At the end of last season French driver Esteban Ocon, rated very highly up and down the pitlane, found himself victim of Lawrence Stroll’s purchase of the Force India Formula 1 team.
It was immediately obvious that part of the reason Lawrence had bought the Silverstone based team was to further the career of his son Lance Stroll, then a Williams driver, and as a result of that one of the team’s two drivers would find themselves out of a drive.
But which? On the one hand you have Sergio Perez, veteran of eight seasons in Formula 1, five with Force India and a very decent driver, and on the other you have Esteban Ocon, contracted to Mercedes FI’s engine supplier and considered a potential future world champion.
Whichever the team chose to partner Lance, the other could consider himself very unlucky to be missing out.
Racing Point, as Force India was rechristened after the buyout, opted for Perez.
This was most likely in part as a thank you for his actions in bringing about the team’s dip into administration that wrestled control from Vijay Mallya, at the time crippled by legal and financial issues and whose continued ownership jeopardised its entire future.
Mallya was seen as being a blocker to any sale of the team and with him out of the picture, Stroll senior was then able to agree a deal with administrators.
This left Ocon facing a year on the sidelines if he couldn’t find another drive. The problem was that his ties to Mercedes precluded him from driving for teams affiliated to any of Mercedes’ competition (about half the grid) leaving just one seat available – Williams.
Mercedes opted to make Ocon its official reserve driver for 2019, seemingly with a view to promoting him to a race seat in the near future.
However, Valtteri Bottas’ form in the early part of 2019 combined with Williams’ George Russell’s (also contracted to Mercedes) development into a Grand Prix star of the future have lessened Ocon’s hopes of a Merc drive any time soon.
Furthermore, with four current F1 drivers on their books, and only two drives available, Mercedes (if rumours are to be believed) are looking to cut ties with Ocon to allow his career to progress elsewhere.
Renault, always keen to have a French driver in one of their cars, rumoured to be one of the teams who shunned Ocon because of his ties to Mercedes, would immediately become an option. And there would be no shortage of others.
This could cap Russell’s Williams F1 career as he would suddenly become immediate successor to both Lewis Hamilton, whose Mercedes contract runs out at the end of 2020 and Bottas who remains on a 1-year deal with the Brackley team.
We always expected him to move up the grid at some point – either with Williams or without – and should Ocon be released we could be seeing the very beginning of the manoeuvring that ends with George Russell as a Mercedes driver and WIlliams seeking his replacement.
And if Valtteri Bottas’ form dips from the high bar he set at the beginning of the year it could be sooner rather than later.