reserve driver, with some suggesting that he is being primed to be brought in as a Mercedes race driver in 2020.
For now and for one last race, though, Ocon’s allegiances lie with Force India, and he is hoping the partnership ends on a high under the lights of Abu Dhabi.
The title has been decided, but that doesn’t mean the season is over just yet. The 20th round of 2018 was ready to bring some spectacle, with the Brazilian Grand Prix at the Autódromo José Carlos Pace.
Once again qualifying took place under difficult circumstances. Interlagos is (in)famous for its unpredictable weather conditions, and this year was no exception. This resulted in Lewis Hamilton taking Mercedes’ 100th pole position and his luck didn’t stop there. Sebastian Vettel secured second place, although both drivers were at risk of losing their positions. Hamilton seemed like he wasn’t awake at times as he blocked Sergey Sirotkin during his outlap and hindered Kimi Räikkönen on his flying lap, but it didn’t end up in a penalty, a strange decision by the FIA.
Vettel’s incident was even stranger. Vettel was called in for inspection and had to go onto the weigh bridge. In his haste, he drove onto the weigh bridge itself, and drove off it with his engine turned on, therefore destroying the weigh bridge. This resulted in a reprimand and a $25,000 fine.
Honourable mention goes to Charles Leclerc. During Q2 he was out of the top 10. Reporting to his team that it was raining too heavily, he put in a superb lap which saw him continue to Q3. There Sauber surprisingly locked the fourth row, but Daniel Ricciardo would drop five places due to a grid penalty.
On race day it seemed like it would stay dry but there was still a threat of a potential thunderstorm. Vettel locked his brakes into turn one, giving Valtteri Bottas second place immediately. Meanwhile, both Renault drivers were battling each other, they even had a slight touch but survived.
In lap four it was a very bold move from Max Verstappen who dive-bombed Vettel, giving him third place. However, the Ferrari’s were on the soft tyres while the other two top teams were on the supersofts. Ricciardo quickly found his way back to the top six and was now charging the slower Ferrari’s ahead. His teammate took second place though, overtaking Bottas into the first corner. The Finn was really struggling, with Räikkönen, Vettel and Ricciardo knocking on his door.
Lap 16 saw the first pit stop, Fernando Alonso came in but his rear right tyre wasn’t fitted correctly. Quick reactions by the Spaniard meant that pit crew could still fix it. Bottas came in for his pit stop in lap nineteen, meaning that the Ferrari’s now had free air to continue on their softs. One lap later Hamilton came in, also opting for the medium tyres.
Marcus Ericsson, who had a great starting position, spun at high speed and returned to the pits. Not for a regular pit stop, but a retirement – the first of the race. A few laps later though Vettel overtook his teammate for sixth, but it didn’t last long as they were surprisingly told to switch places.
Disaster struck for Verstappen as Esteban Ocon tried to overtake the Red Bull, but took the inside and touched Verstappen. He spun, but could continue the race (after he showed the Frenchman the middle finger of course). Eventually the stewards decided that Ocon caused the collision, handing him a stop/go penalty for crashing into the race leader.
Ricciardo and Vettel had locked horns but the Australian wouldn’t give up that easily and kept his fifth place. A few laps later Ricciardo passed Bottas for fourth place. With 17 laps to go, Vettel took his second pit stop and opted for the supersofts. This dropped him back to seventh place behind his future teammate Leclerc.
However, it would be the victory for the 2018 World Champion. Mercedes, after winning the Drivers’ Championship with Hamilton, now also have the 2018 Constructors Championship. Verstappen took second place (arguably he should have placed higher) and Räikkönen completed the podium, keeping Ricciardo at bay.
Verstappen, responding to Horner’s disbelieve: “Yeah I know what to say, I really hope I won’t see him in the pits…” with a lot of censoring needed. And as it would have it, the two did meet with Verstappen pushing Ocon three times in a widely broadcast standoff.
After some drama, it is time to look towards the last race of the season. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix could result in some drivers taking big risks for the win. It will be Alonso’s final race in F1; he’ll be hoping to step away from F1 with a good result. In short, it should be a good one.
With their spirits high on the back of their impressive form in the last few races, Racing Point Force India looked as though they would continue their success this weekend in Singapore. When Perez and Ocon ran well in practice, and clocked impressive times in Saturday’s qualifying session, who could have known that the weekend would end as it did?
As the lights went out, it appeared – briefly – as though we might have an opening lap unusually free of incident. Unfortunately, a battle between the two Force India drivers soon put paid to that idea. You’ve no doubt seen the replays from every which angle by now but whether, as the stewards determined, you feel the collision that unfolded was a racing incident, or whether you feel there is blame to be placed (presumably on Perez), it was an incident that I think we can all agree should not have happened.
My own opinion is that while Ocon might have been a little plucky, there was no excuse for Perez not to have left him a bit more room. However, I also think there’s little point in dissecting the incident. It happened, it shouldn’t have happened, and that’s all that really matters.
The incident left a despondent Ocon in the wall and out of the race, although what appeared to be one of his wheel rims continued on without its owner, finding a temporary new home on the front wing of Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams. Perez, meanwhile, escaped unscathed, running in seventh position until his pit stop.
The second moment of the race that Perez will surely rue came when he had been following Sirotkin (now sans extra wheel rim) for over ten laps. Clearly growing frustrated, Perez had taken to bizarre radio shout-outs to Charlie Whiting asking him to do something about the Russian driver who, for anyone watching, seemed to be defending hard but driving fairly. While Sirotkin was later involved in a questionable move with Brendon Hartley, which rightly earned him a penalty, there was little evidence that he’d acted unreasonably towards Perez.
Just as it seemed that Perez had finally managed to clear the Williams, he inexplicably turned left, spearing straight into his rival. In this second disastrous incident for Perez, it was near impossible to view it as anything other than wholly his fault. He finally finished the race in 16th, after serving a drive-through penalty for the collision, and will surely leave Singapore with a great deal to think about before the next race.
Unfortunately, the events of this weekend’s race mean that Force India will have more to think about than their position in the standings. Instead, managing their drivers and minimising tensions between them will likely be a focus within the team. Despite not being unfamiliar with these sorts of problems between their drivers last season, until now it had seemed that such issues had been left behind in 2017.
But now, with their drivers once again not trusted to race each other, how will this impact their chances against not just each other, but the other teams? Only time will tell whether this new, undesirable twist in the tale of Racing Point Force India will continue to boil over, or whether they will be able to put it behind them for the good of the team.
Racing Point Force India’s recently-promoted team principal Otmar Szafnauer has said he is keen for the team to keep things moving forward after their tumultuous summer break and the impressive performance from their two drivers at the Belgian Grand Prix.
“The last few weeks have been a period of transition for the team, but with the support of the Commercial Rights Holder, the FIA, and our fellow competitors we returned to competition in Spa,” Szafnauer said. “Getting some points on the board was the priority and to come away with fifth and six places was a wonderful reward for the entire team.”
The Silverstone-based team was put into administration over the summer break but, after a period of uncertainty, was saved by a consortium led by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll, father of Williams’ Lance Stroll. The buy-out saw Force India forfeit all of the constructors’ championship points they had accumulated over the first half of the season and effectively enter the Belgian Grand Prix as a new team, rebranded as Racing Point Force India.
Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez started the race at Spa P3 and P4 after a rain-affected qualifying, and on the first lap there was a moment going into Les Combes where it looked like Ocon might have challenged Hamilton and Vettel for the lead. The Frenchman eventually finished the race in sixth, with Perez one position ahead of him in fifth, vaulting Force India ahead of Williams in the constructors’ championship and leaving them just one point behind Sauber already.
“The new ownership gives us a welcome injection of stability and investment,” Szafnauer added. “We retain a wonderful group of people working back at base and trackside, and with the off-track distractions now behind us we can concentrate on doing what we do best – building cars and going racing. Our performance level in Spa was a real credit to the entire team. The sight of Esteban and Sergio challenging for the lead on lap one is an image that we will cherish.
“We head to Monza determined to deliver more points. We need to keep up the momentum from Spa. Monza is all about top speed and stability on the brakes, and I think it will play to our strengths. Looking further ahead, we have more performance to introduce to the car over the next few events, hopefully starting from Singapore.”
Featured image – Esteban Ocon (FRA) Racing Point Force India F1 VJM11.
Belgian Grand Prix, Saturday 25th August 2018. Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium.
Looking at the results, you wouldn’t have thought much happened during the British Grand Prix, but some action at the start and a couple of safety car periods spiced the race up. The final race of the triple-header in Europe saw Sebastian Vettel take the win.
Sebastian Vettel – 9
There were pre-race doubts about Vettel’s fitness – he had tape put on his neck after FP3 – but the adrenaline kicked in and his start was beautiful, waving concerns away. All the action happened behind him. The safety cars late on in the race put him behind on the track but a great dive-bomb up the inside of Bottas sealed the win. Great victory as we head towards Germany next!
Lewis Hamilton – 9
The Brit got a tardy start which he would come to regret, even if he ended the race in a position where he lost minimal amounts of points. There were some very interesting comments from him afterwards suggesting that tactics from Ferrari were what resulted in him being taken out, bringing back memories of Mexico 2017. Hamilton was the last car on track at the end of lap one, but like a knife through butter he carved his way through the field. A disappointing start, but if you look from lap two onwards it was a great race for him.
Kimi Raikkonen – 7
Raikkonen has finished on the podium at the last three races, but never on the top step. The Finn owned up to his coming-together with Hamilton, saying the incident at turn three was his fault and accepting the penalty handed to him. Team-mate Vettel stormed off into the distance, while Raikkonen couldn’t quite match Hamilton near the end of the race.
Valtteri Bottas – 8
The Mercedes team threw away the lead again today, deciding to keep Bottas out after the second safety car. Before that he was faster than Vettel, so on a level playing field Bottas could have beaten the German and taken the flag first. Much like in China and Baku, strategy from his team may have cost him the victory once again, even if it may have been tougher in Silverstone to remain in the lead. A great start made amends for a poor qualifying on Saturday, but he is clearly still playing second fiddle to Hamilton.
Daniel Ricciardo – 7
Silverstone turned out to be a track which highlighted the frailties of the Red Bull package. Roughly 80% of the track is spent at full throttle, and power isn’t exactly Red Bull’s strong point. Ricciardo was out qualified once again by Verstappen, with a DRS issue hampering his performance. He was great at defending against Raikkonen during the race but unfortunately the safety car came out at the wrong time for him, as he had already made a pit-stop two laps beforehand. The lack of speed along the straights prevented him from passing Bottas in the closing laps of the race.
Nico Hulkenburg – 8
Best of the rest and great haul of points for the German. Renault were the only team to use the hard tyre during the race, having worried about blistering on the other compounds, and the tactic worked brilliantly. Hulkenberg did supremely well to keep the pack behind him at the two safety car restarts.
Esteban Ocon – 7
Ocon is showing his worth a lot more this season compared to last, and provided a great result at for Force India at what is essentially the team’s home race, given that their factory is literally just over the road. Ocon made it through to the final part of qualifying, and kept the car in the top ten on Sunday.
Fernando Alonso – 8
Alonso’s McLaren may lack pace on a Saturday but on a Sunday, in the hands of the Spaniard, it is one of the best in the midfield. He took advantage of the safety cars to pit for some fresh rubber, allowing him to get past Kevin Magnussen at the end. He may appear calm on the outside, but it isn’t hard to imagine that deep down all is still not well with the relationship between himself and McLaren.
Kevin Magnussen – 7
Hampered by the first lap accident with his team-mate, Magnussen did well to score points considering the clash inflicted some damage to his car, which restricted his speed. He was one of few drivers not to pit under the safety car which pushed him down the order late on, but he managed to hold on to salvage some points.
Sergio Perez – 6
Much like Hamilton, Perez saw the field drive past him after contact on the first lap spun him at turn one. He recovered well and found himself in contention for the last point, which was ultimately claimed by Pierre Gasly Chafter a collision between the two near the end of the race. After the race, though, Gasly was awarded a five-second penalty for the incident, meaning Perez inherited P10 and the one point that comes with it.
Stoffel Vandoorne – 4
It was a quiet weekend in general for Vandoorne. He was a whopping 0.9 seconds slower than Alonso on Saturday, and with others making the decision to start the race from the pit-lane it meant he was the last on the grid. He finished the race in 12th, meaning he now hasn’t scored since Baku. Lando Norris in currently second in Formula 2 and is hotly tipped for a drive in F1 next year. It could well be this seat that he takes.
Lance Stroll – 5
Williams are currently the worst car on the grid, and unfortunately nothing put that more on show than Sunday’s race. Prior to the first safety car they were the only team to have been lapped, and Stroll made a mistake in qualifying which ended up his car being beached in the gravel.
Pierre Gasly – 7
Gasly had a good Sunday and initially finished tenth, a welcome result given that Toro Rosso been having a tough time of it recently. The Frenchman collided with Perez with a few laps to go, and a harsh time penalty given to him after the race pushed him down the field. Silverstone was a track which showed Honda’s deficit to the other manufacturers, but there are still promising signs and it was a far better day for Gasly than the results suggested.
Sergey Sirotkin – 5
Sirotkin, along with his team-mate, started the race from the pits after taking on new parts. Like Stroll, Sirotkin also made a mistake in qualifying, but managed to keep the car going and set a lap, albeit one that turned out to be the slowest of the session. Seeing the Williams team run plum last is such a shame to see.
Max Verstappen – 7
Verstappen may have been classified as a finisher, but a brake-by-wire issue ended his day late into the race. Ever-hungry, he was running in a solid podium position, but with the deficit of his Renault power-unit he was a sitting duck at the restarts. His defending to Raikkonen was brilliant.
Carlos Sainz – 5
A poor performance for Sainz both on Saturday and Sunday. A less-than-par qualifying session put him in the thick of the action, and he collided with Romain Grosjean. A weekend to forget for the Spaniard.
Romain Grosjean – 5
Will Austria be seen as a peak in Grosjean’s season? Three collisions in one weekend isn’t good enough. The first occurred in practice, with the second being the cardinal sin of hitting his team mate on the first lap. The third, a tangling with Sainz at Copse, ended his race. Grosjean should have lifted off the throttle, but he kept his foot buried, causing instability and ultimately the collision.
Marcus Ericcson – 6
Ericsson’s DRS didn’t close as he approached turn one during the race and he crashed heavily, bringing out the first safety car. The crash rounded out an unfortunate weekend for the Swede, after England took his country out of the World Cup the day before. He did, however, have great pace during qualifying and got through to Q2.
Charles Leclerc – 8
An unfortunate error in the pits for Sauber resulted in Leclerc’s rear tyre not being fitted properly and the team telling him to stop the car. He had made another Q3 appearance on Saturday and had been running seventh at the time of the error, which meant the loss of a potentially big haul of points.
Brendan Hartley – N/A
You can’t really comment on what a horrible weekend the Kiwi has had. The suspension failure on Saturday pretty much ended his weekend. He didn’t see any track action in qualifying, and a last minute problem starting from the pit lane resulted in retirement after one lap. None of it whatsoever was his fault.
There is now a two-week break before we head to Hockenheim in Germany, a track that we see appear every so often on the calendar. Vettel won on Hamilton’s home turf this weekend, but can Hamilton strike back with victory in Germany? Vettel hasn’t got a record like Hamilton at his home track, and has only won in Germany once in his Red Bull days. The summer break looms and, for drivers such as Grosjean and Vandoorne, the pressure increases.