Toto Wolff has admitted Mercedes would consider releasing Esteban Ocon from their young driver programme if it helps him to get a drive next year.
Ocon has been supported by Mercedes through the junior ranks and into F1 and has impressed in his three seasons, but his future is uncertain as Lance Stroll looks set to join Force India, while his Renault avenue was closed off thanks to the signing of Daniel Ricciardo.
McLaren then this week promoted Lando Norris to join Carlos Sainz in their 2019 line-up, with Zak Brown saying that Ocon’s links to Mercedes represented “a tick in the wrong box” for their recruitment strategy.
Norris to McLaren: The full story
F1 in 2019: Schedule and line-ups
Williams remain an option for the Frenchman, but Wolff says being a Mercedes junior is not helping Ocon’s development at the moment.
“Fundamentally why we do this is we take great enjoyment in helping young talented drivers who lack finances,” said Wolff.
“When we took Esteban from Gravity [management team], we felt that he needed support. But if our support only works until Formula 1, but is then detrimental to these guys to get the right seats, you need to consider these things [releasing Ocon].
“And then think what does it mean to be a Mercedes driver? At the moment you’re driving for another team, Esteban is not going to take any s*** from me if he was driving for a McLaren or a Williams. The whole system needs to be scrutinised in my opinion.”
The two senior Mercedes seats are currently filled by Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, but Wolff believes Ocon will be in a race-winning car sooner rather than later.
Who’s racing with who in F1 2019? MERCEDES Lewis Hamilton Valtteri Bottas FERRARI Sebastian Vettel TBC RED BULL Max Verstappen Pierre Gasly RENAULT Daniel Ricciardo Nico Hulkenberg HAAS TBC TBC MCLAREN Carlos Sainz Lando Norris FORCE INDIA TBC TBC TORO ROSSO TBC TBC SAUBER TBC TBC WILLIAMS TBC TBC
How did Ocon get into this position?
As an extremely quick member of the Mercedes young driver programme, and having enhanced his growing reputation with another fine season at Force India, Ocon should be a hot commodity in F1.
An unexpectedly lively summer market, however, means he has been left in the lurch.
Ocon’s future all looked to be sewn up as recently as the Hungarian GP, with Mercedes, eager to place their driver in the best car possible, reaching an agreement with Renault.
But Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo then shocked everyone, including Renault themselves, by accepting their offer for 2019.
“I think that Renault, having secured Ricciardo, has made a coup for the team,” said Wolff, refusing to blame the French team. “It’s a no-brainer. When you have the possibility of signing that calibre of driver you have to go for it.”
Ocon still would have hoped to have an opportunity at Force India, having impressed over two years with the team, but their administration and subsequent takeover by a Lawrence Stroll-led consortium again caught the Frenchman out.
Stroll, the father of Williams driver Lance, is eager to bring his son into a more competitive team, and may not wait before 2019 to do so.
In a conversation with Sebastian Vettel caught on F1 TV cameras, Ocon confirmed he was set to be replaced at Force India by “the one who bought it”.
With Ferrari appearing poised to hand Charles Leclerc their second seat for 2019, there are only four other teams who have yet to confirm their 2019 line-ups, and three of those, Haas, Sauber and Toro Rosso, would seem unlikely candidates for Ocon due to their respective affiliations.
That would leave Williams, who run Mercedes engines.
Lewis Hamilton has backed Ocon, claiming “he needs to be in a great car because he’s one of the top drivers here”, and the 21-year-old himself admits he is driving for his future.
“If you do a strong job in Formula 1, the teams, they can’t skip you, they need to have you. So, that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said in Belgium.
If Stroll does move from Williams to Force India, reserve driver Robert Kubica could step in, while Sauber are believed to be interested in McLaren exile Vandoorne.
Sky Sports F1 is the only place to watch every Formula 1 Grand Prix, qualifying and practice session live in 2018. Get Sky Sports F1.