Ocon to replace Hulkenberg at Renault in 2020

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium -- Esteban Ocon will make a return to Formula One in 2020 as Nico Hulkenberg's replacement at Renault.

Two hours after Valtteri Bottas' new Mercedes deal was confirmed on Thursday, another piece of the jigsaw for next year fell into place as Renault confirmed the French driver would be joining the team on a two-year deal. Ocon had been in the running to replace Bottas but team boss Toto Wolff did what he was unable to do this time last year and secure him a place elsewhere on the grid.

The highly-rated Ocon beat junior rival Max Verstappen to the European Formula 3 championship in 2014 before claiming the GP3 championship the following year. He made his F1 debut for the now-defunct Manor team in 2016 before spending two seasons at Force India (now Racing Point). He made headlines late last year when he punted Verstappen out of the lead of the Brazilian Grand Prix while he was being lapped.

Despite being considered one of F1's brightest young talents, the Mercedes junior missed out on a spot on this year's grid due in unfortunate circumstances. He now joins Renault on a two-year deal, meaning he will stay with the team for the big regulation change coming into force for 2021 -- Renault has frequently named that season as the one it targets for a return to the front of the grid.

He will be partnered with one of the grid's premier talents, Daniel Ricciardo, for his debut season with the team.

"First and foremost, I am very proud to become a Renault driver," Ocon said. "I have grown up at Enstone, starting with Lotus in 2010 and then with Renault.

"I am very attached to this team and everyone who works there; they are the ones who opened the doors of top level motorsport for me. Secondly, I am pleased that a team with big ambitions has entrusted me with the opportunity to once again demonstrate my skills at the highest level of F1. It is a responsibility I take very seriously.

"The confidence they have in me to help the progression of the team is a very positive pressure and I look forward to giving the best of myself."

The move makes obvious sense for Renault. As well as adding one of the grid's rising stars alongside its big-name signing, in Ocon the team adds a French driver back on to its roster. Romain Grosjean was the last home-grown star to drive for the French manufacturer, doing so in 2009.

Renault's F1 boss Cyril Abiteboul hopes the addition of Ocon can help kickstart Renault's push back up the pecking order.

"We are very happy to work with Esteban for the next two seasons," Abiteboul said. "Over his F1 career Esteban has experienced the highs and lows of the sport, and fully understood the need to seize every possible chance. In addition to lending his natural talent, Esteban's aim will be to focus his natural energy and drive, both of which have been intensified by a year away from racing. It is then up to us to infuse them into the next phase of the team's progress.

"He has shown his ability to score points, has great professionalism on and off the track, plus his recent experience as reserve driver to the current world champions will be a valuable asset to the development of our entire team.

Hulkenberg's immediate future is now up in the air. The German, who has the unenviable record of the most race starts without a podium finish, has never lived up to the lofty expectations that accompanied him when he arrived in F1. There are many in the paddock who believe he has never had the car to showcase his true talent and as such the former Le Mans 24 Hours winner is likely remain a hot commodity for midfield teams.

Even before Thursday's announcement, there had been rumours in the paddock of Hulkenberg replacing Romain Grosjean at Haas for 2020. The German driver is confident he can find a positive alternative.

In the announcement, Abiteboul praised Hulkenberg for what he has achieved with the team.

"I wish to thank Nico for his phenomenal involvement and massive contribution to our progress over the past three seasons. When Nico decided to join us, the team was ninth. He brought us to fourth place last year, and was classified seventh in the drivers' championship.

"The imminent end of his contract made this decision a difficult one as Nico has been a pillar of this progress. The first part of this season has been more challenging, but I know we can count on him and deliver together throughout the second half of the year."