BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Two and a half years ago, Esteban Ocon's Formula One career was on the ropes. At the end of the 2018 season, his contract with Racing Point had been terminated so that the team's new owner, Lawrence Stroll, could vacate a seat for his son Lance, leaving Ocon on the sidelines.
In the space of 12 months, he had gone from racing F1 cars with Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc to racing remote control cars with his mates in a French parking lot. The situation was all the more galling, as Ocon, who had performed well in his first two full seasons in F1 in 2017 and 2018, had competed against (and beaten) Leclerc and Verstappen in junior formulas on the way to F1. He knew just how good he was compared to the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers, yet there was a real danger that the rest of the world would never find out.
But Ocon has always been a fighter. When he was racing against Verstappen and Leclerc in go-karts, he did so without a safety net as his family sold their house and lived in a caravan to fund his early career. The pressure on the teenage Ocon to succeed was enormous every time the engine fired up and the visor went down. Failure simply wasn't an option.
Most F1 drivers look back at their karting career as a simpler time, but in a 2019 interview with ESPN, Ocon admitted he "hated" that period of his life as the family's financial future rested heavily on his young shoulders.
Fortunately, talent won through.
After graduating from go-karts, Ocon made his way up the motorsport ladder, beating Verstappen to the Formula 3 title in 2014. He was then picked up as a junior driver by Mercedes, which gave him his break in 2016 with the short-lived Manor F1 team before he impressed the rest of the paddock with his first two full seasons with Force India, which later became Racing Point and is now Aston Martin.
When he made way for Stroll in 2019, Ocon returned to the Mercedes F1 team as a reserve driver. He kept his head down, completed countless laps in the team's simulator and let his manager, Gwen Lagrue, do the talking for him in the paddock.
By 2020 he was back on the grid with Renault, which was renamed Alpine in 2021 to promote the French car manufacture's burgeoning sports car brand. Last year, Ocon scored his first F1 podium with a second-place finish at the Sakhir Grand Prix, but prior to Sunday's shock result, the team had not won a race since the start of 2013 when it was under different ownership and known as Lotus.
Despite a strong start to 2021, Ocon's form dipped at this year's French, Styrian and Austrian Grands Prix shortly after he had signed a new three-year contract with the team. Questions were starting to be asked about the length of the deal as two-time world champion teammate Fernando Alonso gained the upper hand, but changes to the car at the last round in Silverstone allowed him to rediscover his form. Fortunately for Ocon, it was just in time for the biggest opportunity of his career.
"I mean what a fantastic moment," Ocon said after securing his first F1 win at Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix. "I don't have much words, to be fair. It's crazy.
"We were just talking about it with the team not too long ago, that the next step to get for us would be the top step, as we did P2 last year. We were not expecting that to be today, for sure.
"I can be thankful for the trust the team put in me, you know? We come from a moment where three difficult races, the team gave me trust on that. We overcame the difficult situation and found our pace back in Silverstone and this weekend, I think it has been a great quali and a fantastic race.
"Of course there has been a lot of incidents in that race but, as we are in the position, we are chasing opportunities the whole time. Today we got it, so what a moment. I will remember that forever."
It's true that Ocon would not have won in Hungary without the first lap carnage triggered by Valtteri Bottas, but the 24-year-old still deserves a lot of credit. Under pressure from four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel in second place, Ocon did not put a foot wrong and made the difference when it mattered.
It was only after Ocon's second pit stop on lap 37 that Alpine dared to believe it could win the race and Ocon played a big role in making sure he emerged ahead of Vettel after taking on fresh tyres.
"I'm not sure we started to really focus on winning the race until after that pit stop," Alpine sporting director Alan Permane said after the race. "The first half of the race was really making sure we came out on the second set of tyres in the lead, and from there the win was on.
"What was really beautiful is that when we told Esteban that he needed to drive flat out, he pulled 2.5 or 2.8 seconds on Sebastian and that just enabled us to react to Sebastian because even if he pitted first we could pit a lap later and still come out ahead of him. If you pit first you expose yourself to Safety Cars and all sorts of nasty things, so that was a key thing.
"There was that and, of course, Fernando [Alonso] and Lewis."
As much as Ocon should take the plaudits for his maiden win, it was still a team victory. In the closing stages of the race, the biggest threat to Ocon was not the Aston Martin in his mirrors but Hamilton's Mercedes carving back through the field, and it was teammate Alonso who stopped that charge.
At one stage of the race, Hamilton was over three seconds faster than Ocon's pace and had he caught the front two cars in the final laps, he would have likely passed them. But Alonso made sure Hamilton didn't get that opportunity.
After making a second pit stop for fresh medium tyres on lap 47, Hamilton emerged in fifth place but with a car that was significantly faster than the four drivers in front. In theory, he had a big enough pace advantage to catch the leaders by the end of the race but needed to get past Alonso and Carlos Sainz quickly to close in on Vettel and Ocon.
He caught the back of Alonso's car on lap 54 and attempted to pass him on lap 55, only to be held off by the 40-year-old two-time champion. Hamilton tried again on lap 57, but once again Alonso had an answer, forcing Hamilton to back out in Turn 3 as the two touched wheels.
On lap 63, Alonso again held off the seven-time world champion, positioning his car perfectly in Turn 2 and Turn 3 and then leaving Hamilton with no option but to back out through the high-speed Turn 4. Hamilton finally got the move completed at the start of lap 65 when Alonso made an error under braking at Turn 1 -- but by that point there were only five laps left and the nine second gap to Ocon at the front of the field would be too big a gap for him to close.
"The team didn't tell me anything [about the wider race situation], but I knew more or less what the situation of the race was," Alonso said. "I was looking at the big screens, I knew Esteban and Vettel were fighting and were two corners in front of us, and with 20 laps to the end, and Lewis coming 2-3 seconds faster, that was enough to win the race probably.
"I knew every lap I could hold him behind was gold for Esteban's win. And secondly I thought I could honestly not hold him more than one or two laps but on the last couple of corners he seems to struggle a bit to follow me, which was enough to open a gap on the straight and defend.
Permane added: "[Alonso's defence was] undoubtedly crucial. It was 11 laps [he kept him behind] and if he had got past him on the first lap, like he got past Carlos on the first time round, I'm sure Lewis would have been there to pass Esteban at the end of the race."
Hamilton retakes the lead in the title fight
Two races ago it seemed inconceivable that Hamilton would lead Max Verstappen in the title standings heading into F1's summer break, but in that time the Mercedes driver has turned a 33-point deficit into a six-point -- possibly eight-point -- advantage.
The confusion over the size of the lead is down to Aston Martin's intention to appeal Vettel's disqualification from the race in Hungary, which could see Vettel's podium reinstated and Hamilton classified as third rather than second. Aston Martin was unable to supply a one-litre fuel sample from Vettel's car after the race as per the regulations, but on Sunday night the team was convinced there was enough petrol still left in the fuel system to comply with the regulations. The car has now been impounded by the FIA and if more fuel can be found within the system, Aston Martin may be able to appeal and get its podium back.
Either way, Hamilton's lead in the drivers' standings comes as a surprise given the performance of his Mercedes at recent races. Before the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, Red Bull appeared to be winning the car development race with a dominant display at the two races in Austria in late June and early July and a car that was clearly quick enough to win with a clean race in Great Britain.
So, what changed?
The obvious answer is two first-lap incidents for Verstappen in Great Britain and Hungary. At Silverstone, his collision with Hamilton left him with just three points from his sprint race win on the Saturday and at the Hungaroring his collision with Lando Norris, which was triggered by Hamilton's teammate Valtteri Bottas, left him with damage that forced him to settle for ninth place (or tenth pending the result of Aston Martin's appeal) and two points.
But the surprising thing was that for the first time since the Spanish Grand Prix in May, Mercedes clearly had the faster car in Hungary. While the team clearly made a step forward with its last planned upgrade package in Silverstone, all the previous evidence suggested Red Bull would still be the team to beat at the Hungaroring.
The tight circuit is often known as Monaco without the barriers due to its slow corners, and while that nickname is somewhat misleading due to the difference in the radius of the corners at the two circuits, it is still a circuit where the cars run with maximum downforce. In Monaco, when the cars were last decked out with maximum downforce, Hamilton struggled to balance tyre temperature between the four corners of his car, but the high temperatures in Hungary appeared to help Mercedes get the most from the tyres and the maximum from its package.
"We did have the update kit in Silverstone and that does look like it has given us some useful performance," Mercedes chief trackside engineer Andrew Shovlin said. "But then the car was working well here in terms of where it was maintaining its tyre temperatures and we had quite a nice balance with it."
But while Mercedes was making steps forward, Red Bull also seemed to take a step backward in Hungary. After running its biggest, most high-downforce rear wing during Friday practice, the team switched to a skinnier, lower-downforce rear wing for qualifying and the race. That suggests that the drivers were unhappy with the balance of the car during practice and the only way to solve the problem was to remove some of the rear downforce from the overall package.
Mercedes, meanwhile, was able to run its highest downforce package throughout the weekend and, with it, came a 0.4s advantage in qualifying.
"To be honest, we are surprised [by the gap to Red Bull] ourselves," Shovlin said. "It's a pleasant surprise, but a surprise nonetheless to have had that margin to pole.
"We thought this is a circuit that should suit them, and the thing that we worry about when we come to a maximum downforce circuit is that we are frequently running around on max downforce and then they bring a bigger wing out for Monaco and for this place, but maybe they couldn't balance that.
"They went away from it on Saturday and, honestly, for us it seems odd that you would run anything other than your biggest rear wing here. We don't profess to know why they are taking decisions on that car, but it could be that they were struggling to run enough front end on that car with the big wing and they dropped down to the small one."
Yet Mercedes knows it cannot rely on Red Bull to struggle with the balance of its car to win this year's championship. All the signs from recent grands prix suggest Red Bull will again be the team to beat at the next round at Spa Francorchamps in three weeks' time and a Verstappen victory would eliminate Hamilton's points lead if it remains at six.
Tensions have reached boling point between the two teams in recent weeks, but the summer break will be a chance for both sides to cool down before racing resumes. The factories will be shutdown by regulation, meaning development will be limited, but that won't stop engineers on both sides thinking about how to get more from their car when they return to the track in Belgium.
The good news for us is that the season is perfectly poised for the remaining 12 races, with Hamilton leading the championship but Verstappen to fight back as soon as racing resumes.