Esteban Ocon admits he found Max Verstappen’s promotion to Formula 1 “difficult to swallow” at the time after beating the Dutchman to the previous year’s European Formula 3 title.

Verstappen became the youngest driver in the history of grand prix racing when he made his F1 debut in 2015 with Toro Rosso, while Ocon had to wait another year and a half before he graduated.

The pair’s former rivalry throughout karting and single-seater racing was reignited at the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix when Ocon inadvertently took Verstappen out of the lead of the race while attempting to unlap himself.>

Reflecting on their rivalry in a column for the official Formula 1 website, Ocon wrote: “I think the first time I raced with Max Verstappen was in 2010.

“It was a tough year for me transitioning into international racing. Karting is very tough anyway. I was alone with my dad pretty much fighting the big teams.

“Max and I were always quite close on track and sometimes it came too close! In 2011 we were fighting for the 2011 world series championship and he won in the end.

“I remember a race in Italy I came out on top, but me and him were a long way ahead of the rest. It was a rivalry which started then, and it soon became even bigger.”

Ocon and Verstappen’s rivalry continued when the pair found themselves competing together in the European F3 championship in 2014.

While Ocon stormed to the title with nine victories, Verstappen - who finished third in the standings - shot to attention by taking 10 wins in what marked his first season in car racing.

Verstappen’s remarkable rise prompted Red Bull to secure a deal for him to graduate to F1 for the following season with Toro Rosso, while Ocon, who was then a Lotus junior, would have to wait for his own F1 break having switched to Mercedes’ programme.

“After a few races, the competitive rivalry returned,” Ocon explained. “Max started to become strong and he was challenging me for wins and suddenly he was the guy to beat.

“We had a thing called the ‘triple record’ where you would win all the races in a weekend.

“He [Verstappen] did that [twice – at Spa and the Norisring] and then I did it in Moscow at the following round!

“We were fighting to get that all the time. In that Moscow race he came close to beating me and we banged wheels a couple of times, just like the old karting days.

“I won the title in Formula 3 but the tough moment for me was that Max had signed a deal to race Formula 1. Well done to him, definitely, but when I saw the news it was difficult to swallow.

“He was third in the championship; I was winning, and I didn’t have a seat in any category at that time.

“I did a few tests in GP2, but there was nothing really confirmed. The Lotus F1 junior programme had difficulties at the time and I wasn’t going anywhere, so it was quite a challenging moment.

“But I used that as motivation. I knew I had to work hard and keep on top of the junior categories if I was to make it to Formula 1

“It was my ultimate target; not necessarily wanting to face Max again, but rather joining him in Formula 1.”

 

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