Make way for Esteban Ocon!

The child of a garage, a pre-teen karting champion and now a Formula One Grand Prix winner? In an exclusive interview with Gentleman’s Journal, Esteban Ocon reveals how he did it...

Sometimes, interview questions don’t age well. Think of the poor journalist who asked Leonardo DiCaprio how it felt to finally win a BAFTA in 2016 — a week before he won his first Oscar. Or the reporter who profiled 10,000 metre gold medallist Mo Farah at the 2012 Olympics — two days before he unexpectedly also won the 5,000 metres. 

Or think of me, speaking to Formula One driver Esteban Ocon just five days ago — and asking the young French racer how a second-place podium at last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix changed his life forever. Because, just 48 hours and 70 laps later, Ocon rendered my question — not to mention his own, boyishly optimistic answer — totally redundant. 

How? By going one better. Over the weekend, and in one of Formula One’s biggest upsets in years, the 24-year-old managed to win the Hungarian Grand Prix. Sneaking past Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Ocon’s own compatriot, Pierre Gasly, the young Frenchman claimed his maiden Grand Prix victory at Budapest’s ‘Hungaroring’.

Which is a shame, in some ways — because the earnest, encouraging answers Ocon gave to my original questions were driven by passion and steeped in brave optimism. They were sentiments of character, of tenacity and well-grounded grit. But we’ll get back to that. Because, just yesterday, I also spoke to Ocon — to ask him about the latest addition to his trophy cabinet. 

“My first reaction to winning?” Ocon asks. “That it was just a huge moment. A huge moment. Both for me, and for my career. It’s my first win in Formula One — which makes it a little part of the dream. Because my dream is to become the world champion one day, and winning races is obviously part of that. So I’m delighted — I really don’t have the words to discuss how happy I am…”

Give it a go, Esteban.

“It tastes fantastic!” the Frenchman laughs. “And I’m only thinking about getting some more! At the moment, it’s about enjoying it. When I crossed the line, the first thing that came out were the emotions — the screams with the team. 

“But then you remember all the sacrifices that came with that,” he adds, more solemnly. “The sacrifices in the past, when I was younger. When my family gave everything for me to succeed. And you remember all the difficult moments in Formula One — the patience, the behind-the-scenes work that wasn’t in the spotlight. And all the waiting. Waiting for your time, your opportunity to come. And, finally, it has come. I’m a Formula One race winner”.

And it’s still sinking in. But, as Ocon freely admits, his track to the top of the podium has been rougher than most. Unlike some of his fellow Formula One drivers, the Frenchman isn’t the scion of a rich racing dynasty. Instead, he has motor oil in his blood; and was born with a spanner where many are blessed with a silver spoon. Ocon’s parents weren’t multi-millionaires — they ran a small garage in Normandy, and raised their son into a blue-collar engineering family. 

“I’d say it’s more of a ‘mechanic’ family, actually,” says Ocon. “But yes, my dad runs a garage by himself — with my mum helping on the logistical side. And so, since I was little, I’ve been in a place where cars wouldn’t work on an evening — but would be coming alive by the time I was waking up for school in the morning. That’s been my whole life; growing up in a mix of fuel, fire and grease. It’s pretty special.”

And Ocon has never been afraid to get his hands oily. On weekends and during school holidays, his father would educate him on the intricacies and innermost workings of engines, and instil in him the importance of respecting these powerful — if broken — machines.

“I think that helped me understand how much work goes into fixing a problem,” Ocon acknowledges. “And how important it is to take care of your car. Because, even though the [Formula One] cars are so reliable now, we must still take care of the engines to make sure they last the season. And yes, with my background, I think I’m more involved in the mechanical side than some of the other drivers.”

And Ocon is nothing if not grateful. Even now, as we talk, he is constantly referencing and returning to the life lessons and values given to him by his parents. An old proverb here. Some general life advice there. And when the global pandemic gripped the world last year, Ocon returned home to the family garage for lockdown — taking his girlfriend, Italian model Elena Berri, with him. 

“It’s a different garage, actually,” notes Ocon. “That one’s gone — the one from back when I was doing karting. But yes, still at a garage. And that was nice. It meant we had quite a lot of space to do anything we wanted. And it meant that there still wasn’t one single day when I didn’t have engines around me!

“That’s been my whole life; growing up in a mix of fuel, fire and grease…”

But, while the motors and machines meant Ocon felt at home, his family was the real support system.

“We were all together,” Ocon nods. “I think it was important to have people you loved around you. We didn’t know what was going to happen — so to have those two-and-a-half months together was important. We couldn’t do much, but I still went cycling in the forest, and trained in my home gym. I also did a lot of Esports during lockdown, which helped keep me racing fit”.

But, chiefly, the pandemic brought Ocon back down to earth. The calm and quiet of lockdown gave the Frenchman time to take stock and reflect on all he had achieved — even if he hadn’t, at that point, yet placed in a race. 

Ocon’s Formula One career began in 2014, when he became a practice driver for Lotus F1. By 2016, a 21-year-old Ocon made his official debut with Manor Racing after Indonesian racer Rio Haryanto was dropped from the team. Force India signed Ocon a year later, but dropped him a year after that, in 2018 — replacing the young driver with Lawrence Stroll, the son of new team owner Lance Stroll. 

In 2019, Ocon didn’t drive at all — instead sitting as a reserve driver at Mercedes. And then, after fighting his way back onto the grid — signing a two-year contract with Renault in 2020 — the pandemic put the brakes on yet again. It’s not been easy. 

But today, back on track and having proven himself with a Grand Prix win, the sport is making way for Esteban Ocon. But does the young racer feel he’s worked harder to succeed than his fellow drivers?

“I can’t speak for the experience of someone else,” he considers, “but for sure — on my side, at least — it has been very tough. Because there are only twenty seats in Formula One. So, if you want it, you have to earn it. 

“That’s why I’ve never really had a moment where I was a child,” he adds. “I’ve always had quite a lot of weight on my shoulders; people counting on me to deliver. Otherwise, it would have all stopped pretty quickly. I was aware, from an early age, of all the sacrifices that my family, and the people around me, were making to get me here. But it has worked out. It was risky, though — and not easy.”

Today, touring the world in plush hotels and opulent hospitality suites, Ocon is living the high life. The benefits, sponsorship deals and global fame look set to only increase after this first win — as does his Instagram following. (“It’s great to see that people loved it,” the racer says of the social media reaction, “and I received so many cool messages after the race!”). But he’s keen not to get carried away with the five-star lifestyle.

“I don’t think you should ever get used to that level of luxury,” he shrugs. “There’s a saying in French that means ‘you always have to remember where you’ve come from’. And I believe quite strongly in that. Because, while it’s nice to have huge motorhomes and great hospitality and people gook food for you and stuff like that, in the end I can remember how different it was. And that’s why I’m enjoying it so much!”

So is France. After the French Grand Prix was cancelled in 2020, this June saw Ocon roar back onto Circuit Paul Ricard for his native race. And, though he finished in 14th place, the Frenchman says there’s nothing like the cheers of a home crowd. He even recognises many local French fans from his karting days, and is relishing the chance to be racing for a French team.

“It’s great to represent my country with the team,” he grins, before adding: “But it is a British and French team. One side working in Britain, and the other in France — for the same aim. But that means it’s all red, white and blue — and it’s great to have those colours on the car!”

Ocon’s helmet tells a similarly celebratory story; emblazoned as it is with the Eiffel Tower. “It’s also here,” he laughs, tipping back the peak of his baseball cap and revealing a small, embroidered logo of the landmark. While Ocon may fly the flag for France, however, he admits that he’s fallen out of the loop with the Olympics.

“I’ve watching a bit of the football,” he says, “but I haven’t watched anything in detail yet. I do love sport, though. I follow football quite a lot; Paris Saint-Germain. I also follow lots of different kinds of motorsport, from Rally to Rallycross to the GT Championships. Even the lower Formulas — and Formula E. I’ll look at all of those when I get some free time. Also Moto GP, and the Motocross world out in the States. 

“I love UFC as well,” he adds. “That’s a great sport. I suppose I just love sport in general — and I have a lot of respect for athletes who train at a high level in what they do.”

Would the racer try his hand at another sport, then? How about UFC — might we ever see Ocon in ‘The Octagon’?

“No!” he laughs. “UFC? I’d break my leg straight away. But I think maybe Motocross. I’d be a Motocross racer if I wasn’t driving in Formula One. And then, outside of sport, gaming is probably my first hobby. But cycling, mountain biking, table tennis also.

“UFC? I’d break my leg straight away…”

“I’ve also got really into remote control cars!” he adds. “That’s one of my new hobbies. I’m working with a very nice brand in Japan, which is providing me with some awesome racing stuff. Again, it’s like a racing car — but a smaller version!”

It really is a petrol-powered life for Esteban Ocon. The child of a garage, a pre-teen karting champion and now a Formula One Grand Prix winner? It’s no wonder that his passion spills over into virtual racing and remote-control cars. On the real road, Ocon is currently driving an Alpine A110 S, liveried up with his logos, colours and — of course — the French flag. But he also has a Renault Mégane RS Trophy-R tucked away in his garage, “which currently holds the Nurburgring record for front-wheel drives”.

And, having driven for Racing Point, Renault, Manor, Mercedes and more, he’s got behind more Formula One wheels than most racers twice his age. But Ocon believes that switching from car to car, team to team, has been beneficial to his burgeoning career.

“I think it’s made me a more complete driver,” he considers. “Because it’s just experience, you know? Life is about experience, and learning. Just ask [Fernando] Alonso — he’s still learning, even after these years and years of experience. Having to work in so many different categories — not only in Formula One, but also outside of the sport — has made me a more complete athlete.”

And Ocon, who also counts the Japanese Grand Prix’s Suzuka Circuit among his favourite venues, reveals that the ‘Hungaroring’ has long been his top track for developing his driving skills. 

“It’s a fantastic track,” he says, “and a track I really love. The flow of the laps make you feel at one with the car. And, when you have a good lap, you really feel it — and it can make the difference for you as a driver.”

Which brings us back to last week’s line of redundant interview questions. Most badly judged was this: How did Ocon’s first Formula One podium — that blistering second place at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix — make him feel? It’s a question to which the racer responded twice. His first response was a tremendous performance two days later; a Champagne-soaked, wide-grinned, thoroughly-deserved win. The other was this:

“It was, for sure, the highlight of my career so far in Formula One. And I was delighted, because the first podium in your career is something special. But, obviously, the next step is to start wining races…”

Want more interviews with Formula One drivers? Here’s why George Russell needs to get himself a hobby…

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