Continuing our look into 2017’s biggest talking points, we’ll now take a tour through Force India’s fantastic season in which it played host to one of the best rivalries of the year; Sergio Perez vs Esteban Ocon.
As often happens when a team has two drivers really going for it to beat each other, it pulled the team up to finish a remarkable fourth in the constructors’ championship. It was reminiscent of Sauber’s 2001 season with Heidfeld and a young Raikkonen.
Against better funded outfits like Renault, Williams, McLaren and even Toro Rosso, this is surely one of the great achievements of the 2017 season. Force India finished 104 points above the fifth-placed Williams team.
It will be extremely hard for them to stay ahead of McLaren and Renault in particular next season.
The pink-tinged VJM10 chassis was a well-designed car produced by a tight-knit team of engineers, and a hungry driver pairing of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon drove each other on to better things.
Yet, that battle had a tendency to boil over at times, leaving Force India’s management to intervene. Let’s take a look.
Sergio Perez vs Esteban Ocon
After Nico Hulkenberg’s departure to Renault left a hole in Force India’s lineup for the 2017 Formula 1 season, the Silverstone-based team filled the void with the promising Ocon, whom they had tested a few times and really liked the look of. He had completed only half a season for the struggling Manor team, but the engineers could see something really exciting and it helped that he is a Mercedes junior driver.
Perez assumed the mantle of de facto team leader, but even in Melbourne was admitting that Ocon was likely to give him a hard time.
He had no idea how hard!
Perez could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking that the 20-year-old Ocon would need time to get up to speed. However, the young Frenchman very quickly showed his aptitude behind a racing car, drawing on all of his experience from his Formula 3 and GP3 title victories to quickly develop a reputation for his smooth, consistent driving.
Impressively soon, Ocon was on Perez’s pace and followed the Mexican home at Barcelona to secure an excellent 4-5 finish for Force India. Although Monaco was rather more inauspicious, the next round at Montreal demonstrated that the battle for supremacy between the two team-mates was beginning to bubble over.
Ocon looked like he was on it from Friday practice onwards on this challenging track; in the race he believed he had a faster car than Perez ahead and asked the Force India pit wall to orchestrate a switch on-track between the two with the intent of catching Daniel Ricciardo. He was met by heavy resistance from Perez, who refused to make way.
The two were quickly caught by a recovering Sebastian Vettel, who dispatched the Force India pair quickly to put paid to any podium chances.
“The move he did wasn’t fair,” lamented Ocon after the race. “He did a very late move at a very, very high speed that could have left us out of the race.”
Arguably, Ocon got his revenge at Baku. Eager to make up positions on the lap 20 restart during a chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the Force Indias found themselves together on-track. Attempting to pass around the outside of his team-mate on the exit of turn 2, Perez found himself squeezed against the wall by Ocon, and was forced to retire with suspension damage – calling Ocon’s moves “aggressive” and “totally unacceptable”.
With the way the race panned out, there was a pathway to a victory that day had the Force India pair kept their noses clean; they were ahead of race winner Ricciardo at the point they collided on a track where their straight line speed made them competitive.
Having been read the riot act by Force India chiefs Bob Fernley and Otmar Szafnauer, the pair managed to keep it clean over the next couple of races – save for a clumsy Perez dive at the Hungaroring where he made contact with Ocon’s sidepod.
The Battle of Spa Francorchamps
It was at the Belgian Grand Prix where the conflict truly came to a head.
Battling hard on the run up to Eau Rouge on the opening lap, Ocon attempted to assume the inside line on the exit of La Source, but Perez edged his team-mate into the wall and made contact, miraculously causing neither driver any damage.
The two returned to the scene of the initial crime after half-distance to continue their battle further, Ocon once more taking the inside line. Immediately given short shrift by Perez, the Mexican chopped across Ocon who left the incident missing half a front wing, while Perez dragged his Force India back to the pits having sustained a cut tyre.
“I saw he was there,” Perez recalled. “Obviously, drivers mainly protect their line, and that’s what I did, I protect my line and there was no room for him to go anywhere.”
As a result on their on-track skirmishes, Perez and Ocon were stopped from racing each other on-track by the Force India management, the team wisely electing to protect its grasp on fourth in the constructors’ championship.
With McLaren and Renault predicted to be more of a challenge for Force India next year, the team will certainly face the sternest test of its resolve so far if it is to secure a third-successive fourth place finish in the constructors’ standings.
The pressure will be on Perez and Ocon to race cleanly with the team’s best intentions in mind.
What did you think of the Perez vs Ocon rivalry? Leave your comment in the section below