Manor's Esteban Ocon Can Push Team to Bigger and Better Things in 2016 F1 Season

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2016

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Esteban Ocon of France and Renault Sport F1 in the Paddock during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

When Manor scored their first point in more than two years in July's Austrian Grand Prix, they were determined to ensure they wouldn't face another long wait for their next visit to Formula One's top 10.

Pascal Wehrlein's logic-defying performance at the Red Bull Ring—where he spent 47 laps on the soft-compound tyres to finish 10th despite running last within 30 laps of the chequered flag—had gifted the team their first point since the late Jules Bianchi's ninth-place finish at Monaco 2014.

And after joining his colleagues for the obligatory photocall in the pit lane, racing director Dave Ryan vowed Manor would hunt for more, rather than defending a one-nil lead over Sauber in the battle of the back of the grid.

"We've got to go to every race with a view to finishing as high up as we can, and at the end of the year the points score will tell its own tale," he told Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble

"We are not going to sit back now: this is only the start for us. We've got to push, and push, and push at every race."

It was one thing for Ryan to make such a bold statement following a landmark result in the team's history, but quite another for the former McLaren man to act upon his words—after he'd already revealed genuine aspirations of finally transforming Manor into a "really solid midfield team," per Reuters' Alan Baldwin.

That was why Manor's choice of driver to replace Rio Haryanto—whose sponsorship funding only covered the first half of 2016, as his manager told Baldwin—for the rest of this season was one of the most important decisions the team have had to make since emerging from administration 18 months ago.

Or, put another way, it offered them an opportunity to prove the new-look Manor are very different to the old Manor.

With plenty of pay drivers who would give millions for a nine-race rush in an F1 car readily available, would they maintain their longstanding policy of selling the seat to the highest bidder and hoping for the best?

Development driver Jordan King put his name forward to replace Haryanto, but the British driver would have been an unadventurous choice for 2016-spec Manor.
Development driver Jordan King put his name forward to replace Haryanto, but the British driver would have been an unadventurous choice for 2016-spec Manor.Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Would they treat their vacancy as a route onto the grid for the boss' son, Jordan King, whose father Justin helped rescue the team in early 2015 and who, despite a mediocre career in the GP2 feeder series, told Motorsport.com's Jamie Klein he was "perfectly ready" to graduate to F1?

Would they play it safe and welcome back old friends like Will Stevens or Alexander Rossi, who despite serving Manor well last year were both overlooked for permanent seats at the beginning of this season and had since found new homes in alternative categories?

Or, this time, would they prioritise performance over mere survival and pick a driver more than capable of matching and even exceeding their expectations?

With that in mind, Manor's signing of Esteban Ocon for the remaining nine grands prix is so much more than your usual mid-season driver change—it is a statement of intent, a reflection of the team's growth since they became Mercedes' customer team.

Having won the GP3 junior category in 2015, 12 months after beating Max Verstappen to the FIA European Formula Three title—albeit a Max Verstappen competing in his very first year of car racing—Ocon is among the most exciting youngsters to arrive in F1 in recent seasons.

And his arrival alongside fellow Mercedes protege Wehrlein could energise and inspire Manor in the same way his former F3 rival has returned the magic to Red Bull this year.

Verstappen has had a huge impact on Red Bull since replacing Daniil Kvyat in May.
Verstappen has had a huge impact on Red Bull since replacing Daniil Kvyat in May.Peter Fox/Getty Images

Indeed, as Ryan and Co. assessed their post-Haryanto options, a simple glance up the pit lane would have told them all they needed to know about how two evenly matched, high-calibre drivers can carry a team to a whole new performance level.

How Verstappen's presence alone generated more excitement around Red Bull; how his performances forced Daniel Ricciardo, already the standout driver of 2016, to drive at an even higher level; and how, together, they have become the team's driving force, allowing them to become the closest challengers to Mercedes.

Having convincingly outpaced the hapless Haryanto in the vast majority of their grands prix as team-mates, we already know Wehrlein, in the Ricciardo role, is good. But just how good?

Could Ocon's arrival extract even more from Wehrlein?
Could Ocon's arrival extract even more from Wehrlein?Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Likewise, we already know Ocon, who has participated in several free-practice and test sessions this season, is more than a match for Max. But is he really the generation-defining talent so many suspect the boy wonder will become?

Should Mercedes' little princes establish a partnership remotely similar to that of the Red Bull team-mates, Manor's 10th-place finish in the constructors' standings will be assured—no matter how many upgrades a Sauber team under new ownership introduce in the second half of the season.

And who knows? With a number of high-speed, power-sensitive circuits still to come, might they yet give Renault, the team Ocon is widely expected to join on a full-time basis in 2017, a fright in the fight for ninth?

An F1 team is a reflection of their drivers and—after trading the weakest link of 2016 for someone Ryan has described as "clearly one of the rising stars" of the sport, per the team's official website—Manor now have one of the most exciting lineups on the grid.

A lineup that can "push and push and push" the team along to bigger and better things.

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