Verstappen's conqueror Ocon eyes GP3 glory
European Formula 3 champion Esteban Ocon speaks to Motorsport.com about his new challenge this season in the GP3 Series with the crack ART Grand Prix squad.
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Ocon did all that could have been asked in his maiden F3 campaign last year with Prema Powerteam, beating Toro Rosso starlet Max Verstappen as well as DTM drivers Tom Blomqvist and Lucas Auer to title honours.
But, after missing out on the chance to race in GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5, the newly Mercedes-backed Frenchman has been forced to take a sideways step to GP3 with ART Grand Prix, and will start this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix support races as clear title favourite in light of his F3 success.
Looking back on his achievement, Ocon plays down the challenge that stepping up from FR2.0 represented, believing the gap to European F3 not to be as overwhelming as it may appear.
“FR2.0 was already quite professional," said the Frenchman, "but [F3] is one step above. I learned a lot about everything technical on the car.
"Also, racing in the same meetings as DTM enables us to learn a lot of things about what’s outside."
Ocon tackles a field that may lack the same strength in depth as the series from which he graduated, but can nonetheless boast several star names at the front.
Talented rivals such as his ART teammate Marvin Kirchhofer, former Prema stablemate Antonio Fuoco and Nissan LMP1 driver Jann Mardenborough will make following in the footsteps of reigning champion Alex Lynn no mean feat.
However, ART has always been in the hunt in the category – taking the teams' title four times in a row before finishing as runner-up last year – and the French team was very competitive in pre-season testing.
A driver of Ocon's prowess should therefore be at the front of the pack - but how does the 18-year-old feel ahead of the season?
“I somehow dread it, as always, without too much stress”, he confessed. “I believe we have a competitive car. We still have a couple of things to improve, but we should be fast.
“Consistency will be crucial in this championship – scoring points in sprint races will be very important. Scoring good points in feature races will too, but especially sprint races. Having good weekends overall will be important."
Ocon is well aware of the fact he's billed as the pre-season favourite despite his rookie status, but would rather not put himself under that pressure.
“It’s good that a lot is expected from us, it means that we’ve been doing well,” he said. “But I’m not really thinking of that; I’m going to do the job as usual.
“My aim remains winning. I’m going to do the same job as usual with my team, work hard, improve and everything will unfold naturally.
“We’ll see where we actually stand, testing is always different. I can’t wait to race!”
Gaining official backing from Mercedes - for whom he will act as DTM reserve driver this year - should come as a timely confidence boost for Ocon, who would be forgiven for wondering why the three drivers he beat to the title in F3 last year are all now fully paid professionals.
The calibre of some of the other drivers on Lotus' development roster, a sad reflection of the current state of Formula 1, would also give the Frenchman ample cause for disillusionment.
But with a contractual option with Mercedes in his pocket, Ocon should now be able to put any potential concerns over his future career to one side, and get on with the task of showing everyone why he deserves a seat at the highest level with his GP3 performances.
Given that Daniil Kvyat made the jump from the category straight to F1 two years ago, it's far from out of the question that Ocon could find himself doing likewise with a similarly impressive campaign.
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