Renault F1 Esteban Ocon recalled about racing against Charles Leclerc, Anthoine Hubert and Jules Binachi in karting, while against Max Verstappen in single-seaters and more.
In his column for F1.com, Renault’s Ocon wrote about his career graph to reach F1, where he started from karting time as he recalled the time how he got into motor racing. The Frenchman reiterated how his dad sold almost everything to help him race.
While on karting, he discussed about racing against Leclerc, Hubert, Binachi and even Pierre Gasly. “I think it was by 2004 things in karting started to become more serious. In 2004 and 2005, I became mini kart champion in the north of France and there was a kid called Charles Leclerc who was champion in the south,” wrote Ocon.
“I had heard of Charles but knew very little about him. There was a big race called the French Cup in Magny Cours where all the regions of France were meeting. Charles and I were fighting in the heats. I won, then he won and so on – we had some big battles.
“In the final, it was Charles and I fighting for the lead. I had the inside line at the last corner on the last lap and we touched. Charles didn’t finish as he was in the tyre barrier and I managed to finish fifth or sixth.
“Anthoine Hubert actually went on to win that race. I remember Charles and I were both crying, and our parents were together to try and make us happy again, but it was impossible as we were bad losers.
“The relationship with him developed pretty strongly the year after. My parents and I actually went on holiday to his place near Monaco where we also went karting with Jules and the Bianchi family in Brignoles at their karting track. Charles and I raced again together for many years in karting but not so much in single-seaters.
“My big rival in karting was always Anthoine. He and I went quite far back as well. Sometimes my dad acted as his mechanic whenever he needed some help. We trained a lot together and he was my big rival opponent in 2008.
“He was the one fighting with me for the French Karting Championship; it was always very close with Anthoine. The rivalry was quite big with him, actually. We followed each other quite closely with the French Federation in the French team with Pierre [Gasly] as well.
Racing with all these guys was a lot of fun, even if it was very competitive at the time. We discussed racing Formula 1 back then as that was all we wanted to do. There was nothing else. It was racing Formula 1. I never wanted to be a cook, an astronaut or a mechanic.
“It was always F1,” summed up Ocon. He then moved to discussing about his move to single-seaters where he had Alexander Albon testing with him while he got to race against Verstappen in Formula 3 – as he detailed on the famous rivalry.
“I eventually progressed my karting career into bigger European and World races. I think the first time I raced with Max Verstappen was in 2010. It was a tough year for me transitioning into international racing. Karting is very tough anyway,” wrote Ocon.
“I was alone with my dad pretty much fighting the big teams. Max and I were always quite close on track and sometimes it came too close! In 2011 we were fighting for the 2011 world series championship and he won in the end. I remember a race in Italy I came out on top, but me and him were a long way ahead of the rest.
“It was a rivalry which started then, and it soon became even bigger. At the end of 2011, my management at the time decided to switch me to single seaters. I started testing and my team-mate at my first test was Alex Albon. That was the first time we were both driving in single seaters. He was very quick in karts and he won a lot of titles.
“I was a year behind him in karting, so when it came to the first single-seater test, Alex was a good reference to start with. Who knew we would both be in Formula 1 in the future! To start with I found it quite difficult. You have to adapt to everything and just learn racing a different way. After that, it went pretty well, I had some podiums as a rookie and fought for the Formula Renault Eurocup title the following year.
“After that fight for the title in 2013, I became part of the Lotus F1 junior team and the management decided it was a good time to switch to FIA European Formula 3. I tested with Prema and we managed to agree a deal.
“Prema became a family; I was living in Italy, I put my heart into it and straight away we were having results. At the first race we had a couple of pole positions, two from three, I was always on the podium, started to win a few and I was straight away on it. It was my most competitive year after those two years in Eurocup.
After a few races, the competitive rivalry returned. Max started to become strong and he was challenging me for wins and suddenly he was the guy to beat.
We had a thing called the ‘triple record’ where you would win all the races in a weekend. He did that once and then I did it in Moscow at the following round! We were fighting to get that all the time. In that Moscow race he came close to beating me and we banged wheels a couple of times, just like the old karting days.
“I won the title in Formula 3 but the tough moment for me was that Max had signed a deal to race F1. Well done to him, definitely, but when I saw the news it was difficult to swallow. He was third in the championship; I was winning, and I didn’t have a seat in any category at that time. I did a few tests in GP2, but there was nothing really confirmed.
“The Lotus F1 junior programme had difficulties at the time and I wasn’t going anywhere, so it was quite a challenging moment. But I used that as motivation. I knew I had to work hard and keep on top of the junior categories if I was to make it to Formula 1. It was my ultimate target; not necessarily wanting to face Max again, but rather joining him in F1.”
Moving on, Ocon discussed his time being a Renault junior and eventually the reserve. The Frenchman detailed on his first time in a F1 car at Yas Marina, which he naturally termed it as a special moment as he then took the GP3 title and switched to Mercedes.
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