Ocon on Alpine's 2021 aspirations: 'This is a big statement'


After a low-key first couple of 2021 races, Esteban Ocon and Alpine seem to be building a head of steam – Adam Cooper looks at whether the French combination can keep it going

OCON Esteban (fra), Alpine F1 A521, portrait during the Formula 1 Aramco Gran Premio De Espana 2021 from May 07 to 10, 2021 on the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, in Montmelo, near Barcelona, ​​Spain - Photo DPPI

Esteban Ocon knows Alpine has lofty ambitions, but feel if they can perform in Barcelona then a strong 2021 is possible


Esteban Ocon and his Alpine team were among the stars of the recent Portuguese GP, and they’ve continued that strong form into the Barcelona weekend.

The transition from the Renault to Alpine name and the return of Fernando Alonso put a lot of focus on the Enstone camp over the winter. However, in testing and across the first two races in Bahrain and Imola the performance was pretty low-key, although at least some points were logged in the latter event with a ninth and 10th.

However, in Portugal the team began to get more out of some updates introduced in Italy, while the tricky track – with plenty of slow corners – played to the strengths of the car. Ocon qualified a superb sixth, and losing a place to Lando Norris in the race, finished a solid seventh. Alonso also showed good pace in the race, and moved up from 13th on the grid to eighth at the flag.

In Spain on Saturday Ocon went one better than previous weekend by qualifying fifth, and he was actually disappointed not to be ahead of Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari and thus be best of the rest behind the two top teams. Alonso meanwhile also made Q3, and starts 10th.

His consecutive top six starting positions represent a good effort by Ocon given the tight midfield battle and the pace of Ferrari, McLaren and AlphaTauri.

OCON Esteban (fra), Alpine F1 A521, portrait during the Formula 1 Aramco Gran Premio De Espana 2021 from May 07 to 10, 2021 on the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, in Montmelo, near Barcelona, ​​Spain - Photo Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

Ocon admits he and the team have been pleasantly surprised by their own pace

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

It also reflects a big personal turnaround from last season. Returning from a year on the sidelines, he spent most of the 2020 season trying to get up to speed and match then Renault team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who was really in the groove.

This year Ocon is the man who feels at home, and it’s Alonso who is still finding the limits at Alpine. Meanwhile over at McLaren Ricciardo is the Woking new boy trying to match team-mate Norris. Such is the way of modern F1 – it really isn’t easy to get the most out of these cars in all circumstances.

Ocon arrived in Spain still buzzing after his strong race in Portugal.

“Yeah, it was a great weekend, very pleased with the progress that we made, from the first race to the third race,” he said on Thursday.

“We made a little step in Imola with the upgrade we got, but we continue digging, keeping on searching what we could do better to optimise what we in hand. And we definitely made a step in Portimão.

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“There’s a good atmosphere in the team. Of course, it has been a tough weekend for us last year here. So we’re going to try and push to turn that around and continue our improvements.”

He admitted that even the team was surprised by the pace in Portimão: “We were for sure. But I think it’s all that searching, all those little things that we are finding session after sessions, days after days, and the feedback that we are giving, me and Fernando, we are on the same route.

“So it’s very clear for the team to analyse, what we are saying, because we are saying the same thing. So it’s working really well at the moment. And that’s good news.

“I think the car in terms of balance was really nice to drive on the tricky track with very low grip. I think our stability was pretty decent, from entry of the corners to the mid-corner. Everybody was struggling a bit in traction. But I think it gave us the confidence to push it in quali, and in the race it was working well.

“We brought some upgrades but in Imola, we didn’t make the step that we wanted, in Portimão with the time that we had in between those two races, the understanding and optimising and keeping on fine-tuning those little parts made a difference in the end.

“And we felt a lot better there. So, I think it’s understanding and to have some new parts that made the difference. But of course we probably still have some margin on optimising the car, and I hope we will have more under our belts.”

He also made an intriguing comment about prospects for the updates in Barcelona: “Well if they translate here, I think it’s going to be a good season for us. So it’s going to be a very important weekend.”

A couple of days later Ocon and the team had their answer as the package did indeed work well in Spain, that strong slow corner form helping through the twisty stuff at the end of the lap.

“I was improving on that second Q3 run,” the Frenchman said after qualifying. “We had a little issue on the car towards the end of the lap that stopped us from actually improving on that run too. So I’m a little bit disappointed with that. We can’t complain with a P5 – but I think today P4 was possible.”

The big question now is can the Barcelona form really translate to other tracks, as Ocon himself hinted?

“I mean this is a big statement, obviously. But that’s the aim, this is where we want to be fighting. Coming to Barcelona, where it was our worst weekend last year, I think I qualified P15, and I qualified P5 today!

“So it’s a huge step in a car that was not performing so well at the beginning of the year. I think if we do a good job we can fight up there the rest of the season, so that’s going be our aim. It’s very tight, and it’s not going to be easy. But that’s the target that we have in mind.”

Monaco is a particularly interesting case. If the slow corner form pays off there, Alpine could have a big weekend at a track that is obviously hugely important to the marque.

“I think we have to focus on this weekend first, I haven’t thought about Monaco too much. Last time I drove in Monaco, I was sixth in qualifying and finished sixth in the race. It was a great result.

“Nobody took a rest, everybody went with me”

“So I just can’t wait to be on that track, because I’ve missed it in 2019. Obviously, in 2020 we didn’t have the chance. So being back there in 2021, it’s going to be great.”

The car has improved over these past weekends, but there’s also been personal progress for Ocon, his confidence building after what was at times a tricky 2021 season.

“I haven’t changed a huge amount,” he insisted on Saturday. “The things that we have changed obviously are the approach and the experience, knowing the car a little bit better.

“I also have a different team of people around me. So we have been building very, very strong weekends, and the atmosphere is fantastic. My group of guys, we’ve been going to the factory all together between the races, preparing.

“And nobody took a rest, everybody went with me. It’s just a really good build-up, and a really nice atmosphere to work in. But we’re also doing a much better job in terms of set-up. The guys are able to translate what I tell them into the balance of the car. And so far we have been hitting it quite well.

31 OCON Esteban (fra), Alpine F1 A521, action during the Formula 1 Aramco Gran Premio De Espana 2021 from May 07 to 10, 2021 on the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, in Montmelo, near Barcelona, ​​Spain - Photo Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Can Alpine show a rear wing to the rest of the midfield pack in the Spanish GP?

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

“It’s working well, and overall that makes me a bit more comfortable than last year. And we see the progress that we also have made from the beginning of last year to the end of last year. But this year it is the step that I wanted to take, so I want to keep going.”

Memories are short in F1, and you’re only as good as your last race. After Ocon’s strong Portugal race Mercedes boss Toto Wolff reminded us that his protege is still very much on his radar, and could yet end up at the Brackley team one day.

For now, Ocon is concentrating on the job at hand.

“What I’m focusing on is to do a good job here at Alpine,” he insists. “I think we have to be glad with our progress, and I’m glad with the progress I’ve made as well this year.

“And I’m focussing on delivering the best I can each single race. For sure, if you perform, there will be always talks and things going on. My aim is to deliver for the team that I’m racing for, and my home is here at the moment.”