Fernando Alonso has been the centre of attention at Alpine during the 2021 Formula 1 season so far, but alongside him team-mate Esteban Ocon has quietly put together a strong start to the season.
Although his Bahrain Grand Prix was ruined by yellow flags in qualifying that led to him being eliminated in Q1 before being rear-ended by Sebastian Vettel in the race, he scored points in the subsequent races with ninth at Imola and seventh in Portugal. Having been outperformed by Daniel Ricciardo last season – beaten in qualifying 15-2 with an average deficit of 0.362s and lost 9-3 in races where both finished – he has had the edge over Alonso so far.
Given Alonso has repeatedly stressed that he’s not yet at 100% on his F1 return, it would be premature to declare Ocon has prevailed in what could be a career-defining season for him. But with question marks surrounding his future, the 24-year-old has certainly made an encouraging start and capitalised on the continuity of being in his second year with the team.
“I feel a lot better this year than last year,” said Ocon when asked by The Race about the step he has made. “Last year I started to improve massively in terms of performance towards the end of the year with the podium [in the Sakhir Grand Prix] and with the qualifying pace starting to get a lot better.
“I have a different team of people around me. Also, there’s been a lot of changes over the winter, a lot of work and the approach has been quite different, but more to my liking.
“We are building strong weekends at the moment and I feel very confident, very well integrated, a lot better than last year. I know what I need from the car and the guys.
“When I put numbers down on my debrief sheet, they know what to put on the car and it’s working really well at the moment. So we’ll keep working the same way and hopefully continue improving on the personnel side and team side.”
This is another step on from the progress made last season in terms of the way driver and team work together. It wasn’t always straightforward last year, particularly early in the season, but improvements in what Ocon called “the collaboration” helped him to chip away at the gap to Ricciardo.
Come the end of the season, Ocon had emerged as a more consistent driver but there was still a deficit to Ricciardo in both qualifying and race trim. The objective heading into this season was always to hit the ground running, which Ocon appears to have done. He’s certainly happier with the way the team is operating, and appears at home with the new management.
In Portugal, he was a little disappointed only to qualify sixth having set the fourth-fastest time in Q2. Had he nailed the lap on his first Q3 run in worsening wind conditions, he likely would at least have been ahead of Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari and potentially even Sergio Perez’s Red Bull.
“His first lap in Q3 was a bit scruffy,” said Alpine executive director Marcin Budkowksi. “He made a mistake in the first; he actually had a small gearbox glitch, which put him out of rhythm for the rest of this lap.
“He was the only driver who improved on his second run, but the reason was because his first lap wasn’t good. The track was slower but he improved, which is why we have this bitter taste because had he done a less scruffy first lap then he would have been comfortably ahead of Carlos.”
It’s a minor criticism given the changing conditions caused problems for everyone, but Ocon’s single-lap pace throughout the weekend was strong. Alonso’s Q2 underachievement means we didn’t see what he could have done, although he did set a time quicker than Ocon in FP3 that was deleted for a track limits violation. And with Alonso determined to qualify better in the upcoming races in Barcelona and Monaco, Ocon will face a tougher challenge on Saturdays as the season progresses.
In the race, Ocon had the disadvantage of starting on softs and having run eighth in the first stint, overtook first Pierre Gasly then Sainz to secure seventh – a result he believes was the best possible.
“It was a really fun race, it was good to have some battles and some battles with the cars that were quicker than us in the first two races,” said Ocon of his performance in the more competitive Alpine.
“It’s not like we had a massive difference in terms of tyre age so it was not an easy pass to do on Carlos and Pierre, but nice to do both into Turn 1. I think it was the maximum that we could have done today.”
It’s difficult to make a fair comparison of his pace compared to Alonso given the varying strategies. Once Alonso, who had a free starting-tyre choice and went with the favoured mediums, had finally made his stop to take hards, he lapped a quarter-of-a-second per lap faster than Ocon but with an 18-lap tyre life advantage and in a very different race situation. This means little can be read into that comparison.
How the battle between Ocon and Alonso shakes out remains to be seen. But given there are signs Ocon has taken a step since last year, once Alonso is at his best he has at least ensured he’s in a position to deliver on his potential.
For now, Ocon can reasonably be satisfied with starting the season at a higher level than Alonso. While he would be naive to think he’s already done enough to prevail in that battle, he’s at least ensured he has a foothold against a driver who is one of the toughest team-mates of all. And in the process, he’s also shown a few signs of the driver who built such a big reputation in his Force India/Racing Point days.