As Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc went about making themselves household names in 2019, their long-time rival Esteban Ocon had to sit in the paddock and watch.
Throughout his junior career, Ocon had raced against the other two -- and often beaten them -- but by being at the wrong place (Force India) at the wrong time (when Lawrence Stroll bought the team in 2018), he was left without a drive in 2019 as his former rivals secured victories and pole positions for Red Bull and Ferrari. He remained part of the Mercedes fold, but instead of racing on track he spent the majority of his time in the simulator and engineering meetings in his role as a reserve driver.
In 2020, Ocon intends to make up for lost time. He will return to F1 with Renault and is determined to prove to the world that he is on the same level as Verstappen and Leclerc at the front of the field.
Speaking to ESPN at the end of last year, the 23-year-old talked about his year on the sidelines, how close he came to taking Valtteri Bottas' drive at Mercedes this year and how he thinks he stacks up against the best in F1.
Laurence Edmondson: Did you find anything that came close to replacing the rush of Formula One during your year away from the grid?
Esteban Ocon: No, nowhere near! The adrenaline and everything that goes with it ... there can only be Formula One in that regard.
LE: Did it leave a big gap in your life?
EO: Yeah, for sure. My life has always been turning around motorsport and there hasn't been anything else. I have been sacrificing everything for it, and spending a year without racing leaves a big hole, for sure. The only thing I have been thinking is to come back very quickly.
LE: Were you always certain you would come back to the grid in 2020?
EO: No, there is nothing certain in Formula One. I thought people would forget a bit, because I was not on the grid, not performing, and early in the year when the driver market was quiet, it was a very long period for me. I was asking myself lots of questions, but then the team [Mercedes] did a fantastic job to find solutions and we were really working hard on all the topics and they were on top of it because we managed to find a great option for me [at Renault].
LE: Was a drive alongside Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes a serious option for 2020?
EO: It was.
LE: How close did you get?
EO: Very close, and until the last moment there were discussions. But that's done now and I have to look ahead and what I have in front of me.
LE: What were the reasons Mercedes gave you?
EO: I don't think I am going to go into details. Maybe if you ask Toto. I think it was only him taking the decision, but I think he can explain it better. He explained it to me also, but his main reason is that of course I am still young and I have time.
LE: Does the door still feel open at Mercedes for the future?
EO: I'm still managed by Mercedes, which is different to the actual team. But the future is long in Formula One and I'm sure we will see each other again. We are not that far away from each other [in the paddock] anyway!
LE: How difficult was it watching Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc perform to such a high level in 2019? I think we all knew they were both good, but you also know how good you are compared to them, so was there some frustration there?
EO: I said to everyone, including at Mercedes, that Charles was going to be at this level and beat Sebastian [Vettel] after a couple of races and no-one believed me at that time. Now they do! I've been racing against Charles for a long time and he is one of the tough guys and I have been racing against him and Max and they were the two best. So I am not really surprised, but of course I hope we are going to be a long, long time in Formula One racing against each other for the title in the future.
LE: Do you believe you are absolutely on their level?
EO: Well, as a racing driver you have to believe you are better than them. But you are not allowed to show it or say anything!
LE: What's the real situation between you and Max? Because you had that moment in Brazil in 2018 where you collided on track and he pushed you in the chest after the race in parc ferme. So what's the real situation? Do you talk to him?
EO: Yeah ... well, recently no. We are professional drivers, so the important thing is not to create any issues and what happened last time on track, happened on the track and we have to think separate. But, of course, there was some tension back in the days when we were racing really closely, but we always had respect between each other and that's important.
LE: What made the relationship that way?
LE: Just the usual competitiveness or something more?
EO: We were racing really closely in karting as soon as we met, but also with Charles it was probably even more fiery with him. When I left karting they were still racing together and it was fireworks a few times in karting and then in Formula 3 we were racing for the title, and it was a big rivalry like it has always been in any sport between two guys. But as I said, the most important is to think on-track and think off-track. Off-track has to be respectful and that's how it is.
LE: Lots of drivers speak fondly of their karting days, do you miss those days?
EO: I don't, I really don't! I really don't because it's a hard period of my career and my life. It was not an enjoyable time. It was part of my life where my parents sacrificed massively and if I didn't perform it was over. I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders and I also had big responsibilities for my family, because if I did not perform we were going to be in trouble. I even hate those times! I mean, it brought me here [to F1], which is fantastic and I am enjoying my life massively, and of course there were great memories when we were winning, but there were also very tough moments. It's good that we made it.
LE: Do you think an experience like that makes you more prepared for the tough parts of F1? Maybe more so than the drivers who had everything given to them?
EO: A lot of different drivers have their story, and that was my story. I'm sure other drivers who came here in a different way can also have interesting stories. I can't just say I am better because I struggled to arrive here, I don't think that would be right.
LE: How well do you know the Renault team?
EO: I know the team very well because I was growing there in my junior career [when it was Lotus]. I didn't go there in 2009, but from 2010 I was there, learning English, training at the factory and going to the factory. Of course, a lot of people have moved and come in, there are a lot of new people and the factory has completely changed, but it's a team I know very well and this is also why it is great to continue the story from back in the days, because back then the target was always to be in a race seat with that team. So it's kind of emotional.
LE: Those that have worked with you previously seem to have a very high opinion of you, is that something you have worked hard on to make sure you don't burn any bridges?
EO: No, I'm not an actor or anything! I'm just me. My parents were very hard on me with education always and, I don't know if that makes a difference or not, but the way they have taught me things is pretty good in terms of being polite and thankful for what you have. It's also in terms of looking at how much other people are working for you, which is not normal, and you have to recognise the hard work people do. They put their heart in it, so it is important to recognise that.
LE: How well do you know Daniel Ricciardo?
EO: Not so well. I spoke to him a few times, but I don't know him so well. What I know is how quick he is and I know that he is one of the highly-rated Formula One drivers and one of the best. For me to be racing with him in the same team is going to be great to measure myself, because when you are racing in Formula One you want to race with the best.
LE: He's a fun guy to hang around with too...
EO: Yeah, I don't really know him personally, but from what I heard he is a really cool guy, so it will be great to team up with him. Also I will have things to learn from him, so it's going to be cool.
LE: How important was it to get two years locked in with Renault?
EO: Well, my previous [Force India] contract was also two years! So I hope this one will be two years! But it's good of course not to have a short contract because it secures your future for a bit, but I look ahead from those two years as well. We'll see.