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Ocon opens up on ‘fiery’ karting rivalry with Verstappen and why the Dutchman’s F1 debut was ‘tough to swallow’

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Esteban Ocon has shared some insight into the intense rivalry he experienced with Max Verstappen as the pair worked their way toward the F1 grid – describing the early days of them racing together as “very fiery”.

Ocon and Verstappen first met in the go-kart scene as they attempted to carve routes to single-seaters and F1, which both drivers went on to achieve, with the Frenchman now a Grand Prix winner and the Dutchman a three-time world champion.

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Speaking in an appearance on the High Performance Podcast about his rivalry with Verstappen, which was announced to the F1 world via an incident at the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix (see below), Ocon said: “It was those [karting] years, when we were with my dad, against him and his dad.

“[Max’s] dad had the experience because he raced in go-karts so they had a little bit of an advantage on that side. But my dad and his dad, at the time, they were doing a little bit of a similar thing, so really hats off to them as well for what they’ve done.”

Asked how his battle with Verstappen developed from there, and how ‘fiery’ the competition can be in karting, Ocon continued: “It was, to be fair – it was very fiery.

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“Everybody was a little bit scared of Jos and Max at the time, because Jos was driving F1 before, so he’s [known] for how fierce and how scary he can be, talking to other young kids and all that on go-kart tracks.

“My dad and myself, we were never scared, because we just wanted to race, we wanted to race hard. We raced hard, we raced really hard, and at times we crossed lines at certain go-kart races.

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“We sometimes didn’t finish to the places that we were supposed to finish because of how hard the fights were in go-karts. But all of that made me learn a lot on how to race and I hope it made him learn a good amount as well.”

Ocon and Verstappen would rekindle their rivalry in the 2014 Formula 3 European Championship, where the pair, alongside British racer Tom Blomqvist, fought for the title.

“There it was hard racing as well,” Ocon continued. “I’ve enjoyed the racing with Max, I’ve always enjoyed it. Tough racing is always cool to me. Racing side-by-side, being very close, that’s what racing is all about. There’s nothing else that makes me that excited.”

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Verstappen and Ocon shared the F1 podium for the first time in Monaco last year

But while Ocon won the crown, with Verstappen placing third, it was the latter who secured promotion to F1 with Toro Rosso for 2015, having been signed to the Red Bull Junior Team, while the former faced uncertainty when there was “no money” for him to continue competing as a Lotus F1 Team-backed driver.

From there, Ocon hounded Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, which led to him being placed in the GP3 Series with Frederic Vasseur’s ART Grand Prix outfit, winning the championship, joining the Silver Arrows’ junior programme and then debuting in F1 with Manor Racing midway through 2016.

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“From Max not winning the title, finishing third and then going to F1, and me not having even an option to continue racing, that was tough to swallow, for sure,” said Ocon, who has since raced for Force India, Racing Point, Renault and now Alpine. “I was very p****d off in those times.

“It was difficult, very, very difficult. To me it was not fair that… not saying that I would go to F1, because I always believed that my time would come, that if I put hard work enough, got the results, my time would always come.

“But in those moments I wasn’t sure that I was going to even continue racing, and for me that wasn’t fair. I’m glad that Toto, Gwen [Lagrue, Mercedes’ Driver Development Advisor], Fred, all of these guys, saw that it was not fair and found solutions for me to continue.”

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