'I didn't screw him': Ricciardo defends role in Ocon saga

Esteban Ocon says it’s “hard to believe” he might not drive in Formula One next year if he is, as widely expected, replaced at Force India.

Ocon had a provisional deal to sign for Renault but the French manufacturer’s surprise move to sign Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo left the impressive Mercedes junior driver out in the cold.

“There are still hopes, but less and less as you know,” the young Frenchman told reporters ahead of this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix.

“It’s hard to believe I was in a great position two months ago and things have gone that way now.”

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Force India’s new owner, the billionaire Canadian Lawrence Stroll, will soon unveil his son Lance as the team’s second driver in 2019 alongside Sergio Perez, whose seat is already guaranteed.

“I’m not frustrated. I’m really disappointed. I’m not upset at anyone or anything,” said Ocon, who still has faint hopes of taking Stroll’s seat at Williams.

“I worked really hard to get here and this year I think I progressed compared to last year.

“I’m fighting hard to do the best I can every race. Driving here not knowing what I will do next year, it’s hard to swallow.”

Esteban Ocon is looking less and less likely to remain in Formula One next year. Pic: Getty

Ricciardo sympathised with Ocon, who had also been a contender to drive for McLaren until young Englishman Lando Norris was promoted to the grid for 2019.

“I didn’t do it to screw him, but obviously the effect of my move has put him in a bit of a position now,” Ricciardo said.

“He’s worthy of a drive but I wouldn’t say that he’s the first guy that’s missed it. It’s happened before that drivers with a talent have lost out.

“But if he didn’t have a seat do I think that’s the end of his F1 career? No, I don’t think it is.”

Ricciardo is leaving Red Bull at the end of the season to be replaced by Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly, with the Formula One drivers’ merry-go-round in full swing.

While Ocon’s future is unresolved, Ferrari this week announced veteran racer Kimi Raikkonen would swap places with Sauber’s rising star Charles Leclerc at the end of the season.

Ricciardo had one eye on earning a seat at the Italian giants before it became clear Leclerc was their priority, but the Australian did not expect Raikkonen to stay in Formula One.

“A little bit (surprised). I suspected Ferrari would make the change they’ve made, but I thought if Kimi left then he was leaving, riding dirt bikes and spending time with his kids,” he said.

Daniel Ricciardo’s move to Renault will see Pierre Gasly (L) shift to Red Bull. Pic: Getty

“I’m surprised he’s committed to a two-year deal as well. His body language doesn’t always show he enjoys the sport but obviously he likes it more than we think he does.”

Raikkonen, 38, will struggle to win too many points, let alone scratch for podium finishes, in 2019.

Sauber have taken serious steps since last year – a campaign that produced just two top-10 finishes – but remain a fringe team.

“Obviously, we all love racing. It’s hard to stop that, especially in Formula One,” Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg explained.

“It’s the pinnacle of racing. It’s an awesome life and job that we have.

“From that point, to just stopping and doing nothing, is quite hard but to go backwards from a top team – and from a car that you do lapping to probably a car that you get lapped (in) – it’s quite interesting.

“I’m sure (Raikkonen) has his reasons for it. He obviously still gets some good pace so he has every reason to still be going.”

with AFP