French driver Esteban Ocon will race for Force India next season after agreeing a multi-year deal, the Silverstone-based Formula One team said in a statement at the Brazilian Grand Prix on Thursday.
Ocon replaces experienced German Nico Hulkenberg, who is moving to Renault, alongside Mexican Sergio Perez at a team co-owned by Indian tycoon Vijay Mallya and currently fourth in the championship.
The 20-year-old is contracted long-term to Mercedes, Force India’s engine provider, and made his debut this year with the lowly Manor team as a mid-season replacement for Indonesian Rio Haryanto.
“I’m still relatively new to Formula One, but spending half a season at Manor Racing has given me some valuable experience and I feel ready for this new opportunity with Sahara Force India,” he said.
The Force India announcement leaves only Mercedes-powered Manor with a clear vacancy, although Swiss-based Sauber have yet to confirm Brazilian Felipe Nasr and Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson are staying.
Renault confirmed Britain’s Jolyon Palmer on Wednesday with Haas set to sign Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen.
Ocon’s promotion is likely to be seen as a setback for German youngster Pascal Wehrlein, the Frenchman’s more experienced Manor team mate and also the Mercedes reserve who scored a point in Austria in July.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff made clear that he saw Ocon as a big talent for the future.
“Esteban has the most impressive track record in junior formulae and he is an exceptional personality outside of the car,” he said.
“It is a positive development for Formula One that talent wins over money and we will be seeing some of the most impressive youngsters fighting to make it to the top… over the coming years.”
Ocon is one of several youngsters, including Red Bull’s Dutch teenager Max Verstappen and Wehrlein, to enter Formula One on talent rather than their financial contribution.
The jury remains out on 18-year-old Canadian Lance Stroll, signed by former champions Williams for 2017, who is a promising talent but whose career has been bankrolled by his billionaire father.
Ocon tested for Force India last year and expected a busy few months ahead.
“It’s something I’ve been working towards my whole life and I intend to grab this opportunity with both hands,” he said.
Mallya, whose business difficulties in India mean he is currently unable to leave Britain, said the team had been following Ocon for some time.
“We ran him in the car last year during testing and his performance convinced us that he is more than capable of racing alongside Sergio,” he said.
Force India press release:
Sahara Force India is pleased to confirm Esteban Ocon as a race driver for 2017 and beyond following the signing of a multi-year contract.
The 20-year-old Frenchman will race alongside Sergio Perez to form one of the most exciting line-ups on the grid with a blend of youth and experience.
Esteban Ocon: “I’m very excited to join Sahara Force India. I know the team quite well already because I was a test driver last year and I’m really looking forward to working with everybody at Silverstone once again.”
“I’m still relatively new to Formula One, but spending half a season at Manor Racing has given me some valuable experience and I feel ready for this new opportunity with Sahara Force India. The next few months will be very busy as I do all I can to prepare for the challenge ahead of me.”
“It means lots of days at the factory, working on the simulator and building relationships with the engineers and everybody in the team. It’s something I’ve been working towards my whole life and I intend to grab this opportunity with both hands so that I can deliver the results the team expects from me.”
“I want to say ‘thank you’ to everybody at Manor and especially to Mercedes-Benz for their support and belief in me. I can’t wait for 2017 and my first full season racing in Formula One,” said Ocon.
Vijay Mallya, Team Principal and Managing Director: “It’s a pleasure to welcome Esteban as our new race driver. He’s an exceptional talent, as his status as a Mercedes Junior demonstrates, and I have no doubt he will flourish inside our team. We’ve had our eye on Esteban for a number of years and have followed his progress through the junior categories where he delivered outstanding results.”
“We ran him in the car last year during testing and his performance convinced us that he is more than capable of racing alongside Sergio. Sahara Force India has a tradition of investing in young, talented drivers and the arrival of Esteban will bring some fresh energy and motivation to everyone in the team,” added Mallya.
Toto Wolff, Head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport: “Esteban has the most impressive track record in junior formulae and he is an exceptional personality outside of the car. Force India have a strong record of working with young drivers and have again shown courage and vision to take Esteban under their wing.”
“Even more, it is a positive development for Formula One that talent wins over money and we will be seeing some of the most impressive youngsters fighting to make it to the top in Formula One over the coming years,” concluded Wolff.