SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium — A month before his 20th birthday, Frenchman Esteban Ocon will make his Formula One debut for the Manor team at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.
The 18-year-old Dutch driver Max Verstappen — his former rival — will be competing in his 32nd GP, already has four podiums to his name and is the youngest driver to win an F1 race.
That makes him an easy person for Ocon to look up to as he looks to make his own mark in F1.
“Age is just a number at the end. You have to show you are capable of driving in F1 and show it to the right people,” Ocon said Thursday. “I think that’s the most important thing. You have to deliver like Max did and that’s the target for me as well.”
When Ocon won the European Formula 3 championship in 2014, Verstappen finished behind him in third place.
Their paths then split.
Verstappen was fast-tracked to F1 last year with Toro Rosso before replacing Russian Daniil Kvyat at Red Bull after four races this season.
Verstappen paid back that faith with a brilliant drive to win the Spanish GP in May in his first race for Red Bull, and then finished second in Austria and Britain before taking third place at the German GP in the last race before the summer break.
His advice for Ocon is pretty simple.
“Just jump in the car and go out and drive as fast as you can,” Verstappen said.
Easier said than done, because few drivers have Verstappen’s level of confidence, even given his young age.
Ocon began this year racing for Mercedes in Germany’s DTM touring car championship and was a reserve driver for the Renault F1 team.
Things quickly changed two weeks ago, when Manor terminated Rio Haryanto’s contract — having run out of patience with his sponsors — and replaced the Indonesian driver with Ocon for the remainder of the season.
Ocon fully intends to take his chance.
“I had the best preparation I could have got,” he said. “It’s great to start in Spa. It’s a track that I know, so it will help me get up to speed.”
Ocon is considered a strong candidate for a race seat at Renault next year, particularly with speculation surrounding the future of Danish driver Kevin Magnussen.
Before that, however, he hopes to pick up some tips from his Manor teammate Pascal Wehrlein, a 21-year-old German who will be racing in only his 13th GP.
“He’s a great driver and he has been quick throughout the whole season,” Ocon said.