Max Verstappen stole the headlines, but didn’t win the Euro F3 title. Adam Cooper caught up with the Dutchman’s conqueror
Amid the excitement over Max Verstappen’s graduation to Formula 1 it was easy to overlook the fact that the Red Bull driver was beaten to the 2014 European Formula 3 title by 18-year-old Esteban Ocon. Fortunately the attention that Verstappen brought to the series did the lanky Frenchman no harm at all, and his established connections with the Lotus F1 Team mean that his own promotion is surely not far away.
The contrast between their paths to the top couldn’t be greater. While Verstappen had the advantage of a well-connected dad planning his every move, the amiable youngster from Normandy came to the sport of karting by chance. “My father had a small garage where he sold cars and repaired them,” he says. “But there was no plan for me to race.”
Like countryman Alain Prost, Ocon’s passion was ignited when he discovered a kart track on a family holiday, aged four and a half. He subsequently received a mini kart for Christmas and spent the next few years driving around the garden, until he was old enough to race properly.
“All the top drivers were in teams but we had a small truck, the same one my father worked with. At one point my father sold our house and we were living in a caravan. After the races I was sleeping in front of the school in the caravan, to go to school in the morning.”
Despite the hand-to-mouth existence he won French titles in 2007 (Minime) and ’08 (Cadets). After he turned 13 in September 2009 he was able to race internationally in the KF3 category, but at that point the money ran out. Then at the start of the following year a fairy godmother arrived in the form of Gravity Sports Management, a sister company to what was then still known as the Renault F1 team.
He joined a stable that included the likes of Romain Grosjean. “I had a meeting with Eric Boullier – but didn’t know who he was. If they didn’t take me at that point, that was it for me. For 2010 they just helped me with the money, and my father was still my mechanic.”
In 2011 he finally moved to a professional team, with his father now as second mechanic. He won the French KF3 title, and finished second to Verstappen in the WSK Euro series. He was on his way.
At the age of 15 in 2012 he became a Lotus F1 junior, and graduated to Formula Renault 2.0 as team-mate to Daniil Kvyat at Korainen GP. After a tough learning year he moved to ART for 2013, finishing third in the European series.
He made an impressive F3 debut with Prema at Macau, finishing 10th after stalling at the start, and continued with the Italian team this season. Nine wins and 21 podium finishes allowed him to clinch the Euro title in some style. Lotus subsequently gave him a test in a two-year-old car at Valencia and, having proved himself, he was given Romain Grosjean’s E22 for FP1 in Abu Dhabi, where he put in a faultless performance.
“Usually I adapt quite quickly,” he says, “but I was surprised to be only three-tenths off Pastor Maldonado, because I left a good margin.”
Lotus engineering boss Alan Permane was impressed, and not just by his pace. “He’s got his feet on the ground and his head screwed on,” he says, “and he has a good attitude.”
A move to GP2 looks likely for 2015, and clearly he’s waiting in the wings for an F1 opportunity. The personable 18-year-old certainly deserves one. “I do everything I can to achieve the best level,” he says. “I know where I come from, I know how much we had to sacrifice and I will not miss the opportunity if there is one.”
Career in brief
Born: 17/9/1996, Évreux, France
2007 French Minime kart champion
2008 French Cadet champion
2009-10 KF3 karting
2011 French KF3 champion
2012 Euro Formula Renault, Korainen GP
2013 Euro Formula Renault, ART. Macau GP, Prema
2014 Euro F3 Champion, Prema; FRenault 3.5, Comtec; F1 tests, Lotus