Esteban Ocon aiming high in 2018 as he waits on Mercedes chance
Talented Frenchman predicts 'open' 2019 driver market as both Mercedes drivers enter final year of contracts
By Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 08/12/17 10:29am
Esteban Ocon believes he has a chance of securing a 2019 Mercedes seat if he builds on his promising debut season with Force India next year.
The highly-rated Silver Arrows protege had only completed nine F1 races before he was loaned to Force India for 2017, but finished the season just 13 points behind experienced team-mate Sergio Perez in one of the tightest head-to-head battles on the grid.
Ocon will remain with the Silverstone outfit next year but it still appears to be a short-term arrangement. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has hailed the Frenchman as a "superstar of the future" while neither Lewis Hamilton nor Valtteri Bottas yet have a contract that runs beyond 2018. Hamilton is expected to sign a new multi-year term, but Bottas' form next year is set to shape his 2019 prospects.
Ocon told Sky F1's Rachel Brookes in Abu Dhabi: "2019 is going to pretty open for everyone.
"I think there are going to be a lot of movements so if you do a strong job and a good season, then there will be opportunities there.
"I want to start the season strongly with the experience I have gained this year, and then we'll see."
Force India are reaping the rewards from Mercedes' talented junior roster.
Not only have they strengthened ties with F1's dominant engine supplier, but they received a quick driver who has seamlessly replaced Nico Hulkenberg to help the team deliver another fourth place in the Constructors' Championship.
"Sometimes leasing is better than buying," admitted Force India's COO Otmar Szafnauer. "They might take him back, and I think the better he does the more likelihood of him stepping into a Mercedes role at some point.
"But for next year he is with us. We'll see what the future holds but I think he will continue to improve."
Ocon v Verstappen: Watch this space
They may not be in championship-winning cars just yet, but one battle to look out for in the future is that of Ocon and Max Verstappen.
The duo have followed each other through the junior series, from karting to Formula 1, where Verstappen has emerged as a star by claiming three victories at Red Bull.
It was Ocon, however, who came out on top when they went head to head in F3 in 2014, and he still believes he has the edge today.
"I was quicker than him, for sure," Ocon insisted. "I got a lot more poles than he did. I don't know if I'm quicker than him now, but I think so!
"You can't really compare any more, you need to be in the same car to fight together. Maybe it's going to happen at some point, I don't know. But he's really doing a good job at the moment and he's one of the best drivers on the grid."
Verstappen has been rewarded for his performances with a bumper new three-year contract at Red Bull, while Ocon has to be patient - for now.
"It's hard to know [who the quicker driver is] because they're driving different cars," added Szafnauer.
"But I like to think that Max has just signed a big contract with Red Bull, and we've got Ocon for probably a hundredth of the price. I think Esteban is just as good."
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