Driver Predictions: Could Ocon’s renewal harm Alpine’s future?
The 2021 Formula 1 season saw the rebranding of two teams. One of them came in the form of Alpine, being renamed from Renault. Similarly to Aston Martin, they were able to bring in a World Champion alongside their rebranding, this time in Fernando Alonso, who came out of retirement to work with the team that he won his 2 championships with. Alonso’s main focus is on 2022, where he will be hoping that Alpine can make a car good enough for regular wins – and maybe even to compete for the championship. Alpine supported this goal with a 2022 contract which he would be very likely to keep, due to his interest in the 2022 regulations. These new regulations could be Alonso’s last shot at a 3rd championship
Written by Danny Jones, Edited by Morgan Holiday
And ahead of the French Grand Prix, Alpine announced a 3-year contract renewal for Esteban Ocon until 2024, meaning he will stay with the French outfit alongside Alonso for 2022. Ocon had a somewhat underwhelming 2020, being outclassed by Daniel Ricciardo, who scored almost double Ocon’s points, despite the Frenchman achieving Renault’s best result in the Sakhir Grand Prix. He looked like he needed to step up in 2021, and this is exactly what he has done. Many expected Alonso to create the headlines in 2021, but several impressive performances from Ocon seemed enough for him to retain his 2021 seat, with 4 points finishes in the first 6 races, including an impressive performance in the Portuguese Grand Prix, followed by an outstanding 5th in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix.
However, what there is to note is the lengthy contract Alpine have provided Ocon with. A 3-year deal means he has the longest contract on the current grid, despite being, on the whole, unable to fully establish himself in the sport yet. This is possibly down to his infamous collision with Max Verstappen at the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix. Alpine will be expecting impressive performances from Ocon in the years to come, because the length of his contract may cause some issues further down the line, particularly for those in their strong driver academy – all of whom compete in F2 or F3. Alpine have been majorly criticised for not utilising their academy fully.
In F2, Alpine currently have 3 members in Guanyu Zhou, Oscar Piastri and Christian Lundgaard. Lundgaard currently lies only 13th in the standings, and a string of unfortunate circumstances means it would be near impossible for him to take the F2 crown. However, Zhou and Piastri currently lie 1st and 2nd in the standings, after the Baku round. Zhou is the current championship favourite and has been since Bahrain. A feature race win, and sprint race win so far this season has elevated him up to the top of the championship standings, and with Zhou being one of the most experienced on the current grid, it is a strong possibility that he will take the F2 crown this season. Piastri, the reigning F3 champion, also has a strong shot, being only 5 points off Zhou, and has been incredibly consistent thus far, picking up 4 2nd places, and a win in Bahrain. Piastri is managed by ex-F1 driver Mark Webber and has risen up the feeder ranks rapidly. Driving with last year’s constructor’s champions, PREMA, he certainly has a shot at the title too.
However, should Zhou or Piastri place highly in the championship this season, Alpine will be in a very awkward position. Do you loan them out to another team? Do you make them wait for 2023 for a seat? Do you risk losing them from your programme altogether? This is the problem Alpine must face. Spaces are quickly filling up for the 2022 grid, and with Alpine retaining their 2021 line-up, it could have long-term implications for them. A similar situation arose in 2014 when Jolyon Palmer became GP2 champion and sat out a season, before being signed to Renault for 2016. If Alonso makes the probable decision to retire at the end of 2022, there is a possibility Zhou or Piastri could replace him, but that has its own problems. Alpine has a strong academy, and if Zhou and Piastri finish top 2 in the championship, they can’t both go on the sidelines for a year, and one will have to likely be dropped, due to Ocon’s long-standing 2024 contract. Additionally, if Lundgaard bounces back in 2022, or Victor Martins and Caio Collet have a stunning F3 season this year, and have a strong F2 season next year (both are perfectly capable of making the step-up), where will they be placed? This is the long term issue facing Alpine, that drivers will need to be dropped or placed elsewhere, which means they will have to lose out on some serious talent.
Ocon and Alonso are both confirmed for 2022, and if Alpine can produce a strong enough car, both drivers would be certainly capable of challenging for titles, if appropriate. However, despite Ocon’s 3-year-deal, it almost seems Alpine has focused on the short-term, and once Alonso retires, there will be extreme competition for his seat. What Alpine will do with their academy remains unclear, but it is almost certain some drivers would need to be dropped, or fitted into another series elsewhere, to make their academy partially efficient. But for 2022, it will be Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso, and with both performing respectably so far in 2021, Alpine will hope they can keep it up in 2022.