Whatever you make of Mercedes’ decision to keep Valtteri Bottas over Esteban Ocon, it’s hard to deny it makes sense for the team and drivers involved. Following Bottas’ struggles before the summer break, it seemed Ocon could snatch the seat alongside Lewis Hamilton for 2020, but there’s a strong argument that the 22-year-old Frenchman is better off with his two-year deal at Renault than he would have been on a one-year deal at Mercedes.
Ocon is undoubtedly talented and deserves to be in F1, but his two years as Sergio Perez‘s teammate at Force India in 2017 and 2018 were inconclusive. He showed flashes of brilliance, but ultimately collided too often with Perez on track and finished both seasons behind him on points. Ocon’s age and hunger stood as good counterarguments to those suggesting it was all a bit underwhelming, but, either way, there was enough room for doubt.
And while Perez is certainly an underrated driver, he’s no Lewis Hamilton. Had Ocon gone up against Hamilton next year and struggled — and let’s face it, his year out this season would have meant he started on the back foot — it could have been the end of his top-team career in F1 at the age of just 22.
With Daniel Ricciardo as his teammate, he still faces a big challenge next year at Renault, but it will happen out of the spotlight and with the assurance of a second year at the French team to continue to develop. That is also crucial as Ricciardo’s Renault contract will expire a year before Ocon’s, and the Australian is likely to want to assess his options post-2020 (assuming the team continues on its disappointing trajectory), making Ocon a more permanent part of the Renault’s furniture than his highly rated teammate.
If Ocon outshines Ricciardo next year, it would also remove the doubts that exist from his Force India career. Going up against a rated driver like Perez in a midfield car is one thing, but going up against a proven race winner at a factory team is another. If Ocon really is good enough to challenge for championships, he will be racing against the right teammate next year for his stock to realise its true value.
What’s more, the timing of Ocon’s two-year deal will give him a clear view of which teams have excelled following 2021’s overhaul of the technical regulations and which have faltered. It may be that he chooses to stay at Renault, but if he impresses, by that point the door could still be open for a return to Mercedes.
In the meantime, Mercedes continues with a proven championship-winning driver lineup in 2020. As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — based on the last three seasons, Bottas has shown he has the right qualities to be a team player while also keeping Hamilton on his toes. Meanwhile, Bottas gets another chance to prove to the world that, with a bit more luck on his side of the garage, he can realise his life’s ambition and win a Formula One world championship.
Valtteri Bottas has shown glimpses of Lewis Hamilton-defeating form; maintaining it across a full season will be his main challenge in 2020. Chris Putnam / Barcroft Media via Getty Images
It should also be noted that Hamilton’s Mercedes contract will expire at the end of 2020. He has given no indication that he will leave the team — or F1 — at that point, but Mercedes will want to have contingencies lined up until the moment he signs. Ocon is no longer one of those options, having signed a two-year deal with Renault, but with Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Ricciardo all coming back onto the driver market next year, the world champions will have plenty of options to chase if Hamilton is lured away. What’s more, George Russell will have served his two-year apprenticeship at Williams and could be a potential replacement for Bottas if the Finn has another horror season like 2018.
Of course, there is always a loser in these situations and this time it appears to be Nico Hülkenberg. As recently as the German GP he said it was “likely” he would stay at Renault, suggesting things have moved quite quickly in ways he did not anticipate. Haas seems like the obvious destination for him, taking the place of Romain Grosjean, but it hardly represents a step forward for a driver who has spent his whole career attempting to break free of the midfield. Another option would be to cut his losses on his unfulfilled F1 career and look to Formula E.
With the Ocon/Bottas news breaking ahead of Spa, the biggest pieces of the 2020 driver market are now in place. Expect to see a flurry of activity and rumours as F1 gets back underway as the full 2020 grid becomes clear.
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