“We still have a lot to do to get closer to the leading teams”

At 24, Esteban Ocon is preparing to play his fourth season in Formula 1, his second with the Renault team, renamed the Alpine F1 Team. The young driver wants to continue in 2021 on the dynamics of the end of last season and hopes for a change of hierarchy in 2022 with the introduction of new technical regulations.

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The 2021 season begins Sunday with the Grand Prix in Sakhir (Bahrain), where, on December 6, you won your first podium in F1, with a second place. Does this inspire you?

My first podium did me good and it gave me confidence. Obviously, I want to reproduce it. More generally, the podiums that the team achieved at the end of the year showed our progress. [son ex-équipier, l’Australien Daniel Ricciardo, a terminé troisième du Grand Prix d’Emilie-Romagne et de celui d’Eifel]. We are starting to be solid. It’s super interesting. We must continue on this path. I have to improve the small details and still work. I’m ready.

Renault finished in 2020 in fifth place in the manufacturer’s ranking. Can Alpine do better?

We must already wait for the first qualifying session. From there, we’ll know more about our goals. We want to get closer to the leading teams. All the teams are improving and working hard. The noose is tightening with the imminence of new technical regulations in 2022. We must improve our reliability.

Is 2021 the year of great change for you and for Renault?

It’s true that a lot of things have changed: I have a new teammate [Fernando Alonso], the team has a new name [Alpine], there are new people in charge of the management [Laurent Rossi devient président, Marcin Budkowski est directeur exécutif et Davide Brivio, directeur de la compétition]. Basically, it’s super exciting to see the Renault group’s enormous enthusiasm for Formula 1. It gives you confidence.

And you are not done with the changes, since in 2022 F1 will experience its big bang with the introduction of new technical regulations, relating in particular to the aerodynamic behavior of cars …

It will be a very important year. Perhaps an opportunity for all the teams to start from scratch. This season, some will want to continue developing the current car and others will already want to look to 2022.

Could the well-established hierarchy be shaken?

Yes, there is the possibility of redoing everything from scratch. You can create a machine that will be better than the competition. Each time there is a new rule, there is a change in hierarchy. We hope that this will also be the case.

Your bosses talked about an evolution – not a revolution – of the single-seater last year. Is it comforting to have a point of stability?

The car is indeed an evolution of the one from 2020, but there are still a lot of new parts. For me, we can still say that the team has created a new car.

You will collaborate with a prestigious teammate, the former double world champion Fernando Alonso. F1 is unique in that it is above all in competition with its partner within the team. Is this a delicate report?

There is no reason to think about possible problems. We are above all a team, we are united. Of course, within the garage there are traditionally two sides: one for each driver and his car. But we share all the data, we work together for the good of the collective. We still have a lot to do to get closer to the leading teams and to get on the podium more often.

The Alfa Romeo team manager, Frédéric Vasseur, said that his second driver, Antonio Giovinazzi, had sometimes too much calibrated on the experienced Kimi Räikkönen. Along with Fernando Alonso, will you manage to keep your singularity?

Unfortunately, I had a year without a Grand Prix when I felt good [en 2019, il avait été rétrogradé par Racing Point]. The past is the past. In 2020, I joined a new team, which is very competitive. It took me a little while to get back in place, but, at the end of the year, I managed to close the gap with Daniel [Ricciardo]. Today, I am starting my second year with the team. I will try to ramp up. Of course, I’ll watch what Fernando is doing, listen to his feedback on the car, but I’ll be myself. There is no doubt.

With the convalescence of Fernando Alonso, who fell on his bike, you had to take on certain responsibilities on your own: in particular the “shakedown”, the first short pre-season run, or the presentation of the new single-seater, named Alpine A521 …

What is especially important is to prepare well with the team. I was able to do the shakedown, which is a crucial test, even if it is only 100 kilometers. It allows you to see small details to improve, such as my position in the car or the position of the pedals. We were able to rough it all up before the start in Bahrain. Now Fernando is back and we can share this role.

Last year, the season was upset by the Covid-19 and reduced to seventeen races. What were the constraints during the preparation?

The pandemic mainly affects travel. It was sometimes complicated when we went to England. We had to respect quarantine days before going to the factory [à Enstone, en Angleterre]. This did not impact us on the preparation itself. We did a lot of things virtually. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s still a big help.