Esteban Ocon missed out on his second Formula 1 podium finish of the season in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix by just a tenth of a second, with Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas passing him on the dash to the line.
“No, for f**** sake,” shouted Ocon over the radio as Bottas blasted past him while shaking his first in celebration. It was an understandable reaction from the 25-year-old, who had one of his strongest weekends of the season, having comprehensively outperformed team-mate Fernando Alonso – revelling in the rear-end stability of a car that hasn’t always provided it. Alonso, by contrast, struggled with oversteer and spun in the race on his way to 13th.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 5, 2021
Ocon established himself in third place thanks to staying out during the initial safety car period, which allowed him a ‘free’ change of tyres when the race was red-flagged. That put him fourth at the first standing restart, then first for the second as he got ahead of Lewis Hamilton before Max Verstappen dropped two places on the grid as a result.
Having let the top two go, albeit after being on the outside line when Verstappen made it three-abreast at the start and made contact with Hamilton’s front wing, Ocon settled into third place. With Bottas taking until lap 39 to pass McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo for fifth, he was not under any direct pressure.
Bottas then rapidly closed the gap from 5.2s at the start of lap 39 and moved to within a second of him on lap 46. His first attack came at the start of the last lap, Bottas using the advantage of the DRS to challenge on the outside into Turn 1. He sailed past Ocon, but also missed the corner – locking up on the runoff and only missing tagging the wall by a narrow margin. He rejoined, Ocon repassed and the chase continued.
Bottas then had a better exit from the final corner, with Ocon picking up some wheelspin at the exit, before passing the Alpine just before the line. Not only did Ocon suffer a de-rate, where he ran out of battery energy, but he also had car damage that made his life difficult in the closing stages as a result of contact earlier in the race.
“On those last two laps, we suddenly lost quite a lot of performance,” said Ocon. “There was quite a lot of contact in that race – at the first start the contact with [Yuki] Tsunoda [on the run to the first corner] – then the contact with Lewis.
“We lost a big chunk of the floor two laps from the end, so I was quite a lot slower and lost quite a lot of rear grip.
“We had to use a lot of our battery to keep Valtteri behind and, arriving at the flag, we basically de-rated, so had no hybrid [energy] left.
“It’s a shame that we lost that performance in the last two laps, but we can’t have everything.”
But could Ocon have kept Bottas at bay, having spent 35 of the 50 laps running in the top three? Given how close it was, with Bottas crossing the line just 0.102s clear, it would certainly have been possible although it could only have been achieved by taking a different approach to the final lap. After all, the Mercedes is a significantly faster car so it was easy for Bottas to close the gap.
Ocon admitted that an alternative strategy in terms of using the available hybrid energy, holding a little more back for the run to the line, might have helped. But this would also have left him more vulnerable on the blast to the final corner where he had to use a significant amount of it. It’s possible that the floor damage swung the battle against him.
“It’s a good question,” said Ocon when asked by The Race if there as anything different he could have done to change the outcome.
“I’m trying to do all the scenarios in my head again, but we were clearly down in performance in those last two laps.
“Maybe I could have used the energy on the exit of the last corner instead using it before [Turn] 27.
“There’s a couple of things that we could have thought about doing differently, but I think in the end it’s not realistic to fight against a Merc. We are not yet in the same league, but we are pushing to be in the same league pretty soon.”
Regardless of what happened on the final lap, it was a superb drive from Ocon. His commitment during that late chase was impressive, as he carried significant speed through the corners where the driver could make a difference and set strong laptimes to stay out of Bottas’s reach as long as he could.
His fourth place means Alpine has a near-insurmountable 29-point lead over AlphaTauri in the battle for fifth in the constructors’ championship heading into the Abu Dhabi finale.
Ocon also played a leading role early in the race and admitted that he was surprised to have been caught up in the title contenders’ heated battle.
“I thought they were going to be aggressive, but not with me I have to say,” he laughed when asked by The Race about the second restart.
“I was expecting it to be a tough fight in the first couple of corners. I never had the intention of keeping them behind anyway, I knew they were going to be a lot faster.
“So I let Max and Lewis [go], both of them, not wanting to ruin my race time.
“I was trying to do the fastest race I could. And that was the best way of doing so.”
Ocon’s fourth place means he heads into the season final five points behind Alonso in the battle for 10th in the drivers’ championship.