It’s looking highly likely, much to Toto Wollf’s annoyance, that the Mercedes Young Driver Esteban Ocon won’t be racing in Formula One in 2019, just how can a driver with 43 race starts for Manor Racing, Force India and new team Racing Point Force India in the past 3 seasons be ‘Persona Non Grata’ in F1?
To get an idea of the events have resulted in his lack of a race seat for 2019, like many things in F1 you need to go back quite a few years.
Back in the 90’s there was a team called Minardi, after their founder Giancarlo Minardi. Against all odds they managed to keep racing and had moderate success, qualifying second at the 1990 United States Grand Prix and managed third four times but F1 was changing and budgets were on the increase.
Giancarlo Minardi was forced to merge his team with another small F1 team BMS Scuderia Italia and to prevent the team going bust again Giancarlo Minardi sold the team to Australian businessman Paul Stoddart in 2001 with the team being rebranded European Minardi after Stoddart’s now defunct European Aviation airline.
The team was well liked and respected in the F1 paddock, everyone loves a plucky underdog and the team had a definite ‘anti-corporate’ culture about them and generally tried to avoid taking any driver who brought cash, preferring drivers with talent over those with money.
Many Grand Prix winners raced for Minardi and they proved a great place for new drivers to cut their teeth in F1. Future Grand Prix winners that raced for Minardi during their careers include double World Champion Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella and many others as well as drivers who tasted success in other categories including double CART (now Indycar) Champion Alex Zanardi and 24 Hours of Le Mans winners Michele Alboreto and Marc Gene.
In 2005 Stoddart indicated he’d be willing to sell the team if the right buyer could be found and claimed later to have had 41 approaches to buy the team. How many of those were serious with financial backing to actually buy the team isn’t known but the team was eventually sold to Red Bull and the Scuderia Toro Rosso (Italian for Red Bull) team was born.
This buyout and new team immediately gave the Red Bull Driver Academy seats in F1 for their young drivers including Sebastian Vettel who famously won the 2008 Italian Grand Prix in mixed conditions. Drivers such as Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz have all driven for Toro Rosso in the past, but this also limited seats to the Red Bull driver Academy, cutting off any potential seats for non-affiliated drivers.
By 2009 the FIA were well aware of the drop in team numbers (both Toyota and BMW withdrew their teams at the end of 2009 although the BMW team was sold back to Peter Sauber) and announced they would be seeking new teams to join, aiming to expand the grid to thirteen teams and in July 2009 selected F3 team Manor, US F1, GP2 team Campos Racing and Lotus Racing.
Manor was subsequently renamed Virgin Racing and Campos Racing eventually evolved into Hispania Racing Technology. USF1 never got off the ground at all and never raced or even managed to get a car together for pre-season testing and withdrew in early March.
The teams had all apparently been promised that a budget cap was due to be introduced and saw this as a chance to be at least somewhat competitive and all three teams opted, some say under coercion from Bernie Ecclestone, to use the newly developed Cosworth engine.
It’s been suggested that if the teams had any designs to use any other engine that their entry wouldn’t be accepted but as is often the way in F1, there’s only rumour and suggestion. The bigger teams lobbied successfully to the FIA to have the budget cap dismissed and it duly was.
In return they said they would provide technical expertise and parts to the new teams under the guidance of the Formula One Teams Association or FOTA.
Without the budget cap these teams were doomed from the start and while they gamely struggled on with buyouts and team name changes the teams all eventually dropped out of F1. Virgin Racing only lasted two seasons, withdrawing at the end of 2012, becoming Manor again and HRT also went bust at the end of the 2012 season.
Lotus Racing, via Team Lotus (they’re actually different!) and then Caterham Racing entered administration at the end of 2014 even having to resort to crowdfunding to compete in the last race of the season in Abu Dhabi, complete with Sponsorship from the Windmill Inn in Littleworth, West Sussex!
By 2014 the number of teams on the grid was down to ten again with only Manor Marussia, now affiliated with the Russian Sportscar manufacturer, surviving from the three new teams entered in 2010.
Even then, they not only managed to complete the season but they even scored their first and only points in Monaco when Ferrari Young Driver Jules Bianchi finished 9th. Sadly later that season Bianchi would be involved in a serious accident at the Japanese Grand Prix and would succumb to his injuries in June 2015. RIP Jules.
The team folded in early 2015, came back to life, were granted entry to the 2015 season after passing the mandatory FIA crash test and two 2014 cars, modified for the new 2015 regulations appeared at the Australian Grand Prix and managed to complete the season against all the odds.
They then managed to complete the 2016 season and for the last nine races of 2016 Esteban Ocon (At last!) raced for the team, replacing Rio Haryanto who left due to ‘sponsorship difficulties’. Ocon then joined Sahara Force India for 2017 & ’18 who ran Mercedes engines.
By the end of 2016 all three teams that joined in 2016 had folded. Much of Manor/Marussia/Virgin’s equipment and the home base was bought by NASCAR team owner Gene Haas and the Haas F1 team joined the grid for 2016.
Closely affiliated with Ferrari, too closely for some teams liking as the F1 regulations stipulate that each team should produce their own car and the Haas car looked very similar to the previous year’s Ferrari, again meant that any potential route into F1 for a non-affiliated driver would be very difficult.
As well as the Ferrari Young Driver academy and the Red Bull Driver Academy, McLaren had also got in on the act with the McLaren Young Driver program as well as Mercedes with their own Young Driver program.
Most teams saw this as a way to help promote future talent so they didn’t miss out on a potential race winning driver and to help foster talent over money.
With Toro Rosso closely linked to Red Bull, Haas closely linked to Ferrari as well as Sauber who ran Ferrari Engines, Ferrari have had no issues placing their drivers in their feeder teams, although Haas have tended to pick their own.
Charles Leclerc for example was placed in at Sauber, likely in conjunction with the Alfa Romeo branding and team name they now run. McLaren have also promoted from within previously with Kevin Magnussen (now at Haas) and Stoffel Vandoorne unjustifiably out of a race drive as well, being replaced by McLaren Young Driver Lando Norris for 2019 & 2020.
Mercedes now had a major issue in that they not only have Ocon looking for a seat but current F2 championship leader George Russell also looking for a race seat for next season. This (finally!) takes me back to Esteban Ocon.
With his seat at Racing Point Force India now seemingly unavailable after their takeover by Lance Stroll’s father and Perez’s actions to prevent the team going into administration would suggest that Ocon’s last chance is a Williams seat.
Toto Wolff has said that earlier in the season he had verbal agreements with two teams to take Ocon and keep in F1 but they ‘didn’t have the balls’ to follow through with it. This is reckoned to be a jab at two, possibly three potential teams. Ricciardo was widely expected to re-sign with Red Bull and Ocon was expected in at Renault.
Then much to everyone’s surprise Ricciardo signed for Renault, Red Bull wouldn’t take a Mercedes affiliated driver under any circumstances and opted to promote from within and took Pierre Gasly from junior team Toro Rosso.
The next suggestion was that McLaren might have agreed to take Ocon earlier in the season, but then with Fernando Alonso announcing his retirement and the team cutting Vandoorne they decided to sign Carlos Sainz, now free from any Red Bull ties and his Renault loan deal as well as Norris from their own young driver scheme, blocking Ocon.
As above this would suggest his only option is now at Williams, who, as it happens, run Mercedes engines. ‘Surely a deal could be struck?’ you’d think, but talks haven’t apparently gone very well with Williams keen to take their own path.
The Stroll family are in the middle of negotiating a severance deal with Williams, reckoned to be worth many millions of pounds and Sergei Sirotkin rumoured to bring in over £10m in sponsorship they don’t seem to be under too much pressure to strike a deal unless it’s good for them, not just good for Mercedes. They also have Robert Kubica as their reserve driver who, should he get a race seat in 2019, could bring much more exposure to the team and with it potential sponsors.
So how did this all happen?
In some ways the bigger teams have caused this issue for themselves by making F1 so expensive and their stubborn refusal to agree any form of cost cutting measures that there hasn’t been a new team since Haas in 2016 (helped by considerable Ferrari assistance) and no overall increase in the number of competitive teams for many years.
With Red Bull and Ferrari fostering improved links with smaller teams they haven’t had any trouble placing their drivers in other teams. Mercedes however, in conjunction with the Force India buyout now have a very difficult situation with one seasoned F1 driver and one new driver both looking for seats but without the links required to place them.
As Christian Horner said in Singapore just this weekend, Red Bull put their hands in their pockets and created Toro Rosso, Ferrari have helped Haas and Sauber, if Mercedes want a feeder team they need to put their hands in their pockets and buy one out, take a share in one or create one.
Not to mention Mercedes taking Valterri Bottas from Williams at considerable cost after Nico Rosberg retired at the end of 2016 instead of taking their own young driver Ocon, although it must be said he’d only completed nine races for Manor at that time.
F1’s blinkered attitude to the sport as a whole and the teams stubborn ‘me, me, me’ attitude, especially from the top teams, has created a situation where one of the brightest talents might not even be racing in F1 in 2019, and perhaps never race in F1 again.
And that is a crying shame, but also a sign of the times in F1. Smaller teams can only survive with help from the manufacturer teams, be that sponsorship or affiliated drivers, often with engine discounts or sponsorship.
Some are happy with this such as Sauber and Haas, others not so much, but the ball is decidedly in Mercedes’s court. At this rate they’ll need to make an offer to Williams they can’t refuse.