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Esteban Ocon vs. Pascal Wehrlein: A Preview of the 2020 F1 Championship Battle?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2016

Esteban Ocon driving for Renault in free practice at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Esteban Ocon driving for Renault in free practice at the Hungarian Grand Prix.Charles Coates/Getty Images

With the announcement that Esteban Ocon will replace Rio Haryanto for the final nine races of the Formula One season, the Manor team is about to host what could be a preview of the 2020 (or so) world championship battle.

Ocon, a 19-year-old Frenchman, will square off against fellow rookie Pascal Wehrlein, another rising star who has wasted no time proving he belongs at the sport's highest level.

Both young men are Mercedes proteges, and, if their careers continue along their current trajectories, either or both would be potential replacements whenever Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg move on.

For this year, though, while all eyes will be on the Hamilton-Rosberg battle for the championship, Ocon vs. Wehrlein has the potential to be a fantastic undercard: two budding stars in identical machinery fighting for their F1 futures.

Like Wehrlein, Ocon arrives in F1 from DTM, the German touring car series, although he only spent half a season there, while Wehrlein won the title in 2015, his third season. Ocon, meanwhile, has more recent single-seater experience than Wehrlein, whose last full season of single-seaters before getting the call to F1 was 2012.

Manor Racing @ManorRacing

Esteban will make his #F1 racing debut in the #BelgianGP > https://t.co/bTrm13bZQO & https://t.co/VLMwzlHmw1 https://t.co/AXRQdgCsqv

Ocon took the GP3 title last year, despite winning just one race all season (he was on the podium at all but four races, though). And remember Max Verstappen's Formula Three debut back in 2014—the one that got him an F1 race seat with Toro Rosso? Well, the Dutch teen finished third in the F3 standings that year, while Ocon won the championship.

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So he's pretty quick.

Both drivers also had some F1 testing and free practice experience, with Ocon moving to Manor from the reserve driver role at Renault, where he was effectively on loan from Mercedes.

"Esteban has an impeccable personality—he really is a nice and intelligent young man. And his performance in the car is extraordinary," Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff told French broadcaster Canal Plus (h/t PlanetF1.com) before the Manor deal was announced. "He did two sensational test days with us at Silverstone, and we saw that he did the same time as Magnussen in Friday free practice, so he is someone who has a big future."

And Mercedes are making a significant bet on that future. Haryanto, a pay driver in the truest sense of the term, was sacked after his backers came up €7.5 million short in their payments to Manor, per the Jakarta Post.

Mercedes are not cutting a cheque to cover the shortfall, but getting Ocon into a race seat, as with Wehrlein, means Manor will likely receive further discounts on the bill for their Merc power units. It will certainly be worth it for Mercedes if they find an eventual replacement (or two) for their current drivers, though.

Manor is the perfect place for the pair of Mercedes junior drivers, too. The team has been much more competitive and stable this year, but they are still backmarkers. The expectations for the team are relatively low, and the young drivers can make mistakes without the glare of the spotlight that comes closer to the front of the grid.

In addition to providing an opportunity for Ocon to show his talent at the top level of motorsport, pairing him with Wehrlein will also be a good test for the German.

Pascal Wehrlein at the German Grand Prix.
Pascal Wehrlein at the German Grand Prix.Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Wehrlein "has shown some very strong performances in qualifying and the race, and that is what we were hoping for," said Wolff after the Russian Grand Prix in May, per Crash.net's Rob Wilkins. "We see his development in the team, in his rookie year to be lead driver is a tough thing, but so far we are happy."

And that was before his 10th-place finish in Austria, the highlight (so far) of his promising rookie season.

The 21-year-old Wehrlein certainly outperformed Haryanto—outqualifying him eight to four and, more importantly, never finishing behind him in a race—but Ocon will be a different level of competition. The Frenchman is in F1 not because of some government funding, but because he has earned it with his performances.

Both Wehrlein and Ocon are part of a new generation on the cusp of F1 stardom. It is led by Verstappen and also includes the likes of Stoffel Vandoorne, who shone for McLaren while filling in for Fernando Alonso at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

For all the complaints about the current state of F1, the quality of the sport's young drivers should not be one of them. Watching two of them fight it out on the same team for the rest of the year will be a real treat—particularly in those races where the Silver Arrows are way out in front, turning down their engines and controlling the pace.

     

Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICEFourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter:

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