The average age of F1 debutants is getting younger and younger, but you could be fairly confident in saying that Max Verstappen will remain the youngest debutant for at least the foreseeable future. With new regulations stating a minimum driver age of 18 years, and at least two years single seater experience debut’s such as the likes of Verstappen may already be a thing of the past. In the first article of this new series focusing on the next generation of F1 stars, I ‘ve turned the spotlight on 2015 GP3 series champion, Esteban Ocon, to examine his past, and when he might make the final leap into F1.
At the age of 19, Ocon’s CV is more impressive than most. After taking the F3 Euroseries title in 2014, the young Frenchman and Mercedes protege took the 2015 GP3 series in remarkable fashion with ART Grand Prix after winning just one out of eighteen races. Such was Ocon’s incredible consistency over 2015, that he enjoyed a run of 12 podiums in the final 13 races of the season, with 11 being second place finishes.
Ocon made his single seater debut back in 2012, finishing 14th in the Formula Renault Eurocup. After a move to ART GP for 2013, he continued his impressive progress, notching up three podiums and a race victory on his way to third in the championship table. F3 Euroseries followed in 2014, and after nine wins, Ocon claimed the championship with a round to spare at Imola, from Tom Blomqvist and Max Verstappen.
Whilst he F3 rival Verstappen very publicy made the leap to F1 with Toro Rosso, Ocon moved into GP3 for 2015, and back with ART GP, eventually won the championship by eight points. As part of the Mercedes driver development programme, Esteban Ocon is in some of the most capable hands money can buy, however with all but the seats at Manor Racing confirmed for 2016, his chances of making F1 remain slim at best. I for one, will be surprised if Mercedes pump for Ocon over Wehrlein if they had to chose between placing one of their young drivers at Manor.
The two most likely routes for Ocon in 2016 appear to be either GP2 or DTM. As Paul di Resta and Pascal Wehrlein have capably shown in the past, DTM is a fine stepping stone to F1 ( it is after all essential single seater racing with a large body shell), and with the level of competitiveness as high as it is, a season in the DTM would certainly be no soft option.
If it eventually concludes that Mercedes are unable to place Pascal Wehrlein at Manor for 2016, remaining in DTM to defend his title, along with Mercedes F1 test driver duties will remain the best option for DTM’s youngest ever champion (Wehrlein). Should Wehrlein have to remain in the DTM for another season, it seems likely that Ocon will be heading over to GP2 heavyweights ART GP, who still have a seat available alongside Sirotkin for next season. As I examined in my last article, ART GP are one of the most successful teams in motorsport,and would arguably provide Ocon with a stronger stepping stone to F1. A move into GP2 with ART GP will ensure Ocon passes through the same hallowed doors as a number of household names including Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Romain Grosjean, and with a teammate of Sirotkin’s ability, a 2016 showdown between two of motorsports most exciting talents is mouthwatering to say the least.
Whether Ocon races in DTM or GP2 in 2016 largely depends on whether Mercedes can find an F1 drive for their other young protege, Pascal Wehrlein. However, whilst his drive for 2016 is undecided (at the time of writing), one thing we can be certain of is that we will be seeing Esteban Ocon in F1 in the near future. Maybe not 2017, but I’m sure come the first round of the 2018 season, we’ll almost certainly be seeing Ocon line up on the grid to make his F1 debut. After all, he’ll still be just 22 years of age….