With Nico Hulkenberg’s move to Renault this season, we saw the first change in the Force India line up in three years with GP3 champion Esteban Ocon joining the team. Spending the last part of 2016 racing with Manor, he’s not a Formula 1 rookie but it was always going to be a kettle of fish to see how he fared in a mid-field team. Many – myself included – were excited to see how things would go.
We got more than we bargained for. As did, I suspect, both teammate Sergio Perez and Force India themselves.
First of all, it’s clear that Ocon is fast. He’s also aggressive like a lot of the younger generation coming into F1 are. I put part of that down to the fact that there is more pressure to make an impression these days. To show everyone ‘this is what I can do’ because rotation of drivers happens more and more. Too many drivers, not enough seats etc. In qualifying, he is often within a couple of tenths of Perez which, more often than not, results in them starting very close together. Which has proven an issue.
On more than one occasion (Hungary & Belgium) there has been contact between them at the start. Incidents like these can be par for the course at race starts, with so many people trying to get into Turn 1 ahead of those around them. But it’s always going to raise alarms when it’s teammates making contact. The incident in Belgium was untidy and optimistic from Ocon’s perspective but it was a racing incident. Three wide is never going to work and Ocon was very lucky to get away with it practically unscathed.
Taps like these can be forgiven, I think. The problem they have is with the other incidents.
We began to see the first signs of dissent back in Canada. After getting a nudge from Verstappen at the start of the race, Sebastian Vettel was out of position for much of the race and began making a charge for the front in the final stages. The Force Indias were looking at a potential podium and a good haul of points if they could just get past Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull. Ocon, who was running behind his teammate in 5th, came over the radio to ask the team to let him have a go at chasing down Ricciardo since he was on fresher tyres and therefore quicker. Perez wouldn’t listen. “Let us race, man,” was his response as he continued not to make any inroads on Ricciardo and Vettel was catching them lap by lap.
As it was, they ended up P5 & P6. Would Ocon have been able to pass Ricciardo? Impossible to say. But he certainly had a better chance at it than his teammate. And as a mid-field team, they should be focusing on what’s best for the team since championship money can make or break these teams. There’s a definite possibility that Perez cost the team points (if not a podium) by refusing to let his younger teammate by. I expect this was the first real sign for Ocon that he might have to force the issue in the future.
Things came to a head at the following race in Baku. On Lap 20, when racing resumed after a safety car period, both Force Indias were in P4 & P5 with Perez ahead. They were in a good position (a podium position, since Massa’s car was about to fail out of third place) and were, once again, looking at good points. Only for Ocon to make a very ambitious move to overtake his teammate, shunting him into one of the walls. Both of them managed to keep going but not without damage to both of their cars and leaving debris strewn across the track (which ended up being Kimi Raikkonen’s undoing).
Perez was forced to retire on Lap 39 while Ocon still managed to scrape 8 points for 6th place. But there was clearly a problem here, now. The move was reckless, perhaps something you’d try on another car but certainly not a teammate. Perez was unimpressed and made his feelings known. But I suspect it wouldn’t have happened had Perez not ignored team orders in Canada. I think Ocon is aware that he isn’t considered to be on level terms with Perez, despite performances that would argue the case, and so he feels the need to force the issue. Unfortunately, it is compromising the team.
It came to another head this past weekend in Spa.
On Lap 28, Ocon made a move on Perez at La Source and, despite seeing him approach, Perez pulled across to cover him, forcing him into the wall breaking Ocon’s front wing which in turn left Perez with a puncture.
Ocon was unimpressed, cursing him out over the radio while Perez did an entire lap round the longest track of the year with no tyre, instead of just pulling off to the side and retiring the car which would have been safer. It didn’t look like the behaviour of someone who has been in F1 for nearly 7 years. It looked like the bahviour of someone who is being destabilised and isn’t at all happy about it.
Perez ended up having to retire and Ocon scraped back a 9th place for 2 more points. Both were accusatory in the post-race media pen and Ocon also tweeted his criticism, the bitterness still clear several hours later.
And therein lies the big problem. The tension. I think it’s gone too far for them to be able to resolve it between themselves. They may publicly say that everything is fine but I think the resentment is too set now. A couple of bumps can be dismissed. Race damaging contact is a no-go.
To prevent this from becoming a bit of a hydra and coming to yet another head. The Force India team bosses have been forced to intervene. They’ve now said that the two teammates are not going to be allowed to race in the future and may even be benched for a race should another incident between them occur.
And I can see where they’re coming from. Their hands are tied. They’re looking good for fourth in the championship but they don’t have a good enough margin to get complacent. They can’t risk stupid accidents losing them points in any more races this season.
But from a fan perspective? It’s really unfortunate. We want to see this kind of thing on track. We want zesty altercations and those “OH MY GOD” moments that shake things up during a race. The Force India guys have been one of the most interesting stories for me this season and it will be a shame if it is forced into stagnation. Instead of threatening discipline, I think maybe they should try and rebuild the trust within the team. Clearly neither of them trust the other to do as instructed. Perez likely feels like his position as lead driver is being challenged while Ocon feels like his talent is trying to be curbed. Both are legitimate. Neither should have led to this situation.
I think the real question is going to be: is it too late? Assuming there are no more altercations between the two of them, will things still be too volatile to sustain another year together? Will there be much option? With the possibility of Palmer losing his seat at Renault, there’s a potential for movement amongst the grid. Ocon could go to Renault with Wehrlein replacing him at Force India which would then open up a space at Sauber for the likely Ferrari-bound Charles LeClerc. But Wehrlein is also renowned for being a fiesty individual so who’s to say they’d have an easy time with that set-up?
Ultimately, I think they are better off trying to resolve the resentment they are feeling towards each other, instead of trying to impede their talent. I don’t see that working out any better for them in the future. Perez will just assume that he has the upper hand since he has been there longer while Ocon will still feel like he has something to prove but, feeling unable to do so, may not perform to the best of his abilities.
But more than anything, I hope we haven’t seen the conclusion of this story already.