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Formula 1

How close is Ocon to Ricciardo in Renault team-mate fight?

by Matt Beer
6 min read

Esteban Ocon admits his first Renault season has been difficult but his breakthrough Formula 1 podium finish is evidence of the progress made in 2020 against a tough yardstick in Daniel Ricciardo.

The big question is the extent of the headway the 24-year-old has made and whether it leaves him in a strong enough position to handle new team-mate Fernando Alonso in the rebranded Alpine team in 2021.

Ocon’s second place, which came in his 66th start, is the high point of a season during which he has struggled to match Ricciardo. He’s only beaten his team-mate in qualifying once, with a superb performance in the wet in Styria, and this was one of only three races where Ocon has finished ahead in the race where both Renaults have made the chequered flag.

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“It’s not been an easy year, but we’ve seen that progress coming and it didn’t always turn our way in the end,” said Ocon. “That’s what’s frustrating in a way. So finally, it came.

“We always believed in ourselves, that’s the most important. When you are not performing at the best in this sport it’s very difficult as you are getting critics, are getting a lot of different things but the people around you, who are important, they always support you and that has helped me a lot.

“And the team has helped me to keep believing in myself and keep pushing and today we did so, so very pleased with that.

Esteban Ocon Renault F1 2020

Ocon’s drive was an accomplished one, but it was assisted by his failure to reach Q3 thanks to losing around a second through the chicane on his final qualifying lap. That put him 11th on the grid with free tyre choice, allowing him to run long on mediums and jump two-stoppers Ricciardo, Daniil Kvyat, Carlos Sainz and Pierre Gasly.

He was able use the undercut, assisted by a slightly faster in-lap, to be in a position to pass Lance Stroll when the Racing Point driver pitted a lap later using the DRS on the run to Turn 4. He was subsequently passed by Sergio Perez, who was on tyres six laps younger, but kept Stroll covered and finished second with the assistance of the Mercedes tyre troubles.

It was a very well-executed race drive, although the reason he finished ahead of Ricciardo was primarily strategic. But considering Ocon has suffered from a disproportionate number of failures this year compared to his team-mate, with four race retirements compared to Ricciardo’s one, he’s owed a little fortune.

The moment was emotional for Ocon, who has not stood on a podium since the 2015 GP3 season finale and had to endure a season on the sidelines in 2019 as Mercedes reserve driver after he was replaced by Lance Stroll at Racing Point.

“All the emotion came and I cried on the line,” said Ocon straight after the race.

“This year has been difficult, we’ve been progressing, we’ve been coming and getting there but it was not clear to everyone what we are doing so it was a bit frustrating all round but finally it has paid off.”

Esteban Ocon Renault F1 2020

The improvement has been clear and has allowed Ocon at least to push Ricciardo in qualifying. Over the season, the average deficit to Ricciardo is just over two tenths, but over the past five races Ocon has halved that to one-tenth. Twice – at the Nurbugring and for the first race in Bahrain – the gap has been tiny with Ocon on the wrong side of defeats by 0.019s and 0.002s.

Taking on Ricciardo is a huge challenge. The Australian had the advantage of being the incumbent Renault driver, not to mention being one of the best in the business. Ocon has admitted it has taken him longer to get back into the swing of things than he expected, but after some moments earlier in the season when his side of the garage didn’t entirely seem to be gelling, things have improved significantly.

“It’s a very fine line that we are exploring,” said Ocon when asked about his qualifying upturn by The Race.

“We’ve progressed a lot this season. If we do everything perfectly, we have a chance to be ahead of Daniel. We see it, we touch it but it’s not coming yet.

“There’s a bit more that we need to come through to be able to do that but it’s getting closer. That’s good progress, so I’m happy with where I am now compared to the rest of the season.

“This is where we need to keep it ahead of next year, to start at a higher level.”

He’ll need to if he’s able to measure up to Alonso, who has chewed up and spat out most of his F1 team-mates in terms of performances, with the notable exceptions of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.

But while there were times in the middle of the season when Ocon, usually a more smooth driver, started to show signs of unusual raggedness as he battled to keep up with Ricciardo. Over time, he has ironed that out and has made gains on corner entry, allowing him to close the deficit in mid-corner speed to Ocon that was a bigger problem earlier in the season.

Esteban Ocon Renault F1 2020

Ocon himself points to Monza as a turning point, a race weekend notably for him being silenced over the radio after the race by team principal Cyril Abiteboul for his complaints about the strategy. This was a consequence of his frustration at seeing a driver who he ran ahead of in the first stint, Pierre Gasly, win thanks to fortuitous pitstop timing, although he later recanted.

“I would say Monza was the turning point where we really started to work a lot better,” said Ocon. “I would say that was the turning point of the season and from there it has just got better I would say.

“Even what we are learning near the end of the season now is good stuff, it’s stuff that gives us a step each time so it’s nice.”

Matching up to Ricciardo in the races is even more difficult given how good Ricciardo is on a Sunday afternoon. Currently, the performance pattern isn’t dissimilar to the one between Nico Hulkenberg and Ricciardo at Renault last year, and Ocon is certainly not quite as rounded a race driver as the Australian. But then again, very few are.

Esteban Ocon Renault F1 2020

What is most encouraging is a driver who was justifiably touted as a future Mercedes driver and who built on his formidable junior reputation with two fine seasons at Racing Point, where he gradually established himself as the stronger qualifier and became ever-more effective in the race up against team-mate Sergio Perez, is still on an upward curve.

There’s still a step to be made, but Ocon has been shuffling closer and closer to Ricciardo over the season. He has the advantage of having his feet under the table with the team, and can surely take another step again at the start of 2021.

Whether it will be enough to compare well to Alonso is the big question. But Ocon is a high-quality driver who is working his way back to his best – and isn’t quite there yet.

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