Alpine boss Laurent Rossi has clarified a comment he once made in which he characterized Esteban Ocon as "a good second driver", insisting the Frenchman has now transformed himself into a genuine team leader.
Ocon joined Renault in 2020 after a year on the sidelines as a Mercedes reserve. Racing that year alongside Daniel Ricciardo, he struggled during the first part of the team's campaign but secured his first podium in the penultimate round in Sakhir.
A strong start to his 2021 season, marked by his win at the Hungarian Grand Prix, earned Ocon a three-year contract with the Enstone squad.
However, while the extension was warranted in Rossi's view, the Alpine boss expressed doubts at the time about Ocon's real potential, saying the young gun was perhaps "not guaranteed World Champion material but at the very least I have myself an excellent second driver".
In a recent Beyond the Grid podcast with F1's Tom Clarkson, Rossi revisited the remark, clarifying what he meant while explaining how his perception of Ocon had since evolved.
"There’s no mystery about the fact that I’ve very quickly tried to make Esteban feel comfortable in the team," he explained.
"Because Esteban, what was remarkable about this boy is that he has never had an easy linear path. Every single year almost he was told ‘that’s it, that’s over, that’s the end of the road with us and you need to find another gig next year’, which is super difficult, especially in a career like that, you need a bit of a runway, right?
"You need to feel comfortable about the fact that you’re going to drive for a while and you actually can make this job your job for real, not just a hobby, and it’s never ever been easy for him like really.
"And so irrespective of that, I also knew that this boy has been successful in all categories, has been racing against Max [Verstappen], Charles [Leclerc], everyone that is top driver today, and he has beat them over time in the past.
"So I’m like, ‘yeah, some potential, let’s put him in a more comfortable zone’, not fully comfortable because he needs to be on his toes all the time, that’s important, but let us see what he has in store if we give him the environment, like a bit of like peace of mind.
"And so that’s why we decided to bet on him for three years, and give him a bit of a runway also, because back then, to be honest, nobody wanted to come to Alpine, let’s be clear, so it was as good a driver as we could get," Rossi added.
"And I’ve always said Esteban is at very least a very good second driver.
"Everyone interpreted that in different ways, but when I say that, it’s like, there’s no one and two at Ferrari, but I’m pretty sure a lot of people think there’s a two!
"There’s no one and two at Mercedes, and that’s hard to figure out who’s the two there to be honest.
"And I think Esteban would be one of those two, whichever person you would pick in both of those teams, so that’s what I meant by that."
Following Fernando Alonso's move from Alpine to Aston Martin, Ocon has become Alpine's natural leader, although there is no hierarchy at the French outfit as far as its drivers are concerned, with Pierre Gasly now sitting on the other side of the Alpine garage.
Rossi explained how Ocon had matured over the past few seasons and evolved into a driver who now races more efficiently and is able to "puts things together for the long term".
"He started driving more efficiently and putting things together for the long term, not trying to impress everyone at every race, which is a very different thing because he was taking inconsiderate risks and he was basically driving, perhaps without knowing, with that fear that he had to potentially lose his seat on that race," commented the Alpine chief executive.
"So basically, it was different, and I told him now the thing is, you need to grow, like, grow up, like in many ways, and grow the team with yourself.
"That means you need to be more of a strategic driver and a leader, which is extremely different from just being a super-fast cool boy, that’s a different story.
"I need you to exhibit the qualities that might make you one day, a world champion, which is something different than just racing fast.
"All of the drivers on the grid are racing super-fast, no doubt, they could beat one another on one lap, no doubt, like even the last on the grid could be the first on one lap, I’m pretty sure. And they would admit it.
"But on a long term, building a team, rallying the people around you, extracting the maximum performance out of your car, but not just your car, out of the factory, out of like the 1200 people supporting you, that’s a different ballgame.
"And that’s what I told him to do. I gave him those three years in exchange of taking the team higher up with you," Rossi concluded.