As part of his prize for last weekend claiming the FIA Formula 3 European title in his rookie season, Esteban Ocon will next week test a two-year old Lotus F1 Team E20 at Valencia’s Ricardo Tormer circuit.
It remains to be seen, however, whether it will the next step in his progress with the Lotus Junior Team or a swansong ahead of the highly-regarded French teenager becoming a Mercedes’ development driver.
Eighteen-year-old Ocon, from Normandy, is one of junior motorsport’s hottest properties, having beaten 2015 Toro Rosso wunderkind Max Verstappen to the F3 title at the season’s penultimate round in Imola last weekend. Having amassed 454 championship points, compared to Verstappen’s 368, Ocon can no longer be caught in the three remaining races to be contested during the final weekend of the 2014 season at Hockenheim this coming weekend.
In taking the title in his rookie year, Ocon amassed nine wins, 15 pole positions and seven fastest race laps. In the 30 races contested to date, he has made 21 podium appearances.
Performances such as those, at the wheel of Prema Powerteam’s Merecedes-engined F3 car, brought Ocon to the attention of Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, who is reported to want the French teenager for the company’s driver development programme. Mercedes recently announced 19-year-old rising DTM star Pascal Wehrlein as reserve driver for the F1 team and Wolff is apparently keen to add Ocon to the team’s stable of drivers.
Ocon, however, has long been looked after by Gravity Sport Management, the firm owned by Lotus Chairman Gerard Lopez and which was overseen by Eric Boullier, who first spotted the youngster’s talent. It remains to be seen how Gravity will now try to position the new F3 champion.
With Lotus last week announcing that it will race with Mercedes power from 2015 onwards, the natural progression may be for Ocon to become a development driver at Lotus-Mercedes next year, possibly in a reserve driver role. The question is though, whether that would be under the auspices of Gravity or with Wolff and Mercedes.
“Esteban is a tremendous talent for the future,” said Lopez of Ocon’s recent achievements. “He has shown himself to be a superb driver as part of our Lotus F1 Team Junior programme, we are proud of him and he truly deserves to be given every opportunity to take his career to the next level.”
Speaking of Ocon’s F3 triumph last weekend, Toto Wolff said: “Esteban has performed exceptionally well in his first season in this series and has deservedly clinched the European title ahead of time. The junior development programme has been one of our priorities here at Mercedes for many years now – from the early days of Michael Schumacher through to Lewis Hamilton and most recently Pascal Wehrlein. Having recorded his maiden DTM win and having been named as reserve driver for our Formula One team, Pascal has demonstrated that it really pays to work hard in Formula 3. This is where numerous drivers have laid the foundations of a successful future career.”
Whoever Ocon eventually partners with for the long terms what is clear is that, like Verstappen, the teenager is not short of suitors and his rapid rise once again points to the strength of championships beyond GP2, GP3 and Formula Renault 3.5, which recent years have been seen as the proving grounds for putative F1 stars of the future. It also emphasises that F1 teams are sourcing their driving talent at a younger age than in the past.