We’re not going all the way and announcing Lewis Hamilton’s 2019 retirement as he pursues a career as a stunt driver in Hollywood, nor are we suggesting that Valtteri Bottas will retreat into the Finnish wilderness to manufacture furniture and open a lathe emporium, but Toto Wolff’s comments about Esteban Ocon must fill the Frenchman with a warm, fuzzy feeling, and possibly a small bag of nerves too.
What first read as comments from Wolff showing concern for the on-track antics of the Force India drivers also suggests that Ocon must beat Sergio Perez in 2018 if Mercedes is to consider the young Frenchman for a drive in 2019. Toto told Motorsport.com:
“Esteban performed very well this year against a very strong Sergio Perez. Next year he has to take the next step and improve this performance. He is incredibly consistent, makes few mistakes and has great speed. Next year, he will have to develop further in this respect and outperform Perez.
“What bothers us are these intra-team rivalries that end with two damaged cars. This applies not only to Esteban, but also to Checo. As a team boss, I’m so annoyed by that.”
The time in which Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein were promising, inseparable Mercedes academy prospects has passed, with the latter losing his Sauber seat to the highly anticipated Charles Leclerc. Ocon is now the best-positioned driver with Mercedes backing to take a seat at the Silver Arrows team for 2019, when both current drivers’ contracts expire.
The statement from one of the most influential individuals at Mercedes is a clear message to the Frenchman, who was one of the breakthrough drivers of 2017. Of course, both current drivers could renew their contracts, but if they don’t, Mercedes will surely prefer a scenario in which it can promote one of its own drivers rather than look elsewhere.
Considering the strengths of Esteban and his junior ties to Mercedes, Wolff’s comment begins to look more like a clear target for progression. If Ocon wasn’t pressured enough to meet internal objectives set by his own team, he must race in 2018 knowing that there will be others further up the paddock observing his performances too.
Last season, Perez beat Ocon to seventh in the standings by 13 points. The drivers were largely inseparable and both exciting to watch. It may have been the underlying performance of the VJM10, but it felt like the Force India driver took the limelight in many races last year as they always seemed to pressure others, move forward and often battled against each other.
One thing Ocon will have to stop doing is finding himself in situations where he ends up hitting his teammate, as happened far too many times in 2017. Mercedes had enough of that with Hamilton and Nico Rosberg…