Not Bad For a P2 Driver

Streaks are undoubtedly one of the most interesting narrative elements in pro sports. Australia winning 26 consecutive Cricket World Cup matches, Julio César Chávez winning 87 boxing bouts in a row or Stephen Curry’s 157 NBA regular season games with a three-pointer made are just a number of legendary runs in various sports.

Of course, motorsport is no exception: the legendary winning streaks by “The King” Richard Petty, “Mr. Le Mans” Tom Kristensen and Sebastian Vettel emphasised their legendary status in their respective forms of motorsport, much to the chagrin of their competition.

One of the more unique streaks was Esteban Ocon’s run of nine consecutive runner-up finishes in the 2015 GP3 season. Despite being only one spot behind the winner, taking so many second places is just something completely different to winning nine races in a row. To put it into perspective, Formula One has seen Vettel’s abovementioned winning streak of nine races as well as a few seven-win streaks. Compared to that, there has been no second-place streak of more than four in a row and most of those streaks happened in the hyper-domination of the current Mercedes era.FebruaryA

The streak was a key part of securing the 2015 GP3 Championship, a worthwhile investment for ART Grand Prix in their second time working with the young gun. Ocon and his fans certainly cannot complain about this run of coming up just short in races. However, the curious mind obviously inquires as to how such a streak came to be. This is what GP Rejects will find out: what does it take for a single driver to finish second nine times in a row?

 

#1 – Silverstone Circuit Sprint Race –  July 5, 2015

Like many streaks, this one starts out without much notice. In fact, Ocon was barely seen for the entire race. At the start, polesitter and current Campos F2 driver Ralph Boschung got off the line rather slowly. This allowed second-placed Kevin Ceccon and Ocon to immediately go past the Swissman and then separate themselves emphatically from the rest of the field.

Neither of the two found themselves threatened by Boschung ever again and were not really able to threaten each other either. Whilst Ocon managed to reduce Ceccon’s lead to less than two seconds shortly before the end of the race, Ceccon calmly countered to put the final difference between the two drivers at 2.2 seconds before the final lap where he managed to take his first GP3 win in his 28th outing in the series.

Even Ocon himself looked quite bored with proceedings, leaving most of the camera attention and the celebration for the winner of the event. His focus on getting the ceremony over with appears almost jaded for an at-the-time 18-year old youngster.

#2 – Hungaroring Feature Race – July 25, 2015

A depressing light grey sky, just before the stage of being actually clouded, set the scene for this race. Again, Ocon started third, behind championship leader and current GT driver Luca Ghiotto and active Twitch streamer Emil Bernstorff, who was only one point behind Esteban in the standings before the race.

A clever move saw Ocon move up to second on lap one. However, unlike Silverstone, Ocon was able to aggressively challenge Ghiotto for the lead. The tight Hungaroring helped Ghiotto defend his lead in the early stages, before a safety car interrupted proceedings.

After the green flag allowed racing to resume, the ART Grand Prix driver continued to threaten Ghiotto for a few laps. Eventually, however, the Italian was able to build a lead; with Ocon forced to defend against a charging Marvin Kirchhöfer, the race winner was decided.

Esteban managed to stay calm, despite the pressure. Whilst he failed to open up a gap beyond a second until the late stages, he also prevented any attack by the current Aston Martin GT driver.

Eventually, he managed to extend the gap beyond that second and secure P2 by a bit less than three seconds. Once more, TV direction seemed more interested in the race winner and Kirchhöfer waving to the crowd. There is a certain temptation to think that people don’t care about second place.

#3 – Hungaroring Sprint Race – July 26, 2015

Starting in P7 after the top eight were inverted, Ocon had his work cut out for him. Saturday’s not-quite grey sky returned and the author is left to wonder how atrocious air quality must be in that type of environment.

Things start off both exciting and boring with an aborted start caused by one of the Carlins. Eventually, things get going – only to be interrupted by a safety car again. Profiting by cars crashing out in front, Ocon found himself, again, second.

No points for guessing how this one went. Leader gets away a bit, driver behind Ocon can’t threaten him. This time, current ADAC GT Masters driver Jimmy Eriksson had the honour of staring at the rear wing of Ocon for the early part of the event. Eventually, Eriksson dedicated himself to a battle with Matt Parry (last seen driving an Aston Martin in GT racing).

Ceccon added another win to his collection. However, a moral victory for Ocon was that he actually seemed to have fun today. He chatted with Ceccon in the post-race, analysing video and actually enjoying himself on the podium for the most part. Apathy only prevailed when he actually received his second-place trophy.

#4 – Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps Feature Race – August 22, 2015

Qualifying set up a Ghiotto vs. Ocon battle, as Ocon for once actually did not start a race in third. In fact, he started all the way up in second. With the championship turning into a direct fight between these two, a win would really help either party.

Unfortunately for him, Ghiotto immediately dropped to fourth. Ocon actually took the lead in a GP3 race, a sight not seen in the last three races. On this challenging track, Ceccon had quite a frightening moment: going through Eau Rouge with a puncture is not very pleasant to say the least.

unnamedNoted video game enthusiast and current Super GT midfielder Jann Mardenborough proved just how harsh Spa can be. Losing control of his vehicle through Raidillon, the Brit caused a virtual safety car period. The VSC, back then being a relatively new technology, had Ocon nearly caught out. Bernstorff almost got the jump on the Frenchman, but Esteban was able to prevent that.

Ocon’s main contender soon because championship rival Ghiotto. However, the Italian was working at a disadvantage, having been handed a five-second penalty earlier. Both Ocon and Ghiotto seemed satisfied to pull away from the rest of the crowd, being over three seconds away from Bernstorff before another VSC interrupted the race.

Racing continued on lap 12/15 and Ocon and Ghiotto messed up the restart. Ocon pulled away too quickly and Ghiotto, being confused, allowed Bernstorff to sneak in and take second place. A minute after racing resumed, another crash forced another VSC. GP3 time limits came into play and as racing resumed with 0:00 on the clock, Ocon needed one more lap plus a few kilometres of calm driving to finally get a victory.

The announcers are confused why there is no chequered flag at the end of the lap where the clock reached zero before realising that is how it supposed to be. Unlike them, race control was not confused and took decisive measures against Ocon’s violation of VSC rules. After a five-second penalty, Ocon found himself banished to second, leaving Bernstorff the winner.

#5 – Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps Sprint Race – August 23, 2015

Fresh off a race-losing penalty, Ocon needed to once again work his way up the order, again starting seventh. Once more, he has a cracking start. Ocon is already up to second when the TV broadcast dies before the end of the opening lap.

On a side note: his good starts were something Ocon was able to transfer to F1. However, this skill was seemingly lost in his forced sabbatical in 2019.

Season Pos gained on first lap (F1 rank)
2017 +1.42 (3rd)
2018 +0.47 (8th)
2020 -0.52 (16th)

Footage returns and eventually so does racing after another early-race safety car. Lap 6 and race leader Alex Palou is now being hunted by Esteban Ocon, only for another crash to bring out another safety car.

Racing returns on the start of the eighth lap, almost three-fifths of the race over with only an eighth of that time being under green flag conditions. Even the worst American street circuits would finally want to finally get some racing going.

The hunt on Palou was aborted when Ghiotto attacked Ocon and took second place. The Italian soon enough took the lead, Alex has no means of contending with his straight-line speed. Even the announcers are surprised at Ghiotto’s extreme top speed.

One lap later, Ocon had a good run himself and the current IndyCar driver stood little chance of keeping second place. Afterwards, Ocon re-opened the hunt for the lead but came up just a bit short, finishing second yet again.

#6 – Autodromo Nazionale Monza Feature Race – September 5, 2015

Stalling from first place, Ghiotto handed Ocon an easy win both in terms of the race and the championship. Ocon dutifully took the lead and went to fight off Matt Parry, but once again was not deemed worthy TV time. Perry gets slipstream, but Ocon is quick enough through the corners to not allow a proper attack.

If this sounds dull, it is because it is dull. Just like qualifying for the F1 race on that same day was a mere formality for Lewis Hamilton, who took his 49th career pole, this race seems like a mere formality for Esteban Ocon. The Frenchman was given his most important victory of the day when Ghiotto stalled.

Fitting his future career in the entertainment business, Emil Bernstorff took offense at the boredom that was unfolding at the front and started a final push. First, his own Arden teammate was wrestled down. Afterwards, Perry was victimized with ruthless aggression. Eating almost half a second per lap out of Ocon’s lead, Bernstorff took it to the Frenchman on lap 20.unnamed (1)

That move failed and forced Bernstorff to ride the hard kerbs of turn 2. Giving up, however, was not an option. He was going to get an entertaining finish out of this race, even if it would kill him. Risking it all on the second-to-last lap, he went down the outside at Variante della Roggia to take the lead and made the time it took to watch this race not quite as wasted.

“Who says you can’t overtake in GP3?” asks Alex Jacques, ignoring the boring first half of the race

“The Gravel Trap,” responds the author, not willing to ignore the boring first half of the race.

#7 – Autodromo Nazionale Monza Sprint Race – September 6, 2015

Seemingly taking offence at the previous paragraph, Ocon for once fails to have an immediate rush towards P2 in a sprint race. This should, at least in theory, force him to make some fun on his way towards his final result.

Mathéo Tuscher was his first overtake after the opening lap. The Swiss driver was no challenge for the championship contender. Given that Tuscher would be out of motorsport only two years later, expecting him to put up much of a fight would have been unrealistic.

Ceccon is more of a challenge and eventually ends up passing Ocon. Unfortunately, greed got the better of the Italian. Whilst trying to overtake Alex Fontana, who is currently competing in GT3 racing, Ceccon took both of them out of position. This allowed Ocon to opportunistically take third.

Ocon seemed pleased with third, even though there was no reason to be: Ghiotto fought his way back up the order and was soon enough behind Ocon. With two laps remaining, the racing gods had clearly gotten involved. They decided that P2 was going to be Ocon’s, even if the ART driver had no ambition to actually get it. Eriksson lost his win with a technical issue, promoting Ocon to second just before the final lap began. No change in the order followed, another second place was achieved.

#8 – Sochi Autodrom Feature Race – October 11, 2015

Esteban Ocon started on pole position, but for a change went down the order. In turn, championship rival Luca Ghiotto had a crazy first lap. He managed to turn seventh into second through the first corner because of the mayhem a stalling Tuscher caused. Afterwards, Ocon could not resist the speed of his championship rival. The first lap ended with Ghiotto leading Ocon.

After another SC period, the familiar story plays out: the race leader and Ocon pull away and cannot really attack each other. With the sole exception of one mistake that went unpunished in the asphalt desert of a modern Tilke circuit, nothing happened to these two.

It is amazing how dull something this unlikely can be. If we go with the simple-minded assumption that Ocon, based on talent, would always finish at least seventh (his worst finish of the GP3 season), the chance of finishing second at least eight times in a row is 0.000017%. To put that into perspective, assuming F3 continues to exist with 18 races per year, the next time a streak of this kind should happen is around the year 100,000 CE. To put that into perspective, by that time stars will have moved so much that someone living today could not find any constellation they know in the sky if they were looking at that future night sky.

Then again, perhaps it is impossible to appreciate the beauty of the improbability itself. The simple human mind struggles to properly comprehend such extreme numbers. Alex Jacques, who acknowledges the streak for the first time, merely observes it as a curiosity instead of the mind-bogglingly unlikely event it is. He almost seems to have pity for Ocon for being in this situation.

After the race, Ocon looked at the time tables with a look that made him wonder whether he was trapped in an endless recursion of time. His personal Endless Eight, one might say. His thumbs up to his crew was forced, a subtle scream for help. Ocon is so beaten into the ground by the loop that he cannot even bring himself to even raise his second-place trophy into the sky. Clearly, the suffering was wearing on his mind and he needed time to think about this most curious scenario.

There was no time to be had, as the second race in Sochi would happen on the same day.

#9 – Sochi Autodrom Sprint Race – October 11, 2015

This race’s story begins the same as most sprint races: Ocon has a brilliant start and is up to fourth before the end of the opening lap. However, this time around, he was allowed to have a bit more fun.

Dealing with current LMP2 and Ferrari simulator driver Antonio Fuoco took seven laps. This was certainly the most entertaining battle of Ocon’s streak. Even Bernstorff appeared again, interfering to make things more fun. Eventually, Ocon took a massive risk, diving down the inside of Fuoco and not pulling back when the Italian squeezed him into the walls on the run towards turn 2.

The fun did not stop afterwards, Ocon quickly increased his pace. By taking out half a second per lap, he found himself on the back of Jann Mardenborough and was within a second with four laps to spare. A brilliant move gave him second place: taking advantage of Mardenborough driving too defensively, Ocon was able to place his Dallara in just the right place. An overtake at turn 17 of Sochi is most impressive, doing it with such a mind game all the more so.

Jimmy Eriksson got his third and final victory in GP3, Esteban Ocon was left again with second place, adding the fastest lap of the race. However, Ocon seemed most pleased with this second place, waving his hand in celebration at his pit crew and cheerfully conversing with his fellow podium finishers. The ART Grand Prix driver stormed out with a smile to the podium, cheerfully receiving his trophy.

FebruaryDThe author feels kinship with Ocon: the results of 2015 continuing in an eternal loop would not necessarily be bad. The Golden State Warriors would forever win the NBA Championship, everyone would be celebrating finding water on Mars forever, Undertale will forever have the image of a fresh, convention-challenging video game narrative (and nothing more) and GP Rejects could add profile after profile of the eternal Alexander Rossi, Roberto Mehri and Will Stevens.

There is only serenity now and Ocon has embraced that serenity.

Or Ocon is just happy that he had a fun race and dealt a major blow to his championship contender (Ghiotto only finished eight, reducing the championship lead to two points).

It is important to not interpret too much into these things.

Bahrain International Circuit Feature Race – November 20, 2015

The following two sentences may seem familiar, so this sentence just serves to confirm that your browser has not accidentally scrolled upward.

Coming off pole position, Ocon lost first place at the start. Esteban was caught in the pattern of being too far away from the leader to attack and being too far ahead to be attacked.

The racing gods clearly had decided that this indeed was to be Ocon’s fate for the rest of the year. Second places, mostly featuring boring races.

One man disagreed.

Emil Bernstorff looked at what the racing gods had created and he saw that it was lame.

Fighting his way past Ghiotto to take third, the Arden driver quickly worked on wiping out Ocon’s safety cushion in second place. With two laps to spare, he was precisely 0.500 seconds behind the Frenchman.

On the final lap, Bernstorff attacked. He had treated his tyres much gentler earlier in the event and was therefore able to go for it. Ocon countered with a level of aggression more conservative fans would call unfair and Jacques called “absolutely amazing racing”. For now, Ocon was safe as the two headed towards turn 8.

Lacking in grip, however, Ocon failed to accelerate as well as Bernstorff did. The Brit found himself with a better line into the following complex, taking the position even before the two arrived at turn 10.

Alex Jacques acknowledged the move as the end of the streak, and indeed that was confirmed around half a lap later.

The streak … was over.

The most curious sequence of events in feeder series history was no more. Esteban Ocon would go on to finish second in the sprint race, turning the five months between Silverstone and Bahrain into an improbable run of ten second places in six two-race weekends. One week thereafter, finishing ahead of Ghiotto twice would allow Ocon to secure the drivers championship.

Esteban Ocon would then, as is well-known, move on to a very short-lived and unsuccessful  ten-race outing in DTM before joining Manor in Formula One. There, he achieved the record for the longest run of consecutive race finishes for a debutant of all time before moving on to Force India/Racing Point.

As Ocon’s Formula One career continues, this year at the side of Fernando Alonso in the Alpine, his GP3 title will become more and more of a footnote. However, the both uniquely fascinating and amazingly dull streak that was the backbone of that title is a story well worth preserving in motorsport annals. 

Sources: crash.net, Driver Database, Eurosport 2, Sky Sports, Wikipedia

Image Sources: Cybervoron (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; picture resized), Formula One Management, Pedrik (licensed under CC BY 2.0; picture cropped and resized), PublicDomainPictures, Unsplash