“FIA European F3 Analysis: Ocon hits back”

© FIA F3 Media Services.
© FIA F3 Media Services.

Ocon strikes back? To be fair, it is not as if Esteban Ocon went away at any point during Max Verstappen’s recent run of success.

Indeed, while Verstappen’s streak of six consecutive Formula 3 race victories – seven if you include the Zandvoort Masters – was mightily impressive, Ocon was rarely far adrift.

That the French teenager pulled four 2nd place finishes during his “barren patch” at Spa-Francorchamps and the Norisring says more about Ocon’s capacity to succeed, despite the rising pressures of closing a title amidst the Verstappen steam train.

Ocon’s victories at Moscow Raceway this weekend in his Mercedes-powered Prema Powerteam machine did much to settle those burgeoning nerves; his ambitions helped by Verstappen taking one retirement, while neither Lucas Auer nor Tom Blomqvist were in a position to capitalise.
Indeed, Ocon’s lead at the front is now at its strongest this year; however one remembers the same being written about Raffaele Marciello prior to last season’s third last round European F3 round at Zandvoort {note 1}

But Ocon is well versed in the dialect of victory and from the moment he arrived at Moscow Raceway, the odds seemed to pull toward him. That he had previous experience of the circuit certainly helped. “I know the Moscow circuit from my time in Formula Renault 2.0 and I have already been on the podium there once,” said the Normandy native in the weekend preview, adding ominously, “After two meetings in which I didn’t score a single win, my goal is to change that in Russia.”

If there is one factor that should worry his rivals, it is that Ocon does not look like breaking any time soon. There are two meetings in August – at the Red Bull Ring and the Nürburgring – and the 17-year-old will do his utmost to close the door on this championship before the two-month break.

No one likes stories hanging on a thread quite like that.

Race One
“I like to race at this circuit that has many corners, which is something that generally suits me. Overtaking is not very easy at this track,” said Ocon prior to qualifying.

Oh how right he was. That his margin was over six-tenths of a second to the next fastest man, Carlin’s Jordan King, only served to further emphasise just how much Ocon enjoys the Moscow Raceway circuit.
True, it is not everyone’s favourite by a long shot, but when you are winning, appreciation grows.

King, of course, had other ambitions. “I’d rather be closer to pole position, time wise, but it’s still good to be on the front row. The aim now is get past Ocon at the start.”

Not a chance. Off the line, the Prema Powerteam racer stormed away and eventually claimed his first success of the weekend, breaking Verstappen’s run of six consecutive wins. Of the start, Ocon said: “Probably, my start was the best I made so far this year.”
King, too, made a good getaway; just not quite good enough. “The only real good opportunity to overtake was at the start, but unfortunately for me [Ocon] made a good start as did I, so the gap remained the same.”

In what was a show of pure strength, Ocon led each lap and while the lead rarely stretched to further than a few seconds, the truth is it did not need to be stretched. Inside the cockpit, Ocon was driving a thinking man’s race, especially when it came to managing his Hankook tyres. “I reckon that I used my tyres a little too much in the opening stages, because I got slower towards the end. Nevertheless, it was enough to bring victory home,” noted the victor.
As he stamped his authority on the race, the only thing Ocon didn’t break was a sweat.

Behind the leading Prema Powerteam man, King was also beginning to conserve. “In the opening stages, I wanted to follow Esteban and I probably slightly overdid it with my tyres, too. Just like Esteban, I wasn’t able to drive as fast as our rivals Max Verstappen and Tom Blomqvist towards the end either.”

Verstappen, meanwhile, had to push his way past Blomqvist to earn the final podium position. “My start […] wasn’t perfect,” said the Dutch Verstappen, adding, “I had a good first and second lap and I was able to overtake Tom Blomqvist at an early stage.” With the battle for 2nd – 4th running tight, neither Verstappen nor Blomqvist could force an error from the in-form King, ensuring a static battle as the crossed the line.
Behind the top four, Auer drove a canny race to 5th ahead of Antonio Fuoco (6th), while the battling Nicholas Latifi and Felix Rosenqvist accepted 7th and 8th respectively. Felix Serralles (9th) and Gustavo Menezes (10th) rounded out the points.

Race Two
Ocon added to his victory tally in Race Two – a result made sweeter when title rival Verstappen retired with an alternator failure.

Again from pole, the Frenchman led for the entirety of the event ahead of the battling Fuoco and Blomqvist, while Verstappen initially followed in 4th place.
“Once again, I had a good start,” beamed Ocon, who built a solid gap in the early running to ensure the threat from behind was minimised, controlling the pace thereafter. “It was my goal to pull a gap to my rival Antonio during the first couple of laps and I succeeded,” the winner continued. “After that, I had to stay focussed to avoid making any mistakes. Moreover, I tried to save my tyres.”

Fuoco, meanwhile, admitted that it was quite close to going dreadfully wrong again, as he commented afterward. “I almost stalled at the start, but I was able to hold on to my 2nd place.” Just.
Thereafter, he faced a challenge from Blomqvist, but while it was rarely appeared to be enough to worry the Italian, Fuoco was very aware of the presence of Blomqvist’s yellow-and-red Jagonya Ayam Carlin machine. “During the race, the tyres of my car degraded. I had to be careful to prevent Tom Blomqvist from overtaking me, because he was quicker than me during the second half of the race.” Blomqvist was not quite as sure. “I had no chance to mount a challenge to Antonio, because at this track, overtaking is very difficult.”

Verstappen’s lap eleven retirement promoted Auer to 4th, ahead of King (5th), Jake Dennis (6th), Rosenqvist (7th) and Latifi (8th). Dennis van de Laar took 9th after winning an intense late bate battle with Menezes, who assumed the final point.

Race Three
Ocon completed the rout on Sunday evening with another fine drive, although this victory was no walkover by any stretch. On this occasion, the Prema Powerteam rookie was slightly sluggish away; however he managed to protect his lead into the opening corner, in spite of Blomqvist’s impressive burst off the line…
“This time, my start wasn’t as good as in the two races before…” murmured the eventual victor.

Ocon led regardless; however any potential progress was halted by an opening lap safety car, introduced when several cars came together, including the damaged Serralles, Menezes and Roy Nissany (Fortec).
If he ever appeared to be worried about Blomqvist during the brief neutralisation, then his fears were allayed quickly. It turned out that the Jagonya Ayam Carlin racer’s impressive start was a little too impressive and soon the stewards handed Blomqvist (along with teammate Sean Gelael and EuroInternational’s Santino Ferrucci) drive-through penalties for jumping the lights.

Verstappen and Fuoco also got a touch feisty from the grid too; however the Italian could not pin down Verstappen long enough to solidify the move. “At the start, I almost managed to overtake Max,” said Fuoco. “During the course of the race, he was quicker than me. Then, I rather had to look into my rear-view mirrors to make sure that nobody was able to attack me…”

A status quo followed whereby Ocon led Verstappen who led Fuoco in a close group, separated from the rest of the field. Another safety car period squared things up in the final tour and when the race went green with only a lap remaining, Verstappen made his move.
The Dutch racer relayed: “On the final lap, I simply had to try to overtake Esteban. Unfortunately, I then made a slight driving error and he was able to get past again, but I am also very happy with this second place.” Ocon added: “Max overtook me, but then came off the racing line and I was able to pass him again. It was a good battle between the two of us.”

Fuoco could do nothing about the leading pair in the final moments; however the Formula 3 rookie was pleased with the outcome. “Scoring two podium finishes in one weekend is a nice result, with which I am very happy.”

Behind the podium trio, Dennis took more points for 4th ahead of Rosenqvist. Van de Laar registered 6th place in front of Blomqvist and the improving Tatiana Calderon (8th), while Hector Hurst and Antonio Giovinazzi rounded out the points paying positions.

Ocon’s fightback reinstates his huge lead in the championship over Verstappen. As the series moves back into mainland Europe in a few weeks, Ocon now leads his Dutch rival by 116 points, while the quietly consistent Auer has jumped Blomqvist for 3rd and 4th in the standings.

For now though, it’s all about the championship leader. On this weekend, no one ever seemed close.

{note 1}
Prior to the Zandvoort meeting, Marciello was in such control of the championship ahead of rival Felix Rosenqvist, the Italian could have come to within a few points of wrapping up the title amidst the Dutch dunes.
However a disaster of a round for Marciello saw his lead cut from 72.5 to 9.5 points in the space of three races, effectively reopening the championship at the penultimate meeting at Vallelunga… where Rosenqvist crashed in qualifying, effectively reopening the door for Marciello.

© FIA F3 Media Services.
© FIA F3 Media Services.

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