In a season where competition between the teams behind Max Verstappen was perhaps as intense as it has ever been, trying to pick between the various drivers of the top six teams becomes almost an impossibility.
But someone has to miss out on a top 10 slot. And this year, that driver is Esteban Ocon.
As a race winning driver, Ocon has already demonstrated his potential for what he is capable of when things go his way. In his second and final season alongside world champion Fernando Alonso, Ocon even managed to come out ahead in the points standings, although it required quite a bit of bad luck on the part of his veteran team mate.
With Alonso’s dramatic departure to Aston Martin, Ocon was joined by a new team mate for 2023 – none other than his long-time rival Pierre Gasly. The intra-team contest between the two highly talented, highly competitive French drivers in the sole French-owned team on the grid was one of the most intriguing storylines heading into the year.
Over the course of the season, Ocon only narrowly lost that battle to his new team mate in the championship. But he had put in a solid season’s work over the year that he could be satisfied with, if maybe not one of the most outstanding performers.
His season got off to a calamitous start in Bahrain. Despite successfully reaching Q3 at the first time of asking – when Gasly could not even manage to reach Q2 – Ocon was hit with a penalty for starting in an incorrect position on the grid, then got a second penalty after a team infringement serving the first, before getting yet another penalty for speeding in the pit lane by just 0.1kph before being brought in to retire. Thankfully, he made amends the next round in Jeddah, qualifying seventh and putting in a solid drive on Sunday to secure his first points of the year in eighth place, holding off his new team mate in the closing laps.
A chance to score points in Melbourne went begging after Gasly inadvertently put them both out of the race during the manic final restart. But two more points followed in Miami with a respectable ninth place – albeit one place behind Gasly.
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But when Monaco came around, Ocon put in what ranks as one of the best weekend performances of any driver through the entire season. He was on provisional pole for a tantalising moment at the end of Q3 before taking fourth on the grid, which became third after Charles Leclerc’s penalty was applied. Then he kept his cool throughout the entire race even as the rain fell to keep Lewis Hamilton behind and secure a brilliant podium finish in third in what may have been his best performance of his career.
Ocon put together a series of strong drives in the second half of the year. He was running in sixth 43 laps into the Singapore Grand Prix before he was forced to retire with a gearbox problem, having been the lead Alpine driver across the weekend. He battled back from contact at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix with a long middle stint, being allowed to retake ninth place from Gasly at the end of the race after allowing him through to attack Alonso ahead earlier in the race.
Qatar was also a strong performance as Ocon secured a top seven finish, well ahead of Gasly, executing his team’s strategy with skill despite suffering so much from the heat he was physically sick in the cockpit early in the race. In Las Vegas, Ocon again shows excellent racecraft as he rose up from 16th on the grid to finish fifth, which became fourth following George Russell’s penalty.
But along with the strong performances, Ocon was guilty of some poor weekends too. His Austrian Grand Prix performance was littered with track limits offences across the weekend – so much so he set a new Formula 1 record for the greatest single number of penalties received in a single grand prix – five – largely down to ten track limits strikes over the 71-lap race. When Gasly took his sole podium of the season in Zandvoort, Ocon was seven places lower in tenth. While in Brazil, he got caught up in a bizarre incident with Alonso in qualifying for the sprint race, then finished half a minute behind Gasly in the grand prix.
By the end of the season, Ocon may have finished ahead of Gasly more often than not, but he had lost the qualifying battle between the pair by 14-8. Although he had one more top ten finish than his new team mate and ended the year just four points behind him, the reality was both Alpine drivers had pretty much performed about as well as each other. But with more notably bad races than Gasly over the year and the fact Gasly was fresh to the team, Ocon ended up being slightly overshadowed over the course of the year.
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