Esteban Ocon’s parents never doubted the current Force India driver was destined for great things in Formula One.
So certain were they about their son’s precocious talents that they bet the house on it — or sold it, at least, to fund his racing. The tall 20-year-old, now under long-term contract to world champions Mercedes and seen as a big emerging talent, is reluctant to dwell on his early years but money was in short supply.
“It hasn’t been easy. A lot of sacrifices were done for me to keep racing. We were living in a caravan for a long time,” he told Reuters at the Spanish Grand Prix, almost a home race for a man whose father’s family came from Malaga and whose cousins still live in Spain.
“We needed all the money to be able to pay for the racing. I was very lucky to get (into) Gravity Academy, with money, to support my career.
“And then the Lotus F1 junior team until Formula Three and then Mercedes, because if not it was over already from go-karts,” added the racer who is still based in his Normandy hometown of Evreux.
Gravity Sport Management was run at the time by current McLaren racing director and former Lotus team principal Eric Boullier. In a sport where money can make all the difference to securing a seat, there are no doubts about where Ocon stands.
If he had not produced the goods, including beating contemporary F1 rival Max Verstappen to the F3 title in 2014, he would not be where he is now. “My parents were believing in me and they knew I had the talent to do it,” he said of his former existence of travelling from race to race without a fixed home to return to while also attending school.
“I’d finish a weekend (of racing), (caravan) stopped in front of the school, slept there, hear the ring of the school, wake up, go into school. So we were (parked) just in front of the school.
“I was 11 or 12 or something. I was happy to live in the caravan back then. I was enjoying my life, I was doing karting all the time and it was awesome for me.”
Ocon, whose father acted as his mechanic in those early days, made his Formula One debut midway through last season with now-defunct Manor as replacement for Indonesian Rio Haryanto.
He was then signed by Force India for 2017 ahead of Mercedes’ more experienced reserve Pascal Wehrlein.
Ocon has made an impressive start to the new campaign by scoring in all four races to date, including a seventh place finish in Russia. He sees no reason why he cannot one day have the same success as Verstappen, who won in Spain last year on his Red Bull debut.
“I don’t have to be shy against him. I was not the only one to beat him,” he said of the Dutchman. “I won the F3 title, (Tom) Blomqvist finished second and Max was third. I have beaten him many times.
“He’s ahead now because he’s in F1 longer than me and I’m coming there.” A big boyhood fan of seven times world champion Michael Schumacher, Ocon keeps in touch with the German’s son Mick, who is going through the junior ranks.
“I never talked to Michael but I feel like when I talk to him (Mick), I talk to Michael,” he said. “I’ve looked at most of his (Schumacher’s) races… I think I have learned stuff from him but I don’t compare myself to him. I have a different driving style and am probably different as well.
“I have always been for Michael. I grew up with his helmet. In karting I was racing with his helmet, full red. Just my name instead of Michael up there… the colour has changed but the design is the same and it will stay like this.”