There’s a reason Esteban Ocon’s recent first win in Formula 1 was so well-received.
It’s not just that shock victories are always welcome. It’s because of the wider story.
“He’s been a shining star for some time now so it’s been a long time coming,” said Lewis Hamilton after running out of time to catch Ocon and Sebastian Vettel during his recovery drive in the Hungarian Grand Prix at the start of this month.
“I’m really, really happy for him.”
The seven-time world champion, a stablemate of former Mercedes protege Ocon’s for several years, added: “Maybe a couple of laps more we could have a bit of a duel – but I’m actually glad that we didn’t have any more laps because this is very much needed in his journey, this shows to everyone out there his potential. This really speaks volumes.”
The plaudits didn’t stop with Hamilton.
“Esteban made the difference,” said Vettel. “He drove fantastic. It’s his day and his moment.”
And from the man who replaced Ocon as Mercedes’ next-big-thing, George Russell: “I’m really happy for Esteban. He’s been through a huge amount in his whole career.
“He’s a fantastic driver. There are many drivers on this Formula 1 grid who deserve to be winning races or fighting for victories week in, week out. Esteban is one of them.”
Why such affection for Ocon? Because every driver respects hard work and sacrifice, and Ocon’s worked as hard and sacrificed as much as anybody. He has gone through a low that few drivers know – losing a place on the grid entirely – to experience one of the greatest peaks.
From a humble background that included his family putting everything on the line to fund Ocon’s karting career, he won the support required to climb onto and then up the single-seater ladder.
As part of the Gravity Sport Management stable he became a Lotus F1 junior but that programme hit trouble just as Ocon’s career momentum should have been at its greatest as he won the 2014 European Formula 3 title.
So while young Max Verstappen, who was ‘only’ third in that championship as a car-racing rookie, was leaping to F1 with Toro Rosso, Ocon found himself shuffling half a foot forwards into GP3. Undeterred, he became a Mercedes junior that season and won the GP3 title.
This time he didn’t even manage half a step forwards – he took a big one to the side, placed in the DTM for a season while also being a test and reserve driver for Renault (which had taken over the Lotus team Ocon had been affiliated with previously) and Mercedes in F1.
He’d have been forgiven for feeling exasperated at this point, and wondering ‘what do I need to do to get a break?’.
Finally, the stars aligned: first with his F1 debut mid-season in 2016 when Mercedes placed him at engine customer Manor alongside fellow protege Pascal Wehrlein, then with a move to the more fancied midfield Force India team for 2017 and 2018.
He beat Wehrlein to that chance because of his on-track and off-track qualities. Mercedes viewed him as a future driver. Ocon seemed to have everything.
His career is an example of two things, though. First, perseverance is an almighty quality. Second, motorsport often isn’t the meritocracy it ought to be. He’s often needed the first to combat the second…
Ocon lost his hard-won place on the F1 grid for 2019 in large part because of paddock politics. OK, he was slipping down Mercedes’ pecking order – incumbent Valtteri Bottas was doing a fine job and Russell was emerging as a serious future contender. But that wasn’t what cost Ocon a drive.
Renault went back on an agreement to sign him, his Mercedes ties were a turn-off for McLaren, while Force India collapsed and was born again as Racing Point under the ownership of Lawrence Stroll, who put his son Lance in Ocon’s seat.
But his determination remained resolute. What he did not want to accept – what he would not accept, he told me in late 2018 – was not returning in 2020. True to his word, Ocon returned (ironically, after being snubbed at first) with Renault.
Even then the road kept a steep gradient. He initially struggled to re-adapt and was emphatically second-best to team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, before finding his feet later in the season and scoring his first F1 podium in a chaotic Sakhir Grand Prix.
Since then, Ocon’s enjoyed more ups than downs. He established himself well alongside the returning Fernando Alonso as Renault rebranded as Alpine, and earned himself a huge contract extension keeping him with the team until 2024 and giving Mercedes – which is still part of Ocon’s management – no option to take him back.
For the first time, Ocon has job security. Ironically this initially coincided with a serious dip in form. But significant car changes helped address that at the previous race in Britain and Ocon was a top-10 qualifier in Hungary before benefiting from the first-corner chaos and Mercedes’ strategic error at the race restart to inherit a lead he never, ever looked like giving up.
Opportunities haven’t come easy for Ocon over the years but he has always been very adept at grasping them when they have.
Perhaps it should have been no surprise that he would produce a faultless drive to win when the many stars aligned to give him the chance.
“I believe that with the amount of work I put in every day, this situation will change,” he told me about losing his drive for 2019. “My dedication will pay off.”
It has. It always has. So much so that the words above could apply to any stage of an often uphill struggle.
Now Ocon has the ultimate payback – which is why even the people he beat are happy for him.